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Fasting to Deepen Spiritual Understanding

During Islam's Holy Month of Ramadan, we explore the ritual of fasting practiced by religious people from many faiths.

Fasting to Deepen Spiritual Understanding

The Christian Saint John Chrysostom wrote that fasting of the body is food for the soul.

“As bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul. Imparting it an easy flight, it makes it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things, and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life,” said Chrysostom, acknowledged as a Doctor of the Church.  

For thousands of years, the ritual of fasting has been practiced in every major religion throughout the world for the purpose of encouraging reflection, deepening one’s faith and prompting the practitioner to face the stark reality of our humanity and mortality.

On Monday, Aug. 1, Islam’s Holy month of Ramadan commenced, and for 30 days to follow, Muslims around the world will honor this time by fasting from sunrise to sunset and engaging in prayer and reflection.

“Fasting is a form of continuous worship. You are hungry the whole time, so you become hungry for God,” said Levant Koc, CEO of the Interfaith Dialog Center (IDC) located in Newark. “We try to perfect ourselves. So we try to hold our tongue. It’s a time when you are constantly in touch with your self and your consciousness."

“I feel that there are people out there who are hungry and cannot put a piece of bread in their mouth, so this is a month of appreciation of what you are blessed with,” said Remzi Guvenc Kulen, president of the IDC. “I think that fasting makes you calm."

Dr. Mesut Sahin, a professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology, noted fasting influences a person at multiple levels. "Physically, abstaining from food and drink for several hours makes one a more humble and affectionate person; feeling the weakness from within, and thus sympathizing with poor and needy people," he said.

Members of the IDC will gather together this month for dialogue and to enjoy Turkish meals with members of and in Morristown.

But many other traditions engage in fasting for spiritual growth.

The Buddha is said to have fasted for 49 days and, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. 

Fasts lasting over 24 hours are practiced in the Jewish faith on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Tisha B’Av, which begins this year on the evening of Aug. 8.

There are many dimensions to fasting in the Jewish tradition, according to Rabbi Mary Zamore of Temple B’nai Or. While fasting is generally understood to be a practice of repentance and mourning, the intention of the fast varies slightly depending on the holiday or the life event, the rabbi said.

“Sometimes it is about getting in touch with our mortality, because fasting encourages contemplation and mindfulness,” Zamore said. “Many of the ritual practices serve as an overt reminder of the temporary nature of our lives and prompt us to get our lives in order because we only have a limited span of time.”     

But fasting is carried out for different purposes depending on the holiday or life event.

For instance, on the holiday of Tisha B’Av celebrated this month, the aspect of mourning is enhanced by the act of fasting, Zamore said.

The holiday of Tisha B’Av, which generally occurs during the months of July and August, requires a fast lasting about 25 hours. Tisha is named for the ninth day of the Hebrew calendar. Tisha B’Av is considered to be the saddest day in Jewish history because it commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temple in Jeruselem. The two events took place on the same day, but approximately 656 years apart.

But in addition to the solemn holidays of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, there are several other minor holidays in which the act of fasting is practiced to affirm one’s strength, as in the "Fast of Esther," which takes place the day before the festive Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrated in 2011 in March.

“During this fast, we are replicating Esther’s fast and gathering our strength, endurance and focus, so the intention of this fast is slightly different,” Zamore said.

She said in the Jewish tradition, brides and grooms fast on the day of their wedding. “This, too, is meant to bring about contemplation and remind the bride and groom of the gravity of the moment and help them garner an awareness that they are about to begin a new life.”       

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