Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Yom Kippur will arrive this week and thousands of Jews will attend synagogues. Why is it that so many attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, but not the rest of the year? What is it about Yom Kippur that draws us? No doubt because it is a holy day, we want to be present. But many of us are just hedging our bets. If we have a bad year we don’t want to have to kick ourselves for not participating in Yom Kippur as we should have. If we go on Yom Kippur and pray with sincerity at least we will not have ourselves to blame for whatever bad happens. We will have done what we could.
For many of us even quite religious Jews who go to synagogue every day or every Sabbath, this kind of thinking is still part and parcel of our Yom Kippur. Some of the liturgy in fact serves to reinforce it, such as the Unisaneh Tokef –which hinges on,“Who live and who will die?” But such an approach is a very selfish take on the holiest day of the year. If I am going to pray on Yom Kippur just so that I can have a good year it’s really just about me and my physical welfare, its really just selfishness.
As Morethodox Jews I think we need to turn to the Chassidic commentaries to reclaim the true nature of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger in his book the Sefat Eemet says that the phrase, which we repeat many times in this season, “Remember us for life God who wants life, and write us in the book of life for your sake, living God” means that we are asking not for lengthened physical life, but rather for the life of the spirit.
Rabbi Levy Yizchak of Bardichev, in his book the Kedushat Levi, asks why we beseech God to write us in the book of life and to remember us, is God is a person who remembers and writes? God is God, and furthermore no evil can come from God, only goodness.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak answers by way of a mashal, a metaphor. He says it is akin to putting a piece of cloth in the sun. If it is a white cloth it will reflect the light, if it is a black cloth it will absorb the light, if it is a red cloth it will reflect the red color of the light, if blue the blue waves of the light. The sunlight does not change, only the cloths are different.
So too there is a flow coming from the Eternal One all the time. It is a flow of goodness and it is our job on Yom Kippur to become people who can absorb the light for goodness. We are not trying to change God’s mind, God is infinite. We are not pulling the wool over God’s eyes trying to convince him that we are more religious than we are by coming to shul on yom Kippur, or hoping that somehow that our prayer will magically help us to have a good year. No, Yom Kippur is the process of changing ourselves, changing our own colors so that we can receive the Divine light that is always flowing for goodness. God does not change. Only we change. May we all change for the better this Yom Kippur.
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September 24, 2009 | 12:21 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
The Jewish holidays evoke in many a fear of sitting in shul. Again and again. Hours on end. I have been trying to craft a spiritually uplifting and meaningful prayer experience at my shul,. As I do so, I have been acutely sensitive to the fact that people want that spiritually uplifting and meaningful experience in less than 2 hours. Balancing the beauty of the High Holiday liturgy, with a need to get through them quickly is a humbling experience.
And yet, perhaps, the driving foundational issue, that keeps people from being glued to their seats is a sense of boredom with Judaism and religious ideals in general. A few weeks ago, Erica Brown, the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington wrote an article in the Jewish Week, “Boredom Is So Interesting.” http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c55_a16513/Editorial__Opinion/Opinion.html
In it, she proposes that the problem with Judaism is not the rituals, the culture, or history. Judaism remains a rich tradition. Rather, it is us, the individual who is to blame. She quotes the poet Dylan Thomas, “Something is boring me. I think it’s me.” When boredom strikes, she says, “it’s time to look in the mirror.”
On Yom Kippur, we will read the story of Jonah and how God called out to him. But Jonah ran away, trying desperately to escape God’s call by hiding in the deepest recesses of a ship, and then falling into a deep slumber. Jonah attempted to escape God’s presence. Shun God’s calling.
Many of us, if we would just open ourselves to the possibility, have a keen spiritual sense; we can sense the presence of God. The question is, what do we do with that calling. Do we try to run away, unshackle ourselves from the weight and responsibility of a religious call? Or, do we move towards the calling—like Moses, who beseeched God, “Show me your glory” (Shemot 33:18), right before God’s presence passed before his face.
Perhaps we should each challenge ourselves, this Yom Kippur, to think about the reasons that we are drawn to Jewish community, and then think of the reasons that we want to stay away. Is it because we are spiritually numb? Alienated? Feel out of place? Or experience a disconnect with synagogue ritual and liturgy?
Then consider figuring out how to re-engage. How each of us can re-invigorate our Judaism to make it both more intellectually and spiritually stimulating.
September 23, 2009 | 3:57 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
As did Rabbis around the world, I spent some time on Rosh HaShana discussing the importance of our being politically active on behalf of Israel, as she faces the dire threat coming from Iran. The topic came back up over Yom Tov lunch, with each of our wonderful guests reflecting on how vital Israel’s survival is, and how committed American Jews need to be to Israel’s security. Israel’s survival, it was correctly pointed out, is likely synonymous with Jewish survival. As tea and dessert were being enjoyed, in the spirit of reflection of this time of year I posed a question that I hoped would bring the table conversation to a different, deeper, and more “ultimate” place. “In the end, why is important that Israel, and the Jewish people, survive?” I asked.
After half a minute or so of thoughtful silence, everyone began to articulate responses, albeit not in fully-developed form. The phrases “Jewish mission”, “light for the nations”, and “model society” started to bounce around the table, though not necessarily in full sentences just yet. I think that at that moment we were all struck by the contrast between the confidence and eloquence with which we each spoke about the fact that it is vitally important that Israel survive, and the initial struggle we had in clearly expressing why Israel’s and the Jewish people’s survival ultimately mattered.
Once we had all regained our bearings, very significant thoughts emerged. About our continuing historical role of living the Torah, and advancing the vision of righteousness and justice that God communicated therein. And about the significance of being a democratic and human-rights- respecting country in the nasty Middle East. And about the remarkable and disproportionate ways in which Israel has already contributed to the advancement of human knowledge, and has built an inspiring record of offering its expertise in responding to natural and other disasters to others around the globe.
Of course there are cogent and satisfying answers to the question, “Why is important that Israel and the Jewish people survive?” But it seems clear to me that we don’t consider or discuss the question nearly as often as we need to. Which probably means that we are already making important Jewish decisions – about how to run our local Jewish institutions, or about how we select our Israel-based charities – without the big-picture view that these decisions deserve. And the longer we go without directly discussing the question, without introducing it into our schools, shuls, and around our Shabbat tables, the more likely it will become that we will raise a generation that wouldn’t understand the question to begin with, much less know how to answer it. This would bode ominously for us, for Israel, and for the world.
So here’s praying for a year of peace and security for Medinat Yisrael, and a year of deep reflection and thoughtfulness for Jews everywhere.
Gmar Chatima Tova.
September 22, 2009 | 7:51 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
This past year has been a very frustrating, scary one for many people. The economic crisis has left many people feeling helpless and out of control. Not only in the realm of the economic crisis, but in many other areas of life, we may feel that we are not in control.
There are some who have put much effort in to raising their children to follow a certain path, yet they choose a different, often a heartbreaking path. As a result, we feel helpless, out of control.In our relationships, especially our marriages, many feel that there is no time to work on a marriage under stress and that our marriages are just sort of limping along.
I spent time talking to my congregation on Rosh Hashana about feeling out of control and at least one spiritually and religiously positive aspect of this feeling. I am happy to share it with you.
Events in life that humble us altogether bad. They supply a needed corrective for a sense of arrogance that leads us to believe that everything is in our control and that we can correct any problem if we only wanted to.
This shocking awareness of our limitations and our helplessness is part of the spirit that Rosh Hashanah seeks to instill in us. On this day do we say: ve’yeda kol pa’ul ki attah pe’alto ve’yavin kol yetzur ki attah yetzarto, “May every existing being know that Thou hast made it; may every creature realize that Thou hast created it.” Spirituality consists in the acknowledgment that we are pa’ul not only Po’el; that we are the objects of events, and not the subjects who determine them. Theologians have called that “Kreatursgefuhl”, the awareness of our creatureliness, of our severe limitations in the face of God and the world. And it is true that we are limited in what we can do — sometimes tragically so. (I gleaned this insight from a Drasha given by Rabbi Normal Lamm)
This idea is the essence of petitional prayer. When we ask God for things it is an admission o need and a call for help.
So the recent crisis, and the unsettled areas of our life, may have a positive impact on our souls as they compel us to realize that we are not all powerful and that there are forces greater than us.
In ancient times, when humanity was ravaged by weather, and disease, humility was in abundance. People felt humbled in the face of those great forces. In our time and society when we able to protect ourselves from weather and fight disease we no longer feel that sense power nor the humility that comes with it.
Perhaps the economy, we are now realizing, is also a powerful force, not always in our control. Not all aspects of human relationships are in our control either. Perhaps our current feelings of helplessness will help us regain our sense of humility.
I think this idea specifically relates to the morethodox as we pride ourselves on our modern sense of self sufficiency and being in control. We consider ourselves part of society that has accomplished so much that we may, at time, loose perspective on what we really can control and who really is in control. While we should not trade away our intense involvement in the world of science, medicine and technology nd business,we should be aware that our successes in those areas come with potentially dangerous spiritual side affects.
We should embrace the lesson of humility that difficulty and distress bring. Humility is a good thing even if it is born from negative experiences.
September 17, 2009 | 12:30 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Rosh Hashana is a Listening Holiday.
In contrast to the other holiday, which I would classify more as seeing holidays.
Let me explain. In the Biblical times, for the festivals of Sukkot, Shavuot, and Pesach, the Jewish people are commanded to go on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the pilgrimage to the Temple which forms the central act of observance. And on their journey, the Jewish people are commanded on these three occasions to see the divine,—“reiyat panim.” To see God’s face.
And, if you think about the holidays, the rituals associated with Pescah, Shavout and Sukkot all involve seeing—the lulav and etrog on Sukkot are supposed to look a certain way. The seder plate must appear at the center of the seder table on Pesach, and seeing the inside of the Torah is central to Shavuot.
In contrast, the fundamental principle of Rosh Hashanah is listening as manifested through the requirement to hear the shofar. The shofar—the central ritual of Rosh Hahsana.
The truth is, it wasn’t always so clear that the primary obligation of the day is to hear the shofar.
There’s an interesting disagreement about whether the blessing we say before blowing the shofar should be a blessing on blowing the shofar or a blessing on hearing the shofar. Is the primary obligation to blow the shofar or to hear the shofar. The blessing of course is :
“Blessed are You, Hashem,Our God, King of the world, who sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the Shofar”
ברוך אתה ה’אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לשמוע קול שופר
It is a blessing over the sound—the cries of tekiya, shevarim and truah.
The essence of the mitzvah of shofar is not the blowing in of itself, but it is about hearing the sound emanating from the shofar.
And yet, the first day of Rosh Hashana coincides with Shabbat, and there is no shofar. On Shabbat, we don’t blow shofar lest we come to carry the shofar and desecrate Shabbat observance. The holiness of Shabbat overrides the shofar blast.
So, if the central mitzvah of the day is shofar, if the entire day centers around listening, how can we possibly have a spiritually meaningful experience without the sounds of the shofar blasts?
I would like to suggest that Rosh Hashan is always, with or without the shofar, fundamentally a holiday about listening and hearing.
On the first day, we read the story of Sara and of Channa, two women who were barren. God remembered them, he heard their cries, and rewarded them with children. In the powerful unetaneh tokef prayer, we are told that god is found in kol d’mama dakah yishma—God’s presence is heard in a still, thin sound. If we just open ourselves to hear, even in the stillness, we will hear gd’s presence reverberate. And we declare in the malchiyut section of musaf:—Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Ehad. Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. It is a plea to Israel to Listen. Not only to hear, but to listen. We should hear, and listen to what others say. Hear and listen to our own inner voice. And hear and then listen for God’s voice.
And so, when one does not have a shofar with which to hear, we must still find ways to listen.
The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 27b) relates the following strange scenario:
“If one blows (Shofar) into a pit … if the sound of the Shofar is heard, the mitzvah has been fulfilled, but if the sound of the echo is heard, the mitzvah has not been fulfilled.
התוקע לתוך הבור, או לתוך הדות, או לתוך הפיטס, אם קול שופר שמע - יצא, ואם קול הברה שמע - לא יצא.
One who blows but does not hear the sound of Shofar does not fulfill his obligation;
hence, once who blows into a ditch and hears only an echo falls short of fulfilling the Mitzvah, as the echo is not considered the sound of the actual Shofar.
I would like to read this metaphorically. Perhaps, what’s important here, is to hear the actual sounds of the shofar, to listen with complete intent. Hearing remnants, parts or pieces of the sounds is considered insufficient listening. The echo is distant, far off and distorts the actual sound. And so too with that which surrounds us. We must not hear the echoes of what others say to us, but rather, we are meant to hear and listen completely, with our entire body and soul.
There’s a children’s story written by Joan Fassler, a child psychologist, called “The Boy with a Problem.” In it, Johnny has a problem. Now the book never reveals his problem. But the problem grows bigger and bigger each day. Johnny goes to a doctor to discuss his problem, and the doctor gives him a little pill. But the problem does not go away. Then he tried to tell his teacher, who suggests n art project but the problem does not go away. He tries to tell his mother, who says kids shouldn’t worry so much. But the problem does not go away. And each time rather than listen to him, they attempt to offer a solution that does not help. Until one day, his friend, Peter, asks him what is wrong. And Johnny tells him the problem, and Peter listens. He listens all the way up the hill, and then all the way down the hill until Johnny suddenly doesn’t feel like he has a problem anymore.
Peter teaches us the simple, yet crucial art of listening. Imagine what it would be like to really listen. To listen to our inner voices. To listen to others. and to listen for the quiet still voice of god.
So what are we supposed to be listening for on this Rosh Hashana? I suggest that this first day of Rosh Hashana that is also Shabbat, at each point when the shofar is meant to sound, pause. Give yourself the opportunity to just listen. To listen to what those whom we love are saying. To listen to our own inner voices. And to listen for the voice of God.
September 16, 2009 | 12:56 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
(this post first appeared on 7/15/09 about prayer in general, but it feels especially pertinent as we approach Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur)
God, open my lips, and my mouth will speak Your praises.
As I begin this recitation of the amida, and prepare to lay out my requests before You, I do understand the severe limitations that attend this endeavor. I will be asking that You heal me and heal those close to me, and that You provide sustenance to us all. But I know that You are committed to the notion that “the world operates according to its rules”, and that You are therefore generally averse to supernatural interventions (though Your “natural” ones are wondrous.). I will pray that You bless this world with justice and with peace, even as I acknowledge Your insistence on people having complete freedom of will, including the freedom to act corruptly and violently. I will request that You redeem us speedily from our afflictions, and soon in our days reestablish the throne of David. And though I am profoundly grateful for Medinat Yisrael the first flowering of our redemption, I fully realize that the world, in its present state, is not poised for immediate redemption. There are still too many swords out there, with the market for ploughshares and pruning hooks still severely depressed.
Yet pray I shall, not only because tradition enjoins me to do so. I will pour out my conversation before You because You are our Loving Parent, the Compassionate One whose mercies never cease, without whom there would be no life, no wisdom, and no joy. I don’t have any idea how You administer the world on a day-to-day, or even on a millennium-to-millennium basis, but I know that all that is precious to me exists only because You willed it into being. If there is hope at all, it is in You.
And I will pray because in recounting all the things that You are, I will again remember all the things that I must strive to be. A bestower of kindnesses. A lover of righteousness and justice. One who forgives abundantly. One who raises the fallen, heals the broken-hearted, protects the stranger, and feeds the hungry. I will pray, for it is through looking at You that I become conscious of myself.
And I will pray because it is during prayer that I hear Your voice. Life with people is so complex. So many things happen each day which demand decisions and responses – decisions and responses that will alter the course of people’s lives, not least, the lives of the people whom I love the most, and who count on me the most. Internal passions – of love, anger, jealousy, and pride – cloud my judgment. As I whisper the blessings that I have whispered thousands of times before, I will place my dilemmas and my struggles beneath the light of Your countenance. (I hope this is OK with You.) I will not always know precisely what the right answer is by the time I reach the end and take my three steps backward, but I will always have a much clearer idea. And sometimes, I will know the answer precisely. For You are a God who hears prayers and supplications. And You have taught us, and our parents before us, the laws of living.
I am my prayer before You.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be desired by You, God who is my Rock, and my Redeemer.
September 15, 2009 | 1:19 pm
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
For the benefit of morethodoxy readers I am publishing a Kavvanah guide that I will use in my shul this Rosh Hashana. So many are drustrated when the High Holiday prayers are not inspiring. This Kavvanah guide is meant ot help people find inspiration in the High Holiday prayers.
I pray that it is helpful to you.
Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A More Meaningful Rosh Hashana Prayer
The Rosh Hashana davening is challenging in that it is very busy and full of choreography. Some find it difficult to focus and create moments of quiet introspection.
Do not feel rushed to keep up. It is more important to internalize the prayers. One should stop and listen to the shofar when the time comes.
Each section of the Mussaf Amidah focuses on one or two major themes. One of the keys to a meaningful prayer is to spend time focusing on those themes and how they impact our life.
Use this guide during the silent Mussaf Amidah or the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah to help you focus on the prayer themes. Each section of Mussaf will be briefly described followed by some questions to help us focus on each theme. Each section will end with a quote related to the main theme of that section.
Instead of talking to your neighbor when the service starts to feel too heavy, use this sheet to redirect your thoughts.
Malchiyot – Kingship
This section of the Mussaf service focus on God’s sovereignty of all of humanity. During the recitation of Aleynu it is customary to bow and partially prostrate ourselves as a sign of humility and submission to God.
What are some of the barriers to humility and how can I overcome them?
How do I relate to the notion of God as King and submitting to the will of the King?
Aleynu represents humanity’s voluntary acceptance of God’s sovereignty and ability to carry out His will. What does this Divine confidence say about humanity and how can it impact your relationship with God?
“When my eyes focus on my forebears as they stooped in total submissiveness when they confessed their sins before the Almighty, then my absurd pride is shattered…In a moment I return to the dawn of my existence and find myself standing next to my father in the midst of a congregation of Habad Hasidim engrossed in their prayers on the first night of Rosh Hashana. I can feel the unique atmosphere which enveloped these Hasidim as they recited the prayers by which they proclaimed Him their King. Te older Hasidim termed this night the “Coronation Night” as they crowned Him as their King. These poor and downtrodden Jews, who suffered so much durnig their daily existence, were able to experience the enthroning of the Almighty and the true meaning of Kingship prayers of the Rosh Hashana liturgy. (Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetichik as recorded in: The Rav: the world of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2 By Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkof, pg. 171)
Zichronot – Remembrances
This section of the Mussaf service focuses on Divine Providence, the notion that God cares about the actions of individuals and God’s memory of the merit of the Jews.
How does the idea that God cares about what I do impact my moral and religious choices?
The liturgy mentions that God remembers Noah’s righteousness: What does this teach us about our relationship with all of humanity?
We ask God to remember only the good stuff: How can we mirror this request of God in our relationships with others?
“The foundation of religion is not the affirmation that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world; that having created this world, He has not abandoned it, leaving it to its own devices; that He cares about His creation. It is of the essence of biblical religion that God is sufficiently concerned about man to address him; and that God values man enough to render Himself approachable by him.” (Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, God, Man and History pg. 13)
Shofarot – Sounding of the Shofar
This section of the Mussaf service focuses on the past revelation at Sinai, the anticipated revelation of the Messiah and the revelation of God’s presence in our lives.
What is my current connection to the revelation at Sinai? Can I develop a stronger relationship to the Torah of that revelation?
How can I cultivate a relationship with God so I can can feel his presence in my life?
How can torah study, prayer, moving emotional experiences and mitzvoth serve me in developing a relationship with God?
“Let Us take a loaf of bread. It is the product of climate, soil and the work of the farmer, merchant and baker. It it were our intention to extol the forces that concurred in producing a loaf of bread, we should have to give praise to the sun and the rain, to the soil and to the intelligence of man. However, it is not these we praise before breaking bread. We say, “Blessed be thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” Empirically speaking, would it not be more correct to give credit to the farmer, the merchant and the baker?…
We bless Him who makes possible both nature and civilization. It is not important to dwell each time on what bread is empirically…It is important to dwell each time on what bread is ultimately.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God In Search Of Man)
September 15, 2009 | 12:35 am
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Every year, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan: A month long fast, from morning till evening, during the month of Ramadhan.
Qur’an, Ch. 2 – Surat Al-Bakara – verse 185: During the month of Ramadan the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance to the people… so those of you who live to see the month should fast it, and whoever is sick or on a journey should fast the same number on other days instead… magnify Allah for what He has guided you to, and give thanks to Him.
The great fundamentalist commentator on the Qur’an, Sayyid Mawdudi, explains, “… fasting during the month of the revelation of the Qur’an is more than an act of worship and more than an excellent course for moral training: it is also an appropriate form for the expression of our thankfulness to God for the bounty of the Qur’an.” (Tafhim al Qur’an, Ansari transl., 1988).
On the face of it, the Fast of Ramadan seems totally foreign to Jews. First of all it is commanded in the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, and not mentioned at all in the Torah. Second, even though we are familiar as Jews with the 24 hour fast of Yom Kippur, a month long fast – 29 days! – seems like a totally different ballgame. Finally, ideas like “moral training” normally are separate from rituals, especially those rituals linked to gratitude to God (Allah) or revelation.
However, a deeper look at the basic elements of Ramadan reveals that there is a lot for Jews to learn about Judaism itself, by reflecting on this Muslim worship. Outside sources, such as Islam and the Qur’an can help us understand what the Jewish sources are really saying and turning to them can give us new, innovative understandings of Judaism. From Maimonides to Nechama Leibovitz, Torah thinkers throughout the ages have turned outside the box to understand the Judaism inside the box.
Let’s start with the month of Ramadan itself: Islam follows the lunar calendar, which, after twelve months of the cycle of the moon, is at least 11 days shorter than the solar year. This means that Ramadan occurs in different seasons of the year, which are dependent on the sun, and takes on different flavors because of those seasons. What about Judaism? The Jewish calendar is a combination of lunar months calibrated with the solar years by adding one leap, lunar month seven times over the course of 19 years – the second month of Adar. A careful reading of the Torah shows that Jewish holidays are both supposed to occur consistently in set seasons – Passover in the Spring and Sukkot in the Fall – but are also supposed to be declared based on the lunar calendar. Both the Jewish and Islamic calendars provide an independent identity from the Western, Gregorian solar calendar, but the Jewish system takes the solar world into account. However, when we say that “Rosh HaShana is occurring early this year”, we should think about what our Muslim friends might be saying about Ramadan – and together we should realize that while we follow the secular calendar for some things, we shouldn’t forget about the calendar of our own religion which is different.
In fact, Islam’s way of declaring the month of Ramadan preserves the ancient Jewish way of declaring all of our lunar months – and determining when Jewish holidays will occur. Ramadan cannot merely be predicted ahead of time because the month only starts when witnesses see the sliver of the new moon occurring at the beginning of each month. Will they see it in Arabia? It’s never 100% clear. And that was the way Jewish months were declared as well, relying on two witnesses who came to the court in Jerusalem or elsewhere in the Land of Israel, until, in the 4th century, according to traditional sources, the Hebrew calendar was fixed, and it could be predicted centuries ahead of time. Kara’ites today still use witnesses in Israel to determine the beginning of each month of the Hebrew calendar. So if we follow when Ramadan begins this year – in late August – we will get a taste of what it was like in earlier times when we needed to wait for the court to accept the witnesses in order to know when Passover or Sukkot would occur.
Realizing that there are more than a billion Muslims in the world who are fasting for a whole month should make Jews feel better about fasting during our days of fasts. Today, many Jews mark the great fast of Yom Kippur, but most don’t bother with the other “minor fasts”. That is a decision for every Jew to make on his or her own, but it should be done knowing that for a fifth of the world’s population, fastin 29 days is quite doable! Observing how Muslims traditionally break the fast of Ramadan can also be inspiring for Jews: Muslims wait until exactly sunset and then break the fast, traditionally, with water and dates, then men and women go to pray the Maghrib Salat, the fourth prayer service of the day, which can be prayed anytime from sunset until dark. Then Muslims return for the traditional Iftar, the daily communal break fast feast during the month. This system of coordinating the time of day with human rituals and behaviors teaches a discipline which Judaism also has embraced; in some ways Judaism is stricter, since traditionally the Jewish fasts end with dusk – three stars – not just with sunset. Islam’s attention to the detail of the tradition – in way that is beautiful, rather than harsh – serves as a model for Jews to follow Jewish traditions in a way that is precise, but beautiful, as well.
Discovering the reasons for the Fast of Ramadan – both in the Qur’an and in the oral Muslim tradition – can shed light upon the reasons for many Jewish rituals. Specifically, it is fascinating to see the connections in Islam between concern for the Muslim’s relationship with God, and then his or her relationship with their fellow human beings, and, finally, their understanding of themselves. Ramadan, is a holiday thanking God for the gift of revelation, but it doesn’t end with the relationship with God. The prayers ending each day of Ramadan include greetings and blessings to fellow worshippers – a custom to this day amongst Turkish Jews. The Iftar feast is supposed to be eaten with other people – making sure everyone has food to break their fast. The human element is a critical part of this ritual. Finally, it respect for the individual is clear in the care the Qur’an takes in giving people flexibility in fasting if they are ill or on a journey: the Muslim oral tradition recounts that Muhammad himself sometimes did not fast if he was on a journey – and was critical of someone who endangered his life by fasting. Judaism contains each of these elements and links, but observing Muslims keeping Ramadan and studying the detailed laws of the Fast can inspire us to better see these links between ritual, ethics and self respect in our own tradition.
Ramadhan and Elul:
Most Jews know at least a little about Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, but how many Jews begin the High Holiday season at the beginning of Elul? In our tradition, S’fardic Jews begin early morning S’lichot (forgiveness) prayers every day for the entire month of Elul, the month before Rosh HaShana, and even Ashkenazic Jews, who are a bit lazier, start blowing the shofar on the first day of Elul. It is an entire month devoted to reflection and repentance. Ramadhan provides a model of taking out not just one or two days – or even a week – but an entire month to celebrate and mark our relationship with God. If Jews would only ask: Why don’t I have a month for reflection and penitence as the Muslims do? We would be able to learn seriously about Elul and its traditions. This year, 2009, Ramadhan and Elul begin with the same sliver of the moon. If Jews were just a bit more aware of Ramadhan’s start, they would be on their way to realizing Elul is here for them. But the idea of a month-long theme is part of the Jewish calendar in other places: Tishrei is the month of new beginnings – the creation of the world; Adar is the month of joy; Nissan is the month of the start of Jewish peoplehood; Av is a month of destruction ending in hope. Each of these months, depending on the year, will exactly correspond to Ramadhan: Jews would be doing their Judaism a favor by following the start of Ramadhan and figuring out which Jewish month starts at the same time and finding out what that month means to them.
Starting and Ending the fast:
Finally, Jews should pay close attention to the details of the start and end to fasting on Ramadhan: The fast begins at sunrise (fajr) and ends at sunset (maghrib). Sounds simple enough. However, in Judaism, we rarely go for what is clear, and the Jewish times for beginning and ending all of the minor fasts, which are also morning to night is different. According to Jewish law, the minor fasts of the Tenth of Tevet, the 17 of Tammuz, Esther, and Gidalia all begin with dawn – with the first light in the east, over an hour before sunrise. Jewish law is not even clear when dawn begins – it is a vague idea, not clear cut like sunrise. Some opinions believe dawn begins 72 minutes before sunrise, others say it begins 90 minutes before sunrise. As far as the end of the day, Jews end the day not with sunset, but, rather, with dusk, with a certain level of darkness – dark enough to see three medium sized stars. There are so many differing opinions about how many minutes after sunset “three stars” , but they vary from as little as 15 minutes after sunset to over 90 minutes after sunset – and it differs as you move farther and farther from the equator. One of the principles of Judaism is that following God requires struggle, questioning and even uncertainty. Understanding Ramadhan and comparing the details of its fast to our fasts will lead to a much deeper appreciation of our tradition and its vision for the Jewish people.