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What Jews can Learn from Ramadan - a recent article I wrote for those intrigued by Ramadan

by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

September 15, 2009 | 12:35 am

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.

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Our Orthodox Rabbis and an Orthodox Maharat writing about how they see Judaism, Israel, the Jewish People and our world.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner is the Rabbi of Bais Abraham...

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