Spiritual Fasting: Everybody's Doing It

Spiritual Fasting: Everybody's Doing It

Spiritual fasting.

That was our study topic at last night’s interfaith iftar.  During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours. Daily fasts end at sunset with iftar, an evening fast-breaking meal. Last night, the Baitur Rahman Mosque in Delta BC invited the local multi-faith community to their Iftar. They created an evening of learning. Ten speakers representing different spiritual traditions spoke about spiritual fasting.

Three Christian speakers spoke about Biblical role models. Moses, Esther, Daniel, and Jesus fasted for spiritual purification. When we engage in spiritual fasting, we become more like them. We begin to emulate their spiritual, ethical, and political activism. Making do with less, said an Indigenous speaker, is activism. It helps save the planet from ecological disaster.

Two Islamic speakers taught that abstaining from food is only a first step. True spiritual fasting, they said, happens when we avoid unethical practices. Both encouraged us to avoid hurtful speech, gossip, lies, and slander. A Baha’i speaker echoed their view. Each year, Baha’is fast from sunrise to sunset for 19 consecutive days. The physical fast, they teach, is an outward sign of an inner practice of non-attachment.

A Hindu speaker reminded us that spiritual fasting is an ancient practice. The earliest Vedic traditions required priests to fast before performing fire rituals. Fasting helped them focus body, mind, and spirit. But fasting can be adapted for modern practice, too. In the Latter Day Saints tradition, a speaker explained, church members fast one Sunday each month. They skip two meals, and donate the cost of the meals to a local food bank.

Of course, I spoke about spiritual fasting in Jewish practice. In Judaism, I said, we have many fast days. But the most popular one is the fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur takes place each fall, on the tenth day of the New Year.

Our sages teach that God judges the world at the beginning of every year. One of the Hebrew names for the New Year is Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. Based on what God sees, God plans the next year of each creature’s life. Some Jews take this story literally. Others just like the moral of the story:  Make this next year a better one. Improve your relationships with people and God. Pray, that is, examine your spirituality and ethics. Do good deeds and make charitable donations.

Ideally, everyone would do this automatically every day. But in reality, we need a reminder. So we actively devote the first ten days of each year to it. The tenth day, the most intensive day, is the fast of Yom Kippur. For 25-hours we avoid eating, drinking, bathing, using lotions or oils, having sex, and wearing luxurious leather shoes. The full fast is only for healthy adults and teens over the age of 13, who are not pregnant or nursing.

On the tenth day of the year, our Torah teaches: te’anu et nafshoteichem, “make your bodies poor.” (Lev. 16:29). So, on Yom Kippur, we feed our spiritual souls instead of our bodies. We take a break from materialism and consumerism. We don’t do paid work or shop, not even on line. Instead, we gather at synagogue, where we pray and study, with a short break to go home and sleep. As we fast, we let go of everyday consciousness. We start to see how spiritual pain drives people to harm one another. So, we try to reach out to family, friends, and colleagues whom we have harmed.

As our sense of self changes, our spiritual perception grows. In our consumerist society, we so often judge people by their wealth, their clothing, their jobs. But on Yom Kippur, we try to let go of those judgments. No one shops at the expensive Whole Foods, the moderately priced Safeway, the inexpensive No Frills or the free community Food Bank. Everyone is equal, judged by God for our ethics, not our worldly success. As we fast, we recognize that we could go hungry at any time if God sends illness, war, or natural disaster our way. So, on Yom Kippur, we donate groceries and money to food banks and other organizations that feed the hungry.

Spiritual fasting alone won’t heal the world. But last night’s iftar convinced me that it can push us to start. Spiritual fasting helps us become people willing to work for healing.

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