Saturday, 22nd March 2008
During the Lenten season, we have had it explained to us about why we fast – as well as how to do so. How much of this sank in with a friend who shall be nameless (I promised!) is her comment “Nothing like Lent for the jolly old waistline!”
Many people do actually fast as a part of their de-tox diets. This means they either take nothing but fluids for a week, or let nothing pass their lips for 24 hours – it all depends upon the rules of their particular game. This robs fasting of its religious significance, and takes it to the borderline of a questionable health-related modus operandi, if not actually vanity and obsession…. or an eating disorder.
It is to be noted that most religions do include fasts for religious reasons. This is because fasting teaches the self to decline the temptation of physical things, and this self-control makes us more aware of the higher things. Jesus fasted for forty days, and Moses fasted for forty days and nights before he was given the Law (Exodus 24:18).
People who are ill, elderly, or travelling, as well as women who are menstruating, pregnant, or lactating are usually exempt from fasting.
A Jewish fried of mine tells me that that these people could tamper their fast by drinking what the Talmud calls “melo lugmav”; an amount that would fill a person’s puffed-out cheek, approximately one fluid ounce (35 ml), and then wait nine minutes before drinking again.
The Catholic religion teaches tells us that fasting is in itself not a virtue; it is merely a means to an end. Moreover, to fast from food is not enough; the spirit as well as the body must fast.
Some fasts of some religions require depriving oneself of creature comfort (including wearing shoes, washing, and having sex) during a fast. It is also good to give charity and share belongings during a fast.
Sant Bernard pulls no punches; he says that fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth, for our gourmandizing and for our gluttony. But since it is not our mouth alone that sins, other members of our body must fast. Muslims believe that a fasting person will focus on the meaning of life and become more aware of the presence of God, when fasting.
Most people recall the story of Esther, the Jewish heroine whose story is told in the eponymous book of the Bible.
A part of the story tells how Esther could not present herself in front of her husband the King unless he specifically called for her; to do so would be to sign her own death warrant
Since circumstances obtaining at the time necessitated this, she asked her people to fast for three days before she actually did it. Ester was, in essence, “roping in” the combined spiritual power of the Jewish people in order to gain strength for the encounter. . In her honour, the fast before Purim is known as Taanit (The Fast Of) Esther. The fast begins at Alot Hashachar (dawn) and ends after Tzait Hakochavim (nightfall).
The story of how Haman exemplified the Maltese proverb Min irid id-deni ‘l garu jsibu f’daru makes interesting reading indeed.
Actually, the Torah orders that on the say before a Jewish army goes to war, each soldier must fast, since “strength and victory come through God”. Jews fast at other times too, most notably at Yom Kippur… the feast that gives us the expression “scapegoat”.
Muslims begin their ritual fasts at dawn – when a white thread can be distinguished from a black thread…. until dusk, when the difference can no longer be made out. Fasting is one of the Pillars of Islam. It is stated in the Qur’an (Qur’an 2:183): “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed to those before you that you may learn self-restraint.”
The fasts is broken and the family and guests sit together to eat and remember that “it is in the absence of something that its essence is revealed”.
When Muslims fast during Ramadan, therefore, food gains even more importance than usually does in their lives as a matter of course – which is already considerable. There are special Ramadan foods.
There is also a special snack, called, according to the country where it is eaten, Sahur Suhoor, Sahari, or Sehri (‘of the dawn’) which is eaten early in the morning before the fast begins. The evening meal is Iftar (similar to our fatra, which however means breakfast).
Inevitably, doing without food for a period of time, however short, makes you keener on it when it eventually materialises.
One of my favourite “fasting” meals is qassatat ta’ l-ispinaci u l-incova (spinach and anchovy open pies) made to my mother-in-laws special recipe; Jews have the three-cornered Hamantaschen (“pockets of Hamman”, the villain of the Esther story), and the Muslims have triangular sambusak pastries. There are, of course, plenty of other specialties, all cooked, friend, baked, roasted, boiled or fricasseed according to tradition, religious rules, or personal idiosyncrasies…. of course, the calls to prayer before, during and following fasts are imperative.
It seems to me that for gourmands, and vegetarians “fast food” is the best food and drink of all…. even if one does not believe that fasting compensates for any sins committed.