People who attended religious services at least once a week were significantly less likely to die from deaths related to suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning, according to a May 2020 research report from the Harvard School of Public Health. The study showed that the association between higher service attendance and lower risk of those kind of deaths was even stronger for women in the study than for men.
Why do almost all religions have major restrictions on what their adherents eat and drink? Because everyone eats and drinks every day and that gives everyone the opportunity to do, or not do, what their religion teaches them to do or not do.
This gives daily purpose and meaning to the simple activity of eating and drinking; and more important to the daily self-denial of not eating and drinking; and even more important to the special occasions when we do not eat or drink at all: fasting.
For example, alcohol is linked to cancer-related proteins in the blood so abstaining from drinking can drastically reduce their levels. This finding could help explain why alcohol is linked to at least seven types of cancer.
The lack of self restraint so evident in much of modern life leads us first to pleasure seeking and then increasingly to self induced suffering. Millions of people spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books and gym clubs but still lack the self discipline to control themselves.
We have largely lost the spiritual value of self restraint that is so important in the Hindu, Jewish and Muslim tradition. That self restraint was promoted annually by voluntary community fasting.
Both Islam and Judaism place major emphasis on fasting as a means of religious self discipline and spiritual self control. For Muslims the major fast occurs during the daylight hours of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
For Jews the major fast occurs during the 24 hour fast of Yom Kippur-the Day of Atonement, which is the holy of holies of Jewish time: a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgment when, collectively and repeatedly, we confess and make restitution for our sins and pray to be written into God’s Book of Life.
In North America and the UK, Jews and Muslims are the two religious groups that most noticeably practice fasting. The rules about fasting are very similar in both Jewish and Islamic law. Since there are several religious values involved in fasting; Muslims will see many similarities, and a few differences, in the following teachings from the Jewish tradition about restricting what and when we eat.
Fasting is a very personal, experiential offering that one makes from one’s own body and fasting has many spiritual benefits. The Qur’an (2:183) says, “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint.”
What self-restraint discipline is Hinduism, Islam and Judaism teaching us by decreeing the importance of fasting? What spiritual benefits occur when we fast?
First of all, fasting teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world’s problem of hunger. We can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But not until one can actually feel it in one’s own body is the impact truly there.
Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. This feeling must lead to action. Fasting is never an end in itself; that’s why it has so many different outcomes.
But all the other outcomes are of no real moral value if personal morality and compassion for others is not enlarged and extended through fasting. Thus, Prophet Muhammad (s) said, “Whoever does not give up deceitful speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving eating his food and drink.” (Bukhari Vol 3, 31, #127)
And as Prophet Isaiah said, “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor.” (Isaiah 58:3-7)
Second, fasting is an exercise in will-power. Most people think they can’t fast because it’s too hard. But actually the discomfort of hunger pangs is relatively minor. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache, are all more severe than the pains hunger produces.
The reason it is so hard to fast is because its so easy to stop. The food is all around, and in easy reach; all you have do is take a bite. Thus the key to fasting is the will power to decide again and again not to eat.
Our society has increasingly become one of self indulgence. We lack self discipline. Fasting goes in direct opposition to our increasing “softness” in life. When people exercise their will-power and fast, they are affirming their self-control and celebrating mastery over themselves. We need continually to prove that we can do it, because we are aware of our frequent failures to be self-disciplined.
The third outcome of fasting is that fasting is a positive struggle against our dependencies. We live in a consumer society. We are constantly bombarded by advertising telling us that we must have this or that to be healthy, happy, popular or wise. By fasting we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food.
If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended by self discipline how much more our needs for all the nonessentials. Judaism doesn’t advocate asceticism as an end in itself. In fact it’s against Jewish law to deny ourselves normal pleasures.
But in our overheated consumer society it is necessary periodically to turn off the constant pressure to consume, and to remind ourselves forcibly that “Man does not live by bread alone.” (Torah Deuteronomy 8:3)
Fourth, fasting serves as a penance. Though self inflicted pain may alleviate some guilt, it is much better to reduce one’s guilt by offsetting acts of righteousness to others. This is why, for Jews, contributing to charity is an important part of Yom Kippur.
The same is true for Muslims during Ramadan. Indeed, fasting that doesn’t increase compassion is ignored by God. Also, the concept of fasting as penance helps us understand that our suffering can be beneficial.
Contemporary culture desires happiness above all else. Any suffering is seen as unnecessary and indeed evil. Though we occasionally hear people echo values from the past that suffering can help one grow, or that an existence unalloyed with pain would lack certain qualities of greatness, many today seem to think that the primary goal in life is “to always be happy and free of all discomfort.”
The satisfaction one derives from the self-induced pain of fasting provides insight into a better way of reacting to the externally caused suffering we have to experience anyway. Taking a pill is not always the best way to alleviate pain especially if by doing so we allay the symptoms without reaching the root cause.
Always remember while fasting that Prophet Moses (a) and Prophet Elijah (a) both fasted for 40 days and nights (Torah Deuteronomy 9: 9 &18 and 1 Kings 19:8), and Prophet David (a) fasted for 7 days (2 Samuel 12:16-20).
And as Prophet Muhammad (s) said: “The blessed month of Ramadan comes to you, a month Allah made fasting obligatory for those who are able; whosoever denies himself the benefits of that month; denies himself many virtues.” (Hadith)