Staying in Shul for Yizkor

September 30, 2009

Over the last couple of years, I have been urging everyone in shul to remain inside the sanctuary for Yizkor – even those who, thank God, have both parents alive. I have made this request in the name of simple courtesy and love toward those who are reciting Yizkor, and whose ability to immerse themselves in memory and prayer is severely compromised by the racket that typically invades the sanctuary from the lobby outside. It has been a semi-successful campaign on my part, and I of course knew going in that there would be some non-Yizkor-sayers who just wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to stay inside.

But what happened in shul on Yom Kippur two days ago has made me realize that I’ve been missing the boat by appealing on the grounds of courtesy and decorum alone. Lots and lots of us begin to cry quiet tears as Yizkor begins. But when it’s someone’s very first Yizkor, or the first one that they are reciting for a family member who has just recently died, they quite understandably begin to cry aloud. We had several people in this situation this Yom Kippur. And each one had friends who put their arms around them and held them as they cried – friends who had remained inside shul even though they were not themselves reciting Yizkor. And if I had to guess, I would imagine that their parents were very proud of them.

Why do we run out of shul when our friends need us most? Try staying inside. You’ll be glad you did.

Oheiv Yisrael…and then some.

September 29, 2009

Recently I have been studying the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s forbearers. His namesake, Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Apter Rebbe, was known as the Oheiv Yisrael – The Lover of Israel. He was one of the main spokesman for Chassidut after the death of the Baal Shem Tov.

 Although he was the Rebee of other towns after Apt (Opatów), we was so enamored by the people of that town and they by him that he promised to always be known by the name of their town, hence he is known as the Apter Rav.

  He is known as the Oheiv Yisrael because he would teach that one who loves all Jews will be glorified before the heavenly court. In fact, before he died he instructed his children to have only one phrase written on his tombstone – “Oheiv Yisrael”

 The book that contains the bulk of his teaching is also called Oheiv Yisrael.

 The Apter Rebbe was well known for giving others the benefit of the doubt, this was one of the ways he practiced loving all Jews. This is a difficult task as the courtrooms of our mind often are quick to find fault with others.

 I often wonder if Rabbi Heschel’s love of humankind was in some kindled by the Oheiv Yisrael’s love of Israel. Maybe Rabbi Heschel just took it one step further. Rabbi Heshcel could be called the Oheiv Olam – The Lover of the World.

The following advice on how to judge others favorably is from Orchot Tzadikim , written in the 15 century. The author is unknown.

Sounds like good advice to me.

 The humble person judges everyone favorably.

As an example:

When they asked one of the pious, “How is it that you deserved to

become a master among your contemporaries?”

He responded, “Because everyone whom I saw I assumed him to be

better than I.

“If he was wiser than I, I said:

He is also more reverent of God than I because of his great wisdom.

“And if he was lesser in wisdom than I, I said:

He [sins] unknowingly, but I [sin] knowingly.

“And if he was more advanced in years than I, I said:

His merits exceed my merits.

“And if I was older than he, I said:

His transgressions are fewer than my transgressions.

“And if he was my equal in wisdom and years, I said:

His conscience is clearer before God [“his heart is better to God”] than

my conscience, since I know the sins I have done, but I do not know the

sins he has done.

“And if he was richer than I, I said that he does more charitable deeds

than I do.

“And if he was poorer than I, I said that he is more contrite and more

subdued in spirit than I and he is better than I.

“And through this thinking I would honor all people and I would defer to


But WHY is it important?

September 27, 2009

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.

Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 27, 2009

I know this is not my regular posting day but I wanted to make some Kavanot 0 prayer enhancers available before Yom Kippur.

Gmar Tov,




Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer

The Yom Kippur davening is challenging in that it is very busy ,full of choreography and very long.

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.

The Yom Kippur Mussaf is an amalgam of prayers with High Holiday themes as well as recreations of the Temple service, mourning dirges and the account of the Ten Martyrs.

Use this guide during the silent Mussaf Amidah or the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah to help you focus on the prayer themes.  Various sections of Mussaf will be briefly described followed by some questions to help us focus on each theme.

Instead of talking to your neighbor when the service starts to feel too heavy, use this sheet to redirect your thoughts.


Did you ever wonder why we are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur? How can fasting help us return to God? The Torah considers the Yom Kippur fast an act of affliction. One the one fasting makes perfect sense. A day on which we are judged is hardly a day on which to be concerned with food.

Perhaps we can consider the idea of self denial a positive spiritual practice. On Yom Kippur fasting reminds us that it is very often the material aspects of our lives and the need to supply them (like food and shelter) that take us away from spiritual pursuits. On Yom Kippur we are told not to worry about food and we find outselves under the protection of the synagogues. With our basic needs either cared for or removed we can focus on spirituality.

Fasting may also remind us that we have the capacity to survive with far less than we usually have.


Ask yourself:

  • How does fasting help me attain a deeper spirituality on Yom Kippur?
  • Would Yom Kippur “work” the same if we were allowed to eat? If not, what added benefit does fasting bring?


Mussaf Amidah


Seder Ha-Avodah (Description of the Temple Service)

We recite or even re-enact the temple service that cannot be performed today because of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. It is not really a prayer, but rather a detailed description, in poetic terms  of what used to happen in the Temple.


What purpose does the Seder Ha-Avodah serve?

  • To keep alive the ancient tradition in a vivid way
  • To reassure us that even in the absence of the Temple service we can achieve forgiveness and closeness to God
  • Create a longing for the Beit HaMikdash.

The seder ha-avodah is introduced with a magnificent prologue  – essentially a brief summary of Jewish History from creation to the Temple service.

There is heavy concentration on God’s interaction with and direction of the world in the prologue. Perhaps this is to indicate the cosmic importance of the Avodah.  Consider the “path” of the prologue: descent to sin thought Adam and Chavah, Cain and the generation of the flood and the subsequent ascent from Noach to Avraham to Yaakov and his sons – from whom came Levi, eventually entrusted with the service of the Beit Hamikdash.


Ask Yourself:

  • Has the progress of the spirituality  expressed in the prologue continued? Do we live in an age where people feel connected to God? Do I feel connected to God? If not, why not?


Rabbi Solovetichik defined spirituality as: “the descent of divinity into the midst of the concrete world.” Perhaps the recitation of the Temple service is supposed to give us a chance to relive the divine descent as the Yom Kippur service represented the pinnacle of divine revelation as the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies.


Ask Yourself:

  • How can I experience the Divine descent?
    • Choose one area in life that you will work on this year in order to be more God aware.

The section of the Temple service ends on a celebratory note when we say: “True – how majestic was the Kohen Gadol as he left the Holy of Holies in peace, without injury. “

“Why The Happiness in reciting  the end of the Temple service? Why was it sung with such a happy tune? The answer is that the Kohen Gadol reflected the radiance of God. Throught witnessing the radiant appearance of the Kohen Gadol, there could be no doubt of God’s acceptance of the prayers of the children of Israel” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik).


Ask yourself:

  • Who in my life helps me feel like I am in the presence of God? What experiences have I had where I truly felt like I was in God’s presence? How can I recreate those moments?


The Ten Martyrs

Immediately after the joy of reciting the Avodah, we recite mourning dirges. “Suddenly Yom Kippur is transformed in to the Ninth of Av, the morning reaching its most intense point when we read of the ten martyrs.


What role do these dirges play on Yom Kippur?

  • Perhaps we are pleading to God: “We have suffered enough. Put an end to our torments and tormentors. Show mercy not only by forgiving us but by bring complete redemption.
  • We remind ourselves of a sin not listed in the long list of “al chet” – the admission that our sins have extended the state of the destruction and delayed redemption.


Ask Yourself

  • How does the contrast of the joy and the mourning enhance our prayer experience? What does it take to fully appreciate what we had and what we lost? How can I be more appreciative this year of the people and blessings in my life?

“The startling contrast of the joy of the avodah recitation and the pain evoked by reciting the mourning dirges immediately following serve a basic cognitive purpose. In order to truly feel a loss, a person must internalize two key points:  1) how wonderful life was before the loss and 2) hoe terrible life is after the loss. In the words of Jeremiah: “Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old” (Eicha 1:7). (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik)

Ten Martyrs: What Are You Willing To Die For?

The inclusion of the Ten Martyrs in the Yom Kipur prayers is noteworthy. Why is it included and whay it is supposed to add to our prayer experience? Perhaps the inclusion of the Ten Martyrs is supposed to help us focus on what is really important in life by compelling us to ask ourselves: asking: What are we willing to die for? These sages were willing to give their lives for Torah and Jewish life. What are our ultimate values?

Perhaps we are asked to judge what is really important in life by the answer to the question of what are we willing to die for.

Is there anyone who would willingly sacrifice his life for wealth? Or honor? For a high position? On the contrary: We would readily give up all this in order to buy health… On the other hand, are there not mothers who would sacrifice even their own lives for the life of their children? Aren’t there many who would die for freedom and peace?

Ask yourself:

What are my ultimate values? How are they similar or different to those of the ten martyrs?

Why are we so childish when it comes to Yom Kippur?

September 25, 2009

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.

Counteracting Boredom

September 24, 2009

Mahara”t 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.”

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.

Out Of Control – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 22, 2009

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Rosh Hashana: The Listening Holiday

September 17, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

Rosh Hashana is a Listening Holiday.

In contrast to the other Holidays, 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A More Meaningful Rosh Hashana Prayer – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 15, 2009

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.

Shannah Tova,

Barry Gelman

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.

 Ask Yourself

  • 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) Read the rest of this entry »

What can Jews learn from the Fast of Ramadan? Rabbi Asher Lopatin

September 15, 2009

For those who are intrigued by Ramadan and what it has to do with Morethodoxy – here’s a mostly unpublished article I wrote for this year’s Elul and Ramadan:

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.