Tonight, many students across campus will join their friends or families in a special feast unique to a particular time of year. Some will eat sweet foods to celebrate a new year that began last evening, others will break the first of many daylong fasts with family and friends. The former group of students is not delusional; not one of them expects his or her television screen to be illuminated with Dick Clark's "New Year's Rockin' Eve" tonight. By the same token, the latter group of students is not simply trying the latest fad diet; they are fasting in order to gain spiritual awareness and build righteousness. The reason for these two groups' misalignment with the Gregorian calendar is that they are observing Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish high holidays, and Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
Rosh Hashanah spans the first two days of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, and the feast that occurs on the second night of Rosh Hashanah is full of symbolism. It is traditional to eat foods that are sweet as a symbol of the desire for a prosperous year to come. Thus, the challah, a traditional Jewish bread enriched with egg yolks, is often made with a sweeter dough than is used to make challah for a Friday evening Shabbat dinner. Furthermore, instead of dipping the challah in salt as is customary during Shabbat dinner, Jews dip their bread in honey on Rosh Hashanah. Finally, the usually braided bread is prepared in a round loaf during the holiday feast. This alternative shape is meant to symbolize the cyclical nature of the year. Other examples of culinary Rosh Hashanah traditions are eating pomegranates, whose many seeds represent the 613 commandments of the Torah, and tzimmes, sliced carrots slowly cooked in honey. The most common culinary tradition of Rosh Hashanah, however, is eating apples dipped in honey. Never before was there such a sweet tradition.
Food plays less of a part in the rest of the High Holidays. In fact, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews fast for 25 hours in order to repent for sins both against God and their fellow man. Food, however, is not completely absent from the holiday. There is traditionally a feast on the eve of Yom Kippur and a light, celebratory meal to break the fast on the holiday itself.
Yom Kippur is a very significant event for Jews the world over, but it is not the only upcoming holiday that incorporates fasting. Ramadan also involves the willful refusal to eat and drink, but the fasting that takes place during this Muslim holiday occurs every day for 30 days. Muslims are forbidden to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset for the entirety of the month. Instead of eating three meals during the days of Ramadan, Muslims eat a small meal called the suhur before the sun rises and break their fast after sundown at a heartier meal called the iftar.
There are a multitude of reasons for the fast during Ramadan. Many Muslims see the holiday as a reminder of daily blessings like food that they receive from Allah, an attempt to wash themselves clean of their sins, and a way to learn self-discipline. The period of fasting ends after exactly one month with a three-day festival called Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. In the days leading up to Eid al-Fitr, it is traditional for Muslims to give food to poor families in accordance with the Muslim virtue of almsgiving. The foods of the festival itself vary from region to region, but there is always a family meal involved.
The High Holidays and Ramadan come from very different religious traditions, but one thing they have in common is their use of food to convey a message. During Rosh Hashanah, the message is one of prosperity and fellowship. During both Yom Kippur and Ramadan, the two religious groups use the decision to abstain from food and drink to convey a profound message about human sinfulness and the need for atonement. Before Eid al-Fitr, the gift of food also symbolizes support for those less fortunate than oneself. At the end of both periods of holidays, the feasts represent a celebration of blessings.
As we enter a time of deep religious significance for many of our peers, it is important to learn just what this season means to them. Because the foods of religious holidays are so infused with religious symbolism, knowledge of what people of faith choose to eat and when they choose not to eat goes a long way to understanding what these holidays are all about.
Jason is a senior majoring in economics and history. Send him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.