Sunday, July 21, 2013


When was the last time you fasted? 

There are various reasons for which people fast. Some do it for medical purposes, like to get thinner. Others resort to it for a political or social cause, like a hunger strike in jail. And others do it with a religious motive, like many Jews on the Day of Atonement or Muslims during Ramadan or Catholics on Ash Wednesday. The question for me is whether or not religious fasting makes sense today. It is my impression that in the Jewish community the number of people who fast for religious reasons is progressively diminishing. I agree with their skepticism. 

The custom of fasting as a religious ritual was well known in the ancient Near East. In fact, fasting and then consuming special foods were part of the Mesopotamian New Year Festival (Akitu). According to some scholars, fasting survived as a remnant of the ancient cult of the dead because of its connection with weeping and mourning. 

Like many other religions, Judaism too knows about fasting, and mandates both major and minor fasts. A major fast goes from sunset to nightfall the next day and a minor fast is held from sunrise to sunset. The two major fast days of the Jewish calendar are The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and Tisha Beav (9th of Av, usually in July), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other calamities that befell the Jewish people throughout the centuries. 

The Bible mentions various fast days (each one called a tzom) that were observed either by individuals (e.g., King David fasted before the death of his child, II Sam. 12: 16), or the Jewish people at large (e.g., Ezra’s fast, 8: 21, before his return to Judah). Rabbinic law added a number of minor fasts (each one referred to as taanit), like the Fast of Esther (Taanit Esther, just before Purim) and the Fast of the First Born (Taanit bekhorot), observed just before Passover by firstborn males, commemorating the fact that they were saved from the plague of the firstborn in Egypt (Ex. 11:4-6).

Why do people turn to religious fasting? Our tradition provides various answers:  as a humbling experience (e.g., Ps. 35: 13); as an expression of mourning (e.g., Tisha Beav); as a way to propitiate the divine (e.g., Jonah 3:7); for atonement of sins (e.g., Yom Kippur), and even as a technique of divination (e.g., Moses at Mount Sinai, cf. BT Yoma 4b). None of these rationales works for me today. 

The only thing that fasting accomplishes is hurting the body. This is self-punishment which does not benefit anyone. One cannot “afflict the soul”-another biblical expression for fasting (Lev. 23: 27)- without damaging the body. In fact, the ancient Rabbis forbade people from fasting if they are under age, or pregnant and even if they have a medical condition against it. 

If the feelings I have during a fast day are pains and headaches due to the lack of food or drink, then the religious value of the occasion is severely diminished. I might as well concentrate on the message of the spiritual moment by keeping myself hydrated and nourished. 

In the past, I never fasted on Tisha Beav, and do not expect to do it in the future,  even when this ancient memorial day progressively assumes a new and more acceptable meaning in our time, namely, the atonement due to vain hatred of the other. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem took place in ancient antiquity and, even though I mourn the loss of life in ancient Judea, I do not pray for the rebuilding of the temple that would reestablish the sacrificial rituals, give legitimacy to the cast system that was prevalent then in the Jewish community by giving priority to priests over lay Israelites or by separating men from women. (We already have enough problems with the Haredim in Jerusalem who wish to deny women access to the Wall).

Would I continue to fast on Yom Kippur? In the past I always did. I expect that I will do it again in the future as long as I can tolerate it. But isn’t this a contradiction of what I have just been saying? Yes, of course. Then why would I continue to fast? You never heard the song, “tradition, tradition???!!!!.” 

Rabbi R. Sonsino, Ph.D

July 21, 2013

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Older postings: From Istanbul to Boston

Dear Friends,
If you wish to access my older postings, you can find them under "From Istanbul to Boston," in
Best wishes,
R. Sonsino
July 18, 13

Monday, July 8, 2013


I have always been drawn by the beauty of the human voice. Even though I love instrumental music, I find that good male or female voices can reach the innermost recesses of the heart, and allow us to transform ourselves in spiritual ecstasy. Whenever I have an opportunity, I turn to my favorite singers, whether classical or pop, or, for that matter, to western as well as oriental musicians, for a transcendental experience. 
Over the years I have had many favorites. Here below I wish to share with you my three choices. I hope you, too, will find them exhilarating. 
a)    “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens:

This is a hymn that gives thanks for each day. It originally appeared in the “Songs of Praise” (1931), a Christian hymnal, and was popularized by the British-born singer and songwriter Cat Stevens, who now calls himself Yusuf Islam, reaching the No. 1 spot in the musical charts.

b)    “Beklenen Sarki” (in Turkish, ‘The Long Awaited Song”)  by Zeki Muren:

Born in Turkey (1931), this incredible singer became famous for his compelling and sweet voice, precise articulation of exquisite Turkish poetry and flashy appearance (a la Liberace) in his long career (he died in 1996).  When I was young in Istanbul, I did not pay much attention to him, but now I have rediscovered him and realized what a great musician he was. In this love song, he hopes that his beloved will not have other dreams but those directed at him.

\c) “Ah, Perdonna al primo affetto” from “La Clemenza di Tito” by Mozart.
In this short but sweet two-act opera, two lovers sing, each asking the other, “to forgive my former love.” In this version the duet is sung by Elena Xanthoudakis and Rosel Labone. I hope you like it.

Rifat Sonsino

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013


I have been going to Spain every year since 2008 in order to help out Bet Shalom in Barcelona, a small nascent Reform congregation, with its programs and religious services. This past June, after ten days in Turkey, Ines and I spent two weeks in Barcelona, taking part in history making activities. 

My daily schedule was full. I officiated at three weddings for temple members, a Bar Mitzvah for an American Jewish family on its way to a Mediterranean cruise, gave two talks at Atid, the other Reform congregation in the city,  lectured in a Skype-type forum on the conversion process to the rest of the progressive congregations in Spain , had numerous meetings with various individuals, led Friday night and Sabbath morning services, and took part in the proceedings of the Bet Din (Religious Court) from London, which represented the European Region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and in two days we welcomed 20 individuals as Jews-by-choice (including tevilah, immersion in the ocean). After all these activities, I think I earned the right to have a long long vacation. After all, I am a retired Rabbi. But who could tell?

What made this trip so fascinating is that I witnessed the remarkable growth of Reform Judaism in Spain, and in particular, the creation of a new federation by three Reform synagogues, namely, Bet Shalom and Atid from Barcelona, and Bet Emunah from Asturias. It is expected that shortly other liberal groups from the cities of Seville, Madrid and from the region of Galicia, will join in, thus establishing a strong foundation for the presence of progressive Judaism in Spain within a cooperative structure. I am also delighted that the newly established Reform congregation in Seville has named me its honorary spiritual leader. 

 Friday night service, Barcelona, June 21, 13

There aren’t too many Jews in Spain, maybe 20,000 in the entire country, but Reform Judaism is here to stay.  The creative visionary of this endeavor is Jai Anguita, 42, of Bet Shalom, who has moved earth and sky to bring enthusiasm to many of his fellow Jews and potential Jews, of which there are many in Spain, especially among those who wish to “return” to Judaism because of their families’ association with our faith going back to 1492 when Jews were forcefully expelled from the country or forced to convert.

It is not easy today to be a Jew in Spain. There is a great deal of anti-Semitism, at times even of violent nature. One prospective convert told our Bet Din about the discrimination and physical assaults he experienced because he was wearing a Magen David. Another person told us that she was cut off by her family when she announced that she was going to convert to Judaism. So, we asked her, “You still want to become Jewish?” “Yes,” she responded, “It is in my soul.”

The next phase of Reform Judaism in Spain will require that each congregation be better organized, having good publicity (e.g. Web pages) as well as a sound organizational structure, with election of officers, preparation of realistic budgets, yearly congregational meetings and imaginative fund raising campaigns. Reform Jews in Spain will also need a new and common prayer book for Shabbat and festival services. Realizing that money is always tight in these circumstances, I urge world Jewry to take note and help them out.

As for me, I did as much as I could by actually going to Barcelona and spending a few weeks on location the last few years. From now on I will be available to teach classes through Skype or other media directly from Boston. Now that the European Region of the WUPJ in London considers Spain a priority, I am sure it will continue to provide all the necessary help and services. I am glad I witnessed this historic development since 2008, and consider it a privilege to have had the opportunity to add my own contribution.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D

July 2013

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