Once upon a time a king went out to hunt on a very warm day in the Fall of 2007*. After a few hours he felt very hot and tired, so he decided to stop for lunch. His servants unpacked a large picnic basket they had brought with them and set up a table.
Now the king didn’t want to eat together with his servants, nor did he want to eat alone. The king told one of his servants to find someone to come and eat lunch with the king. The servant walked to a nearby road, saw two 13-year-old boys walking along, and told them that the king wanted to see them.
The boys were very surprised, and a little frightened, but they went with the king’s servant. When they arrived at the picnic, the table was set with all kinds of wonderful foods and drinks. The king told the boys to sit down next to him and eat. The boys sat down next to the king, but they did not eat.
After a few minutes the king said, “Why are you not eating? My food is prepared by the best cook in the kingdom. It is the best tasting food in the country. Doesn’t it look good to you”
“It looks great, and I am sure it is the best food I will ever taste,” answered one boy, “but I can’t eat it.”
“Did you just finish eating lunch? If so you do not have to eat a whole meal, just have some of these great deserts” said the king.
The other boy replied, “Actually we did not eat lunch today, but we cannot eat anything, not even one of those really good looking chocolate covered candies.”
The king was surprised and asked, “Are you sick? Is that why you have lost your appetite?”
“No,” said the boys, “We are not sick and we haven’t lost our appetites.”
“Then why are you not hungry?” asked the king.
“But we are hungry” said one boy, and his friend added, “Neither of us ate lunch, and I did not eat breakfast. We are very, very hungry.”
The king looked bewildered and shouted, “Then why don’t you eat since both of you are hungry and the food is delicious?”
“Because this month is Ramadan and I am a Muslim” said one boy. The other boy nodded and said, “And today is Yom Kippur and I am Jewish.”
The king was astonished and said, “Why shouldn’t you enjoy yourselves? This is the best tasting food you will ever eat and you are hungry.”
“That is true, but that makes it even more important for us to fast,” answered the boys. “It is easy not to eat food you do not like. The test of a person’s self-control is best when the temptation is greatest.”
“Do you think God cares if you eat or not? Go ahead and eat, I will not tell anyone, especially your parents.”
Both boys said, “No thanks. Even if you don’t tell anyone else, we will know that we failed to live up to our religious duties to God.”
The king thought for a moment and then asked the Muslim boy why the Muslim God made Muslims fast for a whole month while the Jewish God only required one day of fasting. The Muslim boy answered, “Muslims fast on Ramadan because that is the month that Prophet Muhammad received the first verses of the Holy Koran. Fasting brings us closer to God and stimulates us to give charity to the hungry.
He continued, Jews fast for one day because that is what the Torah requires of them. There is only one God. Jews and Muslims obey the same God, but God asks each religious community to do different things. God judges us according to how good we are in our own religion, not according to somebody else’s religion.
The Holy Koran in surah 5 says, ‘If Allah had so willed, He could have made humans a single people, but He tests you in what He has revealed to you, so strive to compete in all virtues.’ My father says that this is one of the most important teachings of the Koran for both Muslims and everyone else in today’s world. Muslims fast everyday for the whole month of Ramadan, but only from sunrise to sunset. We can eat dinner after sunset and breakfast before sunrise. Jews have to go without food or drink for a full 24 hours on Yom Kippur. Each community must be faithful to its own religion.”
The king asked the Jewish boy, “What is Yom Kippur?”
“Yom Kippur teaches us that we must improve ourselves each year by changing some of our bad habits or behavior. We must admit we have done bad things and hurt people. We have to go face the people we hurt and make peace with them. This is not easy to do. My father says that to improve oneself takes lots of self-discipline. Fasting is good training in one of the most basic and difficult self-disciplines; dieting. It is easy to eat food that tastes good. But to limit yourself by restricting your diet every day, and not eating at all on Yom Kippur, is real challenge and helps Jews improve their self-control and spiritual self-discipline. All faithful Jews who are 13 years or older, are commanded by God to fast on Yom Kippur, so I have not eaten since dinner last night. I knew fasting 24 hours on Yom Kippur would be a test of my will power, and my commitment to be a faithful Jew, but I never thought I’d be challenged by being tempted to eat a meal fit for a king.”
The king was very impressed by what the boys said. He was even more impressed by the boys’ self-discipline and commitment to be faithful to their own religious teachings. So the king told the boys to come to the palace the next evening, along with their entire family, and have dinner with the king and the queen. And that is what they did. The two families became friendly with the king and continued to eat dinner at the palace, each year.
One year, the king also tried to fast on Yom Kippur, but he was only able to fast until 4 pm when he gave up, saying “I couldn’t do it for even one day. I guess if you don’t start when you are young it is a lot harder than it looks.”
*In every generation Yom Kippur and Ramadan coincide at least 2-3 times. 2007 was the third year in a row that Yom Kippur ( 9/22/07) coincided with Ramadan.
After 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City Calif. Allen Maller retired in 2006. He is the editor of a series of High Holy Days prayer books; the author of a book on Jewish mysticism, “God, Sex and Kabbalah”; and the husband since 1966 of Judy Coopersmith. Visit his website at http://www.rabbimaller.com for more information.