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Food plays important roles in world religions
September 24, 2013 - Anita Hanaburgh
Pope Francis didn’t eat much last Saturday as he was fasting and praying for Syria, and hundreds of thousands of Christians across the globe joined him.
“How many conflicts, how many wars have mocked our history?” Francis said. “Invoking the help of God is possible for everyone.”
According to Time online, the World Council of Churches, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and religious leaders around the world urged their followers to join the Pope’s call and spend Saturday in prayer and fasting.
Practices such as fasting are described as tenets of faith by numerous religions.
Since the beginning of time, dietary practices have been incorporated into the religions of people around the world. People of some religions abstain or are forbidden from consuming certain foods and drinks. Some religions restrict foods and drinks during their holy days, fasting for a meal or for days at a time. Some prepare certain foods or prepare certain foods in a special way on their special days. Many use food as part of special religious rituals. Food has always be an integral part of the traditions and practices of religion.
For many believers, following their religions’ food “rules” is one of the steps on the ladder to heaven, nirvana or some other variety of eternal reward.
Last year, I took a course called World Religions at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. Having traveled to many countries and noting different religious practices, I was interested in learning the “whys” of the major religions.
Growing up Catholic, I knew the Christian beliefs, but I also wanted to know what I should be eating or what I shouldn’t be eating or shouldn’t ask to eat when I travel. The course was very helpful. For example, I learned that early biblical writings, especially those found in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy of the Old Testament (and in the Torah), outlined dietary practices now followed by Christians and Jews today.
In the next few weeks, I will share the role of food as it is practiced in major religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. As my mom would say, “Everything is the same and everything is different.” I found that, mostly, everything is the same or at least similar when it comes to religious food practices.
Some religions refrain from the consumption of particular foods. Many forbidden foods, such as pork, are the foods that are the most perishable, such as meats or dairy, or they are food from possibly tainted waters, such as clams. These food practices may have started as a method for keeping believers safe from tainted or unclean food. Because many religions began during a time when refrigeration and the use of sanitary faculties did not exist, religious leaders may have started rituals actually as safe-food practices.
I also think these practices may have begun because of the scarcity of some food. For example, the sacred cow could not be eaten if it was needed in the field. Meat is not eaten on Fridays because fish was plentiful and meat was not. Some religions have food practices or rules that keep the body in general good health. Most religions have some directive to keeping your body in good shape because they believe that the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit”?(I Corinthians 6:19-20) or “The only thing you really own on Earth” (yoga master Ravi Singh).
The restriction of or abstention from certain foods may have a direct impact on the health of those engaged in such practices. Some effects have been found to be positive, as in the case of vegetarian diets, and some can be negative, such as extreme fasting.
Some religions actually set guidelines for health, as in the Mormon book the “Words of Wisdom.” In Islam, food regulations are believed to come directly from God’s word in the Qur’an. The health benefits — many now confirmed by science — are believed to be secondary to God’s commandments.
Common to many religions is the restricting or forbidding the use of stimulants or depressants. These are products, foods or drinks that excite or depress the nervous system and change the natural physiology of the body, such as drugs, tobacco, alcohol or caffeine. The use of these products is prohibited by many religions because of addictive properties and harmful physical effects.
Overindulgence in any food or drink is frowned upon in most religions. Gluttony is the sin of overindulgence in and overconsumption of anything, including food and drink. In Christian denominations, it is considered a sin because the excessive desire for food is selfish and it keeps food from the needy. Islam feels that life should be ruled by Allah’s ideas, not by our desire. Buddhists feel it is bad for the body.
Fasting is practiced by most religions in some form or other. Basically, it is refraining from all food or a specific food or drink for a specified period of time. Most religions see fasting as a disciplined regimen that aids in prayer and meditation. It can also show a degree of sacrifice toward faith and a willingness to follow a law no matter how difficult. Fasting also is used as a gift or offering as a thank-you or a request for help.
And it actually occurred to me that maybe the new hope for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict was literally an “answer”?to a lot of prayers and fasting.
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