Writing in Opinion Journal, Lucette Lagnado on the almost mystical passion for fasting of the Jews of the Middle East (with thanks: Lily):
"I had a perfect role model: My Egyptian-born mother, who approached fasting with a passion and abandon that I haven't seen before or since. Even when there wasn't an official fast on the horizon, she would sometimes make one up. That was not uncommon among Jews of the Middle East, where faith was tinged with a sense of mysticism. Some great rabbis the world over and even ordinary folks, fasted on certain weekdays, believing it led to a greater state of holiness. One Jewish tradition has it that you can change the outcome of a bad dream by fasting. The illness of a loved one is another occasion: When I became grievously sick at 16, my mother fasted regularly, as if God would listen more closely anytime she made a plea on an empty stomach.
"My mother taught me to regard every fast, even the ones that were not biblically mandated, as sacred. The Fast of Tammuz. The Fast of Lamentations. The Fast of Esther. The Fast of Tevet. Even the relatively minor Fast of Gedalia, which comes one day after the celebration of the Jewish new year.
"My mother had a special passion for the Fast of the First Born. Held the day before Passover, it recalls God's final plague against the Egyptians, his decree that the Angel of Death go from house to house and slay all of their first-born children. The fast, which is only observed by the first-born in a family, is a way of expressing gratitude to God for saving the Jewish children from this fate."
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