During high religious holidays like Easter I often find myself asking why rituals are structured the way there are. For example, Lent – a period of forty days of fasting, penance, and almsgiving – coincides precisely with the six week stretch of the year when food is at its most scarce in traditional agricultural societies. The stores of food from the previous year’s harvest are mostly gone by early spring, but new crops haven’t yet matured. Creating a religious obligation to forego meat and drink and to be especially generous to neighbors in need makes perfect sense. The rich, who might otherwise be able to eat as they please even during famine times, are required to fast just like peasants. Lent turns an inevitable annual bout of hunger into a shared experience of communal solidarity. When Easter finally arrives there are feasts in celebration of the bounty of new life and resurrection of all kinds.
I was fortunate to be in Istanbul during the month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, self restraint, and charity. All faithful adults must fast and refrain even from drinking water from sunrise to sunset. Fasting involves personal discipline, the acknowledgement that others routinely suffer from want, and focuses the mind on spiritual matters. When the fast is finally broken at sunset communal meals are enjoyed after prayers. Long tables are set up in the streets and public areas. Everyone in society is invited to eat regardless of status or class. The bounty of the Iftar meal is shared by all.
I’ve spent many years exploring the town of Segovia in central Spain and have always taken special interest in the Juderia – the Jewish Quarter. After being abandoned by the failing Roman Empire Segovia was ruled by North African Arabs for eight hundred years. The art and architecture of Spain is heavily influenced by Islamic culture. Stability, prosperity, and tolerance were maintained in Spain while other parts of Europe devolved into the Dark Ages. Jews were a significant proportion of the population and enjoyed good relations with the dominant Muslim majority. As Christians gained control of the territory Jews were eventually expelled or killed.
Passover seders involve a series of stories and symbolic foods representing the bitterness of bondage under Pharaoh, the hasty exodus from Egypt, and the sweetness of freedom. The Passover tradition must have been particularly poignant to the Jews who endured the Spanish Inquisition. More recent generations of Jews who survived repeated pogroms and the Holocaust in Germany and Eastern Europe also must have gleaned some cold comfort from Passover rituals that connected their circumstances with previous generations for over 5,000 years.
My point here is that religious traditions often perform practical functions that help hold societies together when they might not otherwise do so.