Mar 012017

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in many Western Christian churches. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the six Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter and can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. Ashes were an external sign of repentance in the Jewish tradition which Christians maintained for Lent. This practice is found in the Gregorian Sacramentary of the late 8th century. Two centuries later, Ælfric of Eynsham, an Anglo-Saxon abbot, wrote of the rite of throwing ashes on people’s heads at the start of Lent. Most Protestant denominations discontinued the practice, but the Church of England maintained it for a number of years before abandoning it also.  Since the 1960s a great many Protestant denominations have taken up the tradition again in ecumenical spirit.

In the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance – a day of contemplating one’s transgressions.  Let’s distinguish between fasting and abstinence.  Fasting requires eating less than usual, while abstinence involves avoiding certain foods. You can fast without abstinence, and abstain without fasting. Historically the church “fasts” involved more abstinence than actual fasting.

According to the contemporary canon, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Roman Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal a full meal. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent, as was the Church’s traditional requirement before the 1960s, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

Ash Wednesday is exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday. The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 4 February (which is only possible during a common year with Easter on 22 March), which happened in 1598, 1693, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 10 March (when Easter Day falls on 25 April) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on 29 February are 2468, 2688, 2840 and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on 29 February only if Easter is on 15 April in a leap year starting on a Sunday.)

Practices concerning fasting and abstinence have varied widely over the centuries and from region to region.  The commonest rule of abstinence in Europe is to avoid meat, meaning that seafood in general is allowed. There are some rather dubious exceptions.  In parts of South America, especially in Venezuela, capybara meat is popular during Lent and Holy Week. In response to a question posed by French settlers in Quebec in the 17th century, beaver was classified as an exception and in 2010 the archbishop of New Orleans said that “alligator is considered in the fish family.” The canon law basis for the classification of beaver and alligator as fish seems to rely on the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, which bases animal classification as much on habits as on anatomy. Whichever way you justify this it seems pretty craven (and legalistic) to me. Either eat meat or don’t. Finding a way to eat meat whilst pretending legally to be avoiding it is rank hypocrisy.

It’s a bit over the top to give a recipe for Ash Wednesday given that it’s supposed to be a day of both abstinence and fasting.  Abstinence without fasting on traditional fast days is well attested in the Middle Ages but this is not appropriate even now for Ash Wednesday when both abstinence and fasting are recommended. Being a Presbyterian pastor I am not bound by any rules of discipline when it comes to Ash Wednesday, but I observe the day with fasting in a rather rudimentary ecumenical spirit.  In years past I occasionally practiced a more rigorous fast throughout Lent based on Medieval church law. But these were optional disciplines, self imposed.  Most of my friends, including Catholic clergy, were rather taken aback by the stringency of my fasting, but it was experimental as much as spiritual. I wanted to know what it felt like both physically and emotionally.

The thing is that in my (limited) experience, fasting improves the quality of feasting. An Easter dinner of roast lamb with all the trimmings is splendid always, but it is sublime after nearly 7 weeks without meat. In this regard, therefore, I see fasting as the natural partner of feasting. This little gallery may give you some idea of what to prepare today if you want to observe the beginning of the Lenten fast. The main point is to make it a real fast. Don’t gorge yourself on meatless dishes and then feel good because you have been abstinent. That’s not the point.  Fasting is fasting, not abstinence only.


Jun 072016


Today is the first full day of Ramadan in many parts of the world. The timing of events according to Islamic and Jewish calendars is always a bit tricky for me because this blog uses the Gregorian calendar as its baseline. Not only are Islamic and Jewish calendars lunar rather than solar, making them mesh badly with the Gregorian calendar, but the calculations of when days begin and end is also different. The Gregorian calendar uses midnight as the changeover point, but the Islamic and Jewish calendars use sunset (using several different definitions). Then there’s the question of whether certain times and dates for events are local or universal. You may recall, if you read the post, that Bahá’í’s, who use a calendar similar to the Islamic one, have fixed all their times and dates to local times in Tehran. This practice won’t work for the Islamic calendar because the faithful need to know prayer times in their local times, otherwise their whole daily routine would be thrown off. There is also the slightly arcane, but endless, debate as to whether times based on phases of the moon should be determined by astronomical charts and calculations, or by actual observations.

What this all comes down to is that I cannot exactly pinpoint for you when the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins (and ends). Without going into a whole song and dance about it I can tell you that today is the first full day of Ramadan in northern Italy, where I currently live, hence the first day of a month of fasting. Although Ramadan began yesterday at sunset, fasting does not begin until sunrise today, and will go on for a full lunar cycle.

The Islamic calendar is fully lunar, unlike the Jewish calendar which is partly lunar and partly solar. Lunisolar calendars, such as the Jewish calendar add intercalary days every so often to make sure that they stay reasonably close to the Gregorian calendar, whereas the Islamic calendar does not. Over time, therefore, Ramadan falls at different times of the solar year, moving back in the Gregorian calendar about 10 or 11 days each year. This year (2016) is especially difficult because the faithful have to fast during daylight hours, and in the northern hemisphere this month sees the longest days of the year, including the solstice. Australian Muslims catch a break, on the other hand.  The closer you live to the equator, the less this is a problem from year to year, but the closer you live to the poles, the more it matters. In my neck of the woods Muslims must finish eating and drinking well before 5 am and cannot resume until somewhat after 9 pm.  I am not Muslim, so this is not of concern to me, but I have friends and relatives who are, and they have already anticipated a trying month.


Ramadan ( رمضان) or Ramadhan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and the month in which the Quran was supposedly revealed to the Prophet. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month is spent by Muslims fasting during the daylight hours from dawn to sunset. According to Islam, the Quran was sent down to the lowest heaven during this month, thus being prepared for gradual revelation by Jibreel (Gabriel) to the prophet Muhammad. Therefore, Muhammad told his followers that the gates of Heaven would be open for the entire month and the gates of Hell  would be closed. The first day of the next month, Shawwal, is spent in celebration and is observed as the “Festival of Breaking Fast” or Eid al-Fitr . More about that in one month (assuming that I am posting in early July, which is in doubt at this point).

Islamic fasting involves more than just abstaining from eating during daylight hours. Throughout the duration of the fast itself, devout Muslims abstain from certain actions that the Quran has otherwise allowed, including eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse.[Quran 2:187] This is in addition to the standard obligation, generally observed by Muslims, to avoid that which is not permissible under Quranic or shari’a law at any time (for example, ignorant and indecent speech, arguing and fighting, and lustful thoughts). Without observing these standard obligations, fasting (sawm) is rendered useless and is seen simply as an act of starvation and nothing more. Fasting should be a motive to be more than usually benevolent to one’s fellows. Charity to the poor and needy in this month is especially beneficial.

If one is sick, nursing or traveling, one is considered exempt from fasting. Any fasts broken or missed due to sickness, nursing or traveling must be made up as soon as the person is able, and certainly before the next month of Ramadan. According to the Quran, for all other cases, not fasting is only permitted when the act is potentially dangerous to one’s health – for example, for those who are  elderly, and women who are pregnant, or nursing. They are permitted to break the fast, but this breach must be made up later. However, the question of what those suffering a permanent disease should do has not been fully resolved. One view is that they can waive the obligation to fast if advised by a medical expert. In this case some hold that they can provide a poor person with a meal for each day of fasting waived. Nonetheless, such a delinquent person must be willing to fast when healthy if at all possible.

Some important historical events during Ramadan are generally believed to include:

1 Ramadan, birth of Sayyid Abdul-Qadir Gilani

2 Ramadan, the Torah (Tawrat) was bestowed on Moses (Musa)

10 Ramadan, death of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid – first wife of Muhammad

12 Ramadan, the Gospel (Injil) was bestowed on Jesus (Isa)

15 Ramadan, birth of Hasan ibn Ali

15 Ramadan, In the Ottoman Empire, the sultan presented trays of baklava to the Janissaries in a ceremonial procession called the Baklava Alayı

17 Ramadan, death of Aisha bint Abu Bakr – third wife of Muhammad

18 Ramadan, the Psalms (Zabur) were bestowed on David (Dawood)

19 Ramadan, Ali bin Abu Talib was struck on the head by a sword

20 Ramadan, the Conquest of Mecca by Muhammad

21 Ramadan, Ali bin Abu Talib died due to injuries he sustained by a sword

Laylat al-Qadr is observed during one of the last ten days of the month (on an odd night). Muslims believe that this night, which is also known as “The Night of Power,” is better than a thousand months. This is often interpreted to mean that praying throughout this night is rewarded equally with praying for a thousand months (just over 83 years i.e., a lifetime). Many Muslims spend the entire night in prayer. Sects differ as to the most appropriate night, the 23rd and 27th being the two most popular.

You can find any number of Ramadan recipes online. There are no special limitations on what one can eat beyond the regular prohibitions against eating certain foods such as pork, or drinking alcohol. But if you are not going to eat or drink at all during daylight hours it is as well to plan carefully the pre-dawn meal (suhur) and the sunset meal (iftar). Suhur must sustain you through the day, and iftar must not weigh you down before bed. In the evening, dates are usually the first food to break the fast; according to tradition, Muhammad broke his fast with three dates. Following that, Muslims generally adjourn for the Maghrib prayer, the fourth of the five daily prayers, after which the main meal is served. Sunni and Shia traditions vary on this point.


Social gatherings, many times in a buffet style, are frequent at iftar. Traditional dishes are often highlighted, including traditional desserts, and particularly those made only during Ramadan. Water is usually the beverage of choice, but juice and milk are also often available, as are soft drinks and caffeinated beverages. In the Middle East, the iftar meal consists of water, juices, dates, salads and appetizers, one or more main dishes, and various kinds of desserts. Usually, the dessert is the most important part of iftar. Typical main dishes are lamb stewed with wheat berries, lamb kebabs with grilled vegetables, or roast chicken served with chickpea-studded rice pilaf. A rich dessert, such as luqaimat, baklava, or kunafeh (a buttery, syrup-sweetened kadaifi noodle pastry filled with cheese), concludes the meal.

Baklava is good to serve because of its long association with Ramadan. It is not difficult to make, although I’ve usually bought it from pastry shops because they often make it as well, or better, than I can make at home. It is normally prepared in large pans. Many layers of phyllo dough, separated with melted butter and vegetable oil, are laid in the pan. A layer of chopped nuts—typically walnuts or pistachios, but hazelnuts are also sometimes used—is placed on top, then more layers of phyllo. Most recipes have multiple layers of phyllo and nuts, though some have only top and bottom pastry.


Before baking (180 °C, 30 minutes), the dough is cut into regular pieces, often parallelograms (lozenge-shaped), triangles, diamonds or rectangles. After baking, a syrup, which may include honey, rosewater, or orange flower water is poured over the cooked baklava and allowed to soak in.

Baklava is usually served at room temperature, often garnished with ground nuts.

In Turkey, baklava is traditionally made by filling between the layers of dough with pistachios, walnuts, almonds (parts of the Aegean Region) or a special preparation called “kaymak” (not to be confused with kaymak). In the Black Sea Region hazelnuts are commonly used as a filling for baklava. The city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey is famous for its pistachio baklava and it regards itself as the native city for this dish, though it only appears to have been introduced to Gaziantep from Damascus in 1871. In 2008, the Turkish patent office registered a geographical indication for Antep Baklava, and in 2013, Antep Baklavası or Gaziantep Baklavası was registered as a Protected Geographical Indication by the European Commission. In many parts of Turkey, baklava is often topped with kaymak or, in the summer, ice cream (milk cream flavor, called “kaymaklı dondurma”).


In Armenia, paklava is made with cinnamon and cloves.

In Iran, a drier version of baklava is cooked and presented in smaller diamond-shaped cuts flavored with rose water. The cities of Yazd and Qazvin are famous for their baklava, which is widely distributed in Iran. Persian baklava uses a combination of chopped almonds and pistachios spiced with cardamom and a rose water-scented syrup and is lighter than other Middle Eastern versions. Azerbaijani pakhlava (made with walnuts or almonds) is widely eaten in Iran, especially in Iranian Azerbaijan.

In Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine, baklava is prepared from phyllo dough sheets, butter, walnuts and sugar syrup. It is cut into lozenge pieces.

Here is one of hundreds of recipes. Normally you buy the phyllo dough frozen. Choice of nuts, flavorings, etc. is entirely up to you. I’ve given a few choices.



For the baklava

1 lb walnuts, almonds, or pistachios, coarsely ground, plus more for garnish
½ tsp ground cinnamon, or to taste
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 lb unsalted butter, melted
16 sheets phyllo dough (thawed), cut in half

For the syrup

3 cups sugar
8 oz honey
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice or rosewater


Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350° F.

Combine the nuts, cinnamon, and breadcrumbs in a bowl.

Brush a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with some of the butter. Layer 10 pieces of phyllo in the dish, brushing each piece with butter before adding the next (keep the remaining dough covered with a damp towel).

Sprinkle a quarter of the nut mixture over the dough. Layer 4 pieces of phyllo on top, brushing each with butter before adding the next; sprinkle with another quarter of the nut mixture. Add 4 more phyllo pieces on top, brushing each with butter, then add another quarter of the nut mixture, 4 more pieces of phyllo with butter, and the remaining nuts.

Layer the remaining 10 pieces of phyllo on top of the nuts, brushing each with butter; brush the top piece with extra butter. Cut into the baklava to make strips, about 1 ½ inches wide. Then make diagonal slices, about 1 ½ inches apart, to create a diamond pattern.

Bake until golden, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Bring the sugar, honey, and 1 ½ cups of water to a full boil in a saucepan over medium heat and cook, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice or rosewater and boil 2 more minutes. Then let the syrup cool slightly.

Pour the syrup over the warm baklava. Let the syrup soak in, uncovered, at least 6 hours or overnight.

Garnish with extra nuts.