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Fasting and funeral – Eid al-Adha

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 18.02.2006:

Fasting periods are important events. Both Moslem and Christian Palestinians fast. Fasting is a main duty for the Moslem. Each Ramadan Moslems fast for 29, 30 or 31 days depending on the position of the moon. From sunrise to sunset they eat nor drink. By doing so they remind themselves of the poor who do not have enough to eat. After sunset people start eating. In the old times people only ate dates, water and bread during the fasting period. Nowadays Moslems celebrate the end of the fasting day with rather copious meals, preceded by eating a date.

At the end of the fasting period, there is the Eid al-Fitr feast. On that day Moslems go, well-dressed, early in the morning to the mosque for prayers. Afterwards they visit their relatives and exchange presents. At this occasion, it is common to eat kaek and ma’moul, sweets made of dates and nuts. Lots of rice and meat are eaten, especially the well-known mansaff. Katayef is a sweet snack popular during Ramadan and sold on the streets.

The Christians fast during the forty days before Easter to observe Jesus’ fasting in the desert and his sacrifice for mankind. There are some differences between Catholic and Orthodox believers. Whereas the Orthodox keep the traditional rules, the Catholics tend to adapt themselves more to the requirements of daily life. During the forty days of fasting, the Orthodox abstain from eating meat and dairy products every Wednesday and Friday. There used to be a practice of fasting three full days before receiving the Eucharisty but this is now only done by the elderly and very devoted.

The Catholics refrain during the 40-day fasting period from eating meat but they do eat dairy products. Catholic customs are also more personal. A person makes his or her own decision how to fast. Somebody used to eat cake after dinner might decide to abstain from doing so for the duration of the fasting. In this way fasting becomes a personal deed of the individual believer. During fasting believers prepare vegetarian meals like stuffed eggplant with tabuleh.

At the end of fasting, the Easter feast follows. Then people prepare copious meals such as stuffed lamb (although nowadays, due to the deteriorating economic situation, it is common to serve small pieces). Like the Moslems, Christians prepare kaek and ma’mul. According to tradition, the shape of the cake refers to the spounge with acid given to Jesus while carrying the cross. Another sweet has the shape of the crown made up of thorns which Jesus wore. As in Europe, Christians customarily paint eggs during Easter.

Eid al-Adha, the slaughter feast

Eid al-Adha is the feast of the sheep. This celebration takes place 70 days after Ramadan and commemorates the moment when Abraham (Ibrahim) wanted to sacrifice his son Ismail. During this feast each family slaughters a sheep according to the instructions of the second pillar of Islam. The animal has to be one year old and should be healthy. Killing a lame or one-eyed lamb is strictly forbidden. The lamb should be slaughtered with a sharp knife to prevent suffering. When the animal is killed according to religious prescriptions one part will go to the lamb’s owner and his family, another party to the female relatives and a third part to the poor.

A proverb: “He fasted and fasted until he broke his fasting on a stinking onion.” He stayed a bachelor for many years until he finally married the wrong person.


When somebody passes away, both Moslems and Christians respect a three day mourning period. During these days friends and relatives visit the mourning family. Moslems do not serve special food. It is customary for them that the mourning family cooks the meals on the first day. On the second and third days the neighbours cook the meals. During this period the family drinks coffee without sugar to honor the memory of the relative who passed away.

Christians eat rice with lamb meat until the third day. On that day something special is served. Catholics serve kaek with doughnut. Orthodox serve burbura, a mixture of boiled corn and sugar topped with coconut, on a large plate. Each guest uses one hand to take a spoon full and a handkerchief, saying “May God have mercy on him/her.” During the three days mourning Christians do not drink alcohol, and, like the Moslems, they drink coffee without sugar.

Celebration of a new home

Many Palestinians build their own house supported by relatives, friends and neighbours. When the house is finished, the family prepares a big meal with rice and chicken to celebrate the final touch. The meal is accompanied by traditional songs and dances. It is an old ritual still alive in the Palestinian villages.

From: “Sahteen: Discover the Palestinian Culture by Eating”, published by the Freres School, Bethlehem, part of the Culture and Palestine series issued by the Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows, Bethlehem, 1999. To order the book, send a mail to

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