FAST, FASTING (צﯴם, H7427, LXX νηστεύειν, Vul. jejunus. To abstain from food or the period in which the abstinence takes place.
I. Old Testament
A. Psychology of fasting. Abstinence from food and/or drink in times of distress is practiced among many peoples. In Scripture refusal to eat when under violent emotions such as jealousy, anger, and vexation is seen when Hannah would not eat when provoked by her rival (
Religious abstinence in Scripture often is accompanied by the putting on of sackcloth and ashes. This self-affliction seems to have as its basic psychology to say to the Deity, “I am penitent; I am not high and mighty. You need not afflict me further.” Perhaps also an appeal to the pity of the Deity is involved. The one case where a specific motive is supplied is that of David: “I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’” (
Patriarchal fasts are not mentioned specifically in Scripture. Fasting is mentioned first at Sinai when Moses refrained from eating forty days and nights while on the mount (
B. Occasions of fasting
1. Day of Atonement. By the law, “afflicting one’s soul” (עָנָה נֶפֶשׁ; LXX kakoun tēn psuchēn or tapeinoun tēn psuchēn) from morning until evening, is strictly demanded on the Day of Atonement—the tenth of the seventh month. The penalty for infraction is to be cut off from the community (
The rabbis ruled that one could not eat a quantity as large as a date on this day, and enacted other privations. According to the Mishna, Yoma 8:1, on the Day of Atonement it is forbidden to eat, or drink, or bathe, or anoint oneself, or wear sandals, or to indulge in conjugal intercourse. When the day fell on a Sabbath, the duty to fast took precedence over the normal manner of Sabbath observance (M. Menahoth 11:9).
Since this fast par excellence (cf. Philo, On Special Laws I, 186; II, 193ff.; Life of Moses II, 23; Jos., Antiq. 14. 16. 4; 17. 6. 4) came in the fall of the year, it might be used to indicate that the winter season was at hand, e.g., “the fast was now already past” (
2. Times of distress. In addition to the Mosaic fast, Israelites fasted without specific commandment on numerous other occasions in time of distress. Some were communal affairs while others were acts of the private individual.
a. War or the threat of it. Israel fasted at Bethel in the war against the Benjamites (
b. Sickness. David fasted and wept for his son while the boy was ill, but when the boy died, contrary to the expectations of his servants, he washed, anointed himself, went to the house of the Lord and then ordered food (
c. Mourning. The men of Jabesh-gilead fasted seven days for Saul (
d. Penitence. Calamities were considered manifestations of divine anger. Acts of penitence were therefore the way to end them. Perhaps in this light is to be interpreted the fast requested by Jezebel at which the fate of Naboth was decided (
After the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70 and sacrifice was no longer possible, fasting was allied in the Rabbinic view with sacrifice (T. B. Ber 17a). As a means of expiation it was preferred by some over almsgiving (T. B. Ber 32b), while others placed its value in the accompanying almsgiving (T. B. Ber 6a). Neither fasting nor confessing sufficed, unless they were accompanied by a practical amendment of conduct (T. B. Ta’an 16a).
h. Drought. By the 1st cent. a fast was the preferred method of appealing to the Lord for rain. If the fall rains did not make their appearance in due time, first individuals voluntarily fasted, but if this action was ineffective, a communal fast of three days was proclaimed. If no rain fell, three more days were proclaimed, and, if necessary, seven more days to make a total of thirteen. These were of increasing severity. At first eating and drinking after nightfall, washing oneself, anointing oneself, putting on of sandals, and marital intercourse were permitted. In the second period these were prohibited, and in the last period shops were closed except on Mondays after dark and on Thursdays. The shofar was blown (M. Ta’an 1:5ff). The individual could not dissassociate himself from the community at such times and refuse to fast (T. B. Ta’an 11a). These customs and other Jewish fasting practices are the subject of extended treatment in the Mishna tractate, Ta’anit.
3. Preparation for revelation. In the cases of Moses (
A weakened form of fasting might involve abstinence from wine, flesh, dainty food, and from anointing oneself for an extended period such as three weeks (
D. Participation of beasts in fasting. The unusual custom practiced in Nineveh, including animals in a fast (
E. Display in fasting. Fasting lent itself to external show and it is this feature of the practice which the prophets attack. The most vigorous attack is that made in
The Apoc. and Pseudep. extol the merits of fasting. Judith fasted each day of the week except upon Friday, the Sabbath, and upon certain feast days (
III. New Testament
In what appears to be a paranomasia: “disfigure (aphanizousin) their faces that they may appear (phanōsin),” Jesus castigated insincere fasting of hypocrites whose mournful faces were to be seen of men. In the cases of almsgiving and praying, they received that which they sought, namely, the praises of men. He charged the washing of the face and the anointing of the head that the fast not be seen of men but of God who sees in secret (
The claim of the Pharisee in the parable to fast twice in the week is in excess of any demand made of him (
Jews of Jerusalem pledged themselves not to eat until they had killed Paul (
IV. The second century church
In the 2nd cent., in addition to fasts twice in the week (Didache 8:1; cf. Disascalia 5:14) which days are chosen specifically to differ from the Jews who fast on Monday and Thursday (cf. M. Ta’an 1:3-7)—a fast by the baptized, the baptizer, and other members of the community who are able, preceded the baptismal ceremony (Didache 7:4). The Epistle of Barnabas allegorizes fasting as it does the other demands of the law (Ep. of Barnabas 3:1ff). Second Clement 16:4 evaluates fasting as better than prayer. Hermas calls fasting “keeping a station,” but proclaims the good life as the real fast pleasing to the Lord (Hermas, Sim. V. 1). He speaks of a fast in which only bread and water are eaten and the money which otherwise would be spent is saved to be spent on charity (Sim. V. 3).
Bibliography I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (1917), I, 121-128; J. F. Moore, Judaism (1927), II, 55ff.; 257ff.; SBK (1928), IV, 77-114; J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture (1940), III, 11f.; 456f.; J. Behm, TWNT (1942), IV, 925-935.