Fast, Fasting

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 (1 Sam 1:7); when Jonathan abstained from eating in anger when his father cast the spear at him because of his relationship with David (20:34); and when Ahab refused food because he could not have Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:4). This type of abstinence has nothing to do with religious fasting.

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?’” (2 Sam 12:22). There is the humbling of oneself before God: “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days” (1 Kings 21:29).

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 (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9) and also after his breaking the tables of stone (9:18).

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 (Lev 16:29ff.; 23:27-32; Num 29:7; Jer 36:6). While neither the verb nor the noun for fast and fasting occur in this section of the Pentateuch, “afflicting one’s soul” equals fasting. This fast was observed by the Qumran community according to its calendar (Zad Frag 6) though the wicked priest is said “to cause them to stumble on the Day of Fasting” (1QpHab xi).

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” (Acts 27:9 KJV). Romans considered that sailing was hazardous after Sept. 11 and that it ceased on Nov. 11 not to be resumed until March 10 (Vegetius, De Re Militari iv. 39; Caesar, Bell. Gallico iv. 36; v. 23); while some rabbis considered travel on the sea to be possible from Passover to the Feast of Tabernacles (SBK III, 771).

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 (Judg 20:26); at Mizpah in the Philistine war (1 Sam 7:6); Saul had not eaten all day and all night before his visit to the witch of Endor (1 Sam 28:7-20). Fasting might be imposed upon warriors in a campaign (Judg 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6), though the evidence is insufficient to conclude that it always was demanded. Saul issued a curse on the man who ate before evening that he might take vengeance on his enemies the Philistines. Jonathan’s breaking his father’s injunction would have cost him his life had not the people intervened (1 Sam 14:24ff.).

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 (2 Sam 12:16ff.). The psalmist also mentions fasting for sick friends (Ps 35:13).

c. Mourning. The men of Jabesh-gilead fasted seven days for Saul (1 Sam 31:13; 1 Chron 10:12); David and the people fasted for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam 1:12); and the custom of fasting in mourning is considered normal behavior (12:21).

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 (1 Kings 21:9ff.). Ahab fasted—not in vain—after being threatened by Elijah for having taken Naboth’s life and vineyard (21:27). The general fast at the communal reading of the law by Ezra was an act of penitence (Neh 9:1).

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 (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9, 18) and Daniel (Dan 9:3) fasting was engaged in as a preparation for receiving revelation.


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 (Dan 10:2f.).

D. Participation of beasts in fasting. The unusual custom practiced in Nineveh, including animals in a fast (Jonah 3:7), is also attested for Jews (Judg 4:10-13).

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 Isaiah 58 when people complain that they have fasted and God has not seen (Isa 58:3). In contrast to the external display of bowing one’s head like a rush and spreading sackcloth under oneself (58:5), the fast pleasing to the Lord is to loose the bonds of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry, to bring the poor into one’s house, and to cover the naked (58:6, 7). Joel called for a rending of hearts and not of garments (Joel 2:13). The Lord refused to heed the fast of Jerusalem in her degradation (Jer 14:12).

II. Apocrypha

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 (Judg 8:6). This fast extending through all the days of her widowhood is considered an extraordinary act of piety. Jeremiah and others fasted (2 Bar 5:7). Ezra fasted in preparation for receiving visions (4 Ezra 6:31; cf. 9:24). Fasting in times of danger is attested for the Maccabean period (1 Macc 3:47; 2 Macc 13:12). Reuben (Test Reub 1:10) and Judah (Test Jud 15:4) fasted in penitence. Simeon fasted two years because of his hatred for Joseph (Test. Sim 3:4). Joseph fasted during the seven years he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife (Test. Jos 3:4; 4:8; cf. 10:1). Benjamin was born after his mother had fasted twelve days (Test. Ben 1:4). Fasting makes atonement for sins of ignorance (Pss Sol 3:8). Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness are jointly praised in Tobit (Tobit 12:8). But if one fasts and sins again, his humiliation is unprofitable (Ecclus 34:26).

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 (Matt 6:16-18).

The claim of the Pharisee in the parable to fast twice in the week is in excess of any demand made of him (Luke 18:12), but is paralleled in the church of the 2nd cent. in the exhortation to fast on Wednesday and Friday as contrasted to the fast on Monday and Thursday of the Jews (here called hypocrites; Didache 8:1). T. B. Ta’an 12 also attests the custom of fasts on Monday and Thursday and the pious might fast more often (Judg 8:6). A late source reports that Jews refrain from fasting on Sunday because of the Nazoreans (T. B. Ta’an 27b).


Jews of Jerusalem pledged themselves not to eat until they had killed Paul (Acts 23:12, 14). We are informed in Mishna Nedarim 5:6; 9:1f. that such vows were not considered binding in cases where they could not be carried out.

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.