Fasting

Fast, fasting (צוֹם, H7427, LXX νηστεύειν, Vul. jejunus.

Abstinence from eating and drinking. It may be complete or partial, for a set length of Time or intermittently, and for religious or other purposes. It has been practiced in numerous societies for reasons as varied as to produce evidence of virility, to coerce or to appease a supposed god or Spirit, and to prepare for ceremonial observance.

Sometimes, instead of the single word “fast,” the descriptive phrase “to afflict the soul” is used, the reference being to physical fasting rather than to spiritual humiliation. This term is used in various parts of the Old Testament in the King James Version, but is the only one used to denote the religious observance of fasting in the Pentateuch (Lev.16.29-Lev.16.31; Lev.23.27; Num.30.13; Isa.58.3, Isa.58.5, Isa.58.10). NIV generally renders “deny” oneself or “humble” oneself.

Fasting might be partial, i.e. abstinence from certain kinds of Food, or total, i.e. abstinence from all food as well as from Washing, Anointing, sleeping. It might be of shorter or longer duration, e.g. for one day, from sunrise to sunset (Jud 20:26; 1Sa 14:24; 2Sa 1:12; 3:35). In 1Sa 31:13 allusion is made to a seven days’ fast, while Daniel abstained from "pleasant bread," flesh, wine and anointing for three weeks (Da 10:3). Moses (Ex 34:28) and Elijah (1Ki 19:8) fasted for forty days.

It is probable that these last three references presuppose a totally different conception of the significance of fasting. It is obvious that dreams made a deep impression on primitive man. They were communications from the departed members of the family. At a later stage they were looked upon as revelations from God. During sleep there is total abstinence from food. It was easy to draw the inference that fasting might fit the person to receive these communications from the world of spirits (Da 10:2). The close connection between fasting and insight—intellectual and spiritual—between simple living and high thinking is universally recognized.

Old Testament

Religious fasting was observed as a sign of mourning for Sin, with the object of deprecating divine Wrath or winning divine Compassion. The Prophets often condemn the abuse of the custom, for Israelites superstitiously thought that it had value even when not accompanied by Purity and Righteousness of life (Isa.58.3-Isa.58.7; Jer.14.10-Jer.14.12; Zech.7.1-Zech.7.14-Zech.8.1-Zech.8.23). Fasts were not necessarily religious in nature. They were commonplace when someone near and dear died, as when the inhabitants of Jabesh fasted after they had buried Saul and Jonathan (1Sam.31.13) and after the death of Abner (2Sam.1.12).

The only fast required by Moses was that of the Day of Atonement. Before the Babylonian Captivity it was the one regular fast (Lev.16.29, Lev.16.31; Lev.23.27-Lev.23.32; Num.29.7; Jer.36.6). During this period there are many examples of fasts on special occasions, held because of Transgression or to ward off present or impending calamity.

Samuel called for such a fast (1Sam.7.6); Jehoiakim proclaimed a fast after Baruch had read the condemnatory word of the Lord given through Jeremiah (Jer.36.9); Jezebel hypocritically called a fast when she sought to secure Naboth’s Vineyard (1Kgs.21.9, 1Kgs.21.12). We read of individuals who were moved to fastfor example, David, when his child became ill (2Sam.12.16, 2Sam.12.21-2Sam.12.23), and Ahab on hearing his doom (1Kgs.21.27).

Days of Fasting

After the Captivity, four annual fasts were held in memory of the national calamities through which the nation had passed. They are mentioned only in Zech.7.1-Zech.7.7; Zech.8.19. These fasts, established during the Captivity, were held in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months.

The Mishna Taarith, iv, 6 and Jerome in Zachariam, viii give information on the historical events that these fasts were intended to commemorate. By the time of Christ they had fallen into disuse and were not revived until after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. In Rabbinic times the Feast of Purim, the origin of which is explained in Esther (9:31-32), was accompanied by a fast in commemoration of the fast of Esther, Mordecai, and the Jews (Esth.4.1-Esth.4.3, Esth.4.15-Esth.4.17). The Old Testament gives a number of instances of other fasts in which the whole people joined (Ezra.8.21-Ezra.8.23; Neh.9.1). Examples of fasts by individuals are given in Neh.1.4 and Dan.9.3. A fast of great strictness was proclaimed by the heathen king of Nineveh to avert the destruction threatened by the Lord through Jonah (Jonah.3.5).

What follows is a list of the days of fasting in the Jewish sacred year. Both Isaiah (Isa.58.3-Isa.58.10) and Jesus (Matt.6.16-Matt.6.18) comment on this practice:

  • 17 Tammuz (Jun-Jul): Breaking through the walls of Jerusalem (Second Temple)
  • 9 Ab (Jul-Aug): Destruction of the Temple
  • 3 Tishri (Sept-Oct): Fast of Gedaliah
  • 10 Tishri: Day of Atonement
  • 10 Tebeth (Dec-Jan): Beginning of the siege on Jerusalem (Second Temple)
  • 13 Adar (Feb-Mar): Fast of Esther
  • 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).

    Occasions of fasting

    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 nodetitle—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 calendarZad 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 observanceM. Menahoth 11:9.

    Since this fast par excellencecf. 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 10Vegetius, 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).

    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.


    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.).


    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).


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


    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 nodetitle at which the fate of 1 Kings 21 freelink-error-Naboth] was decided (1 Kings 21">[Freelinking: unknown plugin indicator "Naboth] was decided (<bibleref ref="1Kgs.21.9">1 Kings 21"] 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 sacrificeT. B. Ber 17a. As a means of expiation it was preferred by some over almsgivingT. 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.






    By the 1st century 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.

    Preparation for revelation

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

    Length of fasts


    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.).

    Participation of beasts in fasting

    The unusual custom practiced in nodetitle, including animals in a fast (Jonah 3:7), is also attested for Jews (Judg 4:10-13).

    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).

    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 century 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.

    Prayer and fasting frequently are associated together. Anna served God with fasting (Luke 2:37). Certain Demons could be cast out only by fasting in Matt 17:21 and Mark 9:29. Although those references are regarded by some textual scholars as corruptions of the text. The NIV includes them only as part of a footnote.


    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.

    Jesus and Fasting

    Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness, but it is not clear whether this fast was voluntary or not. There is no reason to doubt that he observed the usual prescribed public fasts, but neither by practice nor by precept did he stress fasting. Jesus was so unascetic in his ordinary mode of life that he was reproached with being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matt.11.19; Luke.7.34). In all his teaching he spoke of fasting only twice, in the following passages:

  • Matt.6.16-Matt.6.18. In this passage voluntary fasting is presupposed as a religious exercise, but Jesus warns against making it an occasion for a parade of Piety. The important thing is Purity and honesty of intention. Fasting should be to God, not to impress men. Jesus approves of fasting if it is an expression of inner Contrition and Devotion. The externalism of the Pharisees had its own reward.
  • Matt.9.14-Matt.9.17; Mark.2.18-Mark.2.22; Luke.5.33-Luke.5.39. Here the disciples of John and of the nodetitle ask Jesus, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus replies that fasting, which is a sign of Mourning, would be inconsistent with the Joy that should characterize whose who know that the Messiah has finally come and is now with them. The time will come, however, when he will be taken away, and then his disciples will mourn. It is obvious that the reference to his being taken away is to his Crucifixion, not his Ascension, for the ascension, signifying the completion of his redemptive work, is no occasion for mourning. Jesus here sanctions fasting, as he does in the Sermon on the Mount; but he refuses to force it on his disciples. In the parables of the old wineskins and the old garment he shows that fasting belongs to the body of old observances and customs and is not congruous with the liberty of the gospel. The new era that he inaugurates must have new forms of its own.
  • The Early Church and Fasting

    There is some evidence of fasting in the early church, but it seems not to have had so much emphasis then as, in certain branches of the church, it received in postbiblical times. The Book of Acts has a few direct references to fasting. The church at Antioch fasted and prayed before sending out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries (Acts.13.2-Acts.13.3). On Paul’s first missionary journey, elders were appointed in every church, with prayer and fasting (Acts.14.23). The reference to the fasting of Cornelius (Acts.10.30), found in KJV and many manuscripts, is omitted by many versions (e.g., niv). The only other direct references to fasting in the New Testament are found in 2Cor.6.5 and 2Cor.11.27, where Paul describes his sufferings for Christ; and here, most likely, he has in mind involuntary fasting.

    Apocrypha

    The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha extol the merits of fasting. Judith fasted each day of the week except upon Friday, the nodetitle, 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). nodetitle 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).

    The second century church

    In the 2nd century, 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.

    Thoughts on Religious v. Theraputic Fasting

    It is necessary to get rid of some modern notions associated with fasting before we can form a correct idea of its origin and significance in the ancient world. For instance, in the case of many ailments the dieting of the patient is an essential part of the remedy. But we may readily assume that originally fasting was not based on the salutary influence which it exercised on the health of the subject. Considerations of therapeutics played no part in the institution. The theory that fasting, like many other ancient customs, had a religious origin, is in favor with scholars, but we must not assume a religious origin for all practices which in process of time came to be associated with religion.

    Many customs, purely secular in their origin, have gradually obtained a religious significance, just as purely religious customs have been dissociated from religion. It is also possible and, in the light of some usages, probable, that different motives operated in the association of fasting, as of some other customs, with religion. Scholars have been too ready to assume that the original significance of fasting was the same in all countries and among all nations. Robertson Smith in his Religion of the Semites advanced and defended theory that fasting was merely a mode of preparation for the tribal meal in which sacrifice originated, and came to be considered at a later stage as part of the sacrificial act. This hypothesis apparently accounts for the otherwise strange fact that both fasting and feasting are religious acts, but it does not give a satisfactory explanation of the constant association of fasting with the "wearing of sackcloth," the "putting of ashes on the head," and other similar customs. It is obvious that very different motives operated in the institution of fasting and of feasting religious observances.

    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.
  • D. E. Briggs, Biblical Teaching on Fasting, 1953;
  • H. von Campenhausen, “Early Christian Asceticism,” Tradition and Life in the Church, 1969, pp. 90-122;
  • NIDNTT, I, pp. 611-13.
  • Nowack, Hebadische Archaologie;
  • Benzinger, Hebadische Archaologie;
  • Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites.
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