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 (
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 (
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 (
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 (
The only fast required by Moses was that of the . Before the Babylonian captivity it was the one regular fast (
Samuel called for such a fast (
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
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 (
What follows is a list of the days of fasting in the Jewish sacred year. Both Isaiah (
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 (
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 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 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” (
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 (
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 (
The men of Jabesh-gilead fasted seven days for Saul (
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 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
Length of fasts
Participation of beasts in fasting
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
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 (
Prayer and fasting frequently are associated together. Anna served God with fasting (
Jews of Jerusalem pledged themselves not to eat until they had killed Paul (
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” (
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 (
The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha extol the merits of fasting. Judith fasted each day of the week except upon Friday, the Sabbath, and upon certain feast days (
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 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.