Joseph Clay, The Circle
“O you who believe! Prescribed for you is the Fast, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may deserve God’s protection and attain piety.” (Qur’an 2:183)
Fasting is an ancient practice whose purpose and benefit span across the three Abrahamic faiths. Practice still carried out today by many faith communities. It is mentioned in the Bible, Qur’an, and the Hindu scriptures. Buddhism requires the ascetic lifestyle of its monks, which includes fasting. It was practiced by many of the ancient communities, including Native Americans and Africans. Certain milestone events in those communities, such as weddings, reaching puberty, and mourning, are accompanied by fasting. Fasting for health reasons was practiced for thousands of years, and has well-known benefits.
Apart from religious and medical fasting, people also fast for political reasons, to raise awareness regarding a certain issue. This article will focus on fasting as a religious practice in the Abrahamic Faiths —Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and will synthesize the insights from three traditions regarding the benefits and purposes of fasting.
This article, organized into three main sections, explores the concept, textual reference and benefits of fasting as pointed out by the scholars in each of the three Abrahamic religions.
In Jewish tradition, fasting is total abstinence from food and drink. There are two major fasting days on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, but conservative Jews fast up to six days per year. Only Yom Kippur is biblically ordained, while the others are rabbinically ordained. Fasting on a Sabbath is prohibited unless it is Yom Kippur, in which case it is observed. Sexual relations are also prohibited on the two major fasting days.
Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most important of the Jewish Holidays. It is the tenth and final day of the Ten Days of Repentance, starting with Rosh Hashanah. Every man and woman who has of age (above the age of bar/bat mitzvah) and whose health permits fasting, should fast on this day. The fasting lasts 25 hours, from the sunset of one day to the nightfall of the other. In addition to total abstinence from food and drink, prohibited activities on this day include those prohibited on an ordinary Sabbath, such as striking fire and using tools. Additionally, leather shoes are not worn on this day, and women and men wear white garments as a reminder of a burial shroud and the Day of Judgment. The mood is solemn, humble, and repentant, but also happy with the knowledge that repentance brings redemption. The day is spent at Synagogue services, and holds five prayers, compared to three on regular days and four on Sabbath.
Tisha B’Av is the ninth day of the month Av in the Hebrew calendar, and falls on a July or August on the Gregorian calendar. It marks the end of a three-week mourning period and commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Similar to Yom Kippur, the fast lasts 25 hours. Some Jews also observe additional prohibitions on certain daily activities. The Sabbath observance has precedence over this fast, however, and observance is delayed to a Sunday if it falls on Sabbath. The mood is melancholic. In addition to those two major fasting days, there is minor fasting days when fasting is observed from dawn to sunset. The four minor fasting days are the Fast of Gedaliah, the Fast of the 10th of Tevet, the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, and the Fast of Esther. There are also other days of fasting which are not universally observed. In addition to fasts tied to certain dates, there are also fasts tied to certain occasions, such as fasting of the bride and groom before their wedding ceremony, fasting of a firstborn, fasts of repentance of certain acts, or fasts to avoid an impending calamity. It should be noted that unlike some other traditions, the fasts in Judaism, specifically those that commemorate and mourn important events, are not ended with feasts.
Three purposes of fasting are commonly quoted by Jewish scholars. First is the atonement of previous wrongdoings:
Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. (Joel, 2:12-13)
While fasting itself does not provide redemption, it makes oneself more conducive to feel regret for past errors. The “affliction of souls” in Leviticus, 23:27, 29, 32; Numbers, 29:7 is also interpreted in this context. The term translated as “affliction of souls” also has the meaning “to busy one’s self with” for fasting is an opportunity to busy one’s self with spiritual matters by accompanying the fast with reading the holy text and engaging in prayers. Focusing more on spiritual, rather then corporeal aspects of life, is also pointed out in the Midrash—that fasting can elevate a soul to the exalted level of the Mal’achay HaSharait—ministering angels. Also, as past errors bring about catastrophes, sincere repentance is a way, probably the only way, to avert pending catastrophes:
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. (Jonah 3:3-5)
The second purpose of fasting is mourning, at individual and collective levels. The following verse is an example of individual mourning:
When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard of what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their valiant men journeyed through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days. (I Samuel 31:11-14)
Fasting and mourning has an implied connection, just like when a loved one dies, we do not feel like eating, food becomes insignificant to us. Also, we repent for the mistakes we did to that person, and seek forgiveness.
Collective mourning for catastrophes that befell earlier communities is also an important dimension of fasting, such as the events mentioned in the following verses:
On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. (Jeremiah 52:12-13)
Mourning results in awareness in what is lost, and in rejoice when the loss is regained. It also creates a spiritual unity with earlier generations, and a renewed commitment to common goals.
The third purpose is one of gratitude. By abstinence from basic needs, one realizes his/her dependence on God, and appreciates all the sustenance provided by God to His creation.
Fasting has different meanings in different Christian denominations. It is mostly a partial fast, so practice widely differs.
Roman Catholics define fasting as the reduction in food intake for one full meal and two small meals (morning and evening). Solid food intake between meals is not permitted. Abstinence is defined as avoiding meat for a particular day, and partial abstinence is consuming meat only once during a day. The regulations of fasting evolved several times according to the decrees of Vatican. According to today’s regulations, there are two obligatory fasting days for Roman Catholics: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence. Voluntary fasting is encouraged and practiced. In addition to these, Roman Catholics also observe Eucharistic fasting, i.e. avoiding all food and drink except water for, according to current regulations, the duration of an hour before receiving the Holy Communion during the Mass. Some Catholics still live by the older regulations, which prescribed the start of fasting as the midnight of the previous day.
The Anglican Church follows a similar definition of fasting, but there is no distinction between fasting and abstinence, and regulations are less-specific. The Book of Common Prayer lists four periods as fasting days, which includes forty days of Lent and all the Fridays in the Year, except Christmas Day. There is no universal Anglican rule on fasting, so the provinces are free to choose what fasting days to recommend. Usually, fasting of Lent and Fridays are observed. The measures of abstinence are left to the individuals.
In eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholicism, fasting is an important discipline to protect oneself from gluttony, indulgence and over-consumption of food, drink, or intoxicants to the point of waste. Fasting is accompanied by almsgiving and prayers, and fasting without such acts is considered worthless. There are four main seasons of fasting, including Lent, but fasting continues throughout the year, on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fasting individuals cannot consume meat, dairy products, oil and alcoholic beverages, although the precise definition of these categories differs in practice. Eucharistic fasting is observed from midnight of the previous day to Holy Communion. There are also periods during which fasting is prohibited.
While early Protestants frowned upon fasting as an external practice, currently fasting is widely acknowledged and encouraged as an important spiritual experience among Protestant churches. For example, Lutherans encourage fasting during Lent, while United Methodists fast from sundown-to-sundown on Mondays to Tuesdays and Thursdays to Fridays.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints defines fasting as total abstinence from food and drink, including water. The first Sundays of each month is called Fast Sunday, during which members fast for two consecutive meals and donate the money saved as a result of fasting. The purpose of fasting in this tradition is achieving mastery of spirit over body. The members who want to solicit special help, including for earthly benefits, or those who want to become closer to God, are encouraged to fast. Jesus warned his followers against fasting only to make others admire them. He suggested practical steps should be taken to fast in private: When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18) In this context, the overarching goal of fasting is bringing the individual closer to the Divine.
According to the Old Testament, Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights while he was on Mount Sinai with God. (Exodus 34:28) and the New Testament states that Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights while in the desert, prior to the three temptations (Matthew 4:2, Luke 4:2). Hence, spiritual preparation is an important dimension of fasting. David practiced fasting for humbling his soul (Psalm 35:13). Abstaining from food helps one realize his/her inherent helplessness, and to understand one’s place vis-à-vis the Divine. This motivation can clearly be seen, for example, in Isaiah 58:3-13, where Prophet Isaiah admonishes the believers and calls to the real meaning of fasting.
Understanding the situation of the poor and the needy is also an important motivation for fasting. In fact, in most churches, fasting is mentioned had-in-hand with prayer and almsgiving. Fasting is the door to show mercy, and showing mercy to others is a petition to receive mercy from God.
In Islam, fasting is defined as total abstinence from food and drink, including water. Fasting also precludes sexual intimacy between spouses. Fasting individuals are also expected to abide by the highest moral values, i.e. no lying, no backbiting, no fighting or disputing, and not breaking the hearts of others.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars (i.e. core practices) of Islam. It continues from dawn to sunset for 29 to 30 consecutive days (a full Lunar month), and is mandatory for every Muslim man and woman above the age of puberty. The sick, elderly, pregnant and suckling women have permission not to fast, and can make up for it later by fasting equal number of days, or giving charity to those in need, especially if fasting poses a health risk. Menstruating women cannot fast, and make up for it in a similar fashion. The ritual of fasting is defined in a precise manner in the Holy Qur’an, so there is virtually no difference as to what it means and how it is practiced among Muslim communities.
In addition to Ramadan fasting, devout Muslims also fast on Monday and Thursdays, as well as 13th, 14th and 15th of each lunar month. Other voluntary fasting days include the day of Ashura (tenth day of Muharram), day of Arafat (ninth day of Dhu al-hijja), and six days of Shawwal.
The Qur’an states that fasting was prescribed by God upon the earlier faith communities, and proclaims the main purpose of fasting as achieving taqwa. While taqwa can be translated as righteousness or God-consciousness, it holds other meanings as well.
The first and foremost purpose of fasting is to follow God’s command of fasting. All benefits to be acquired by fasting, such as improving the health and understanding the helplessness of the poor people, cannot be the intention of the believer while fasting. Those are but ways to understand the Divine wisdom behind the command of fasting.
Many Islamic scholars have written on the subject of fasting. Said Nursi is one of these scholars who outline the many purposes of fasting in the 29th chapter of his book The Letters.
He first states that parallel to Christian and Jewish traditions, a major goal of fasting is to appreciate the bounties given by the Divine, which go unnoticed if not for fasting. Therefore, fasting creates an atmosphere for a sincere thanksgiving:
Many people cannot appreciate most of the bounties they enjoy, for they do not experience hunger. For example, a piece of dry bread means nothing to those who are full, especially if they are rich.
A second purpose, more in line with Christian tradition, is to understand the situation of the poor through hunger and thirst, thus create compassion and facilitate giving of charity:
… God invites the rich to help the poor. Without fasting, many rich and self-indulgent people cannot perceive the pain of hunger and poverty or to what extent the poor need care. Care for one’s fellow beings is a foundation of true thanksgiving. There is always someone poorer, so everyone must show care for such people. If people do not experience hunger, it is nearly impossible for them to do good or to help others. Even if they do, they can do so only imperfectly because they do not feel the hungry one’s condition to the same extent.
A third purpose is taming and humbling of the soul and protection against gluttony:
The carnal self desires—and considers itself—to be free and unrestricted. It even wishes, by its very nature, for an imagined lordship and free, arbitrary action. Not liking to think that it is being trained and tested through God’s countless bounties, it swallows up such bounties like an animal and in the manner of a thief or robber, especially if its wealth and power is accompanied by heedlessness.
Indeed, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, hints that fasting from food helps curb inclinations to sins, such as lust:
Whoever among you is able to marry, should marry, and whoever is not able to marry, is recommended to fast. (Bukhari)
Other purposes pointed out by Islamic scholars include perfecting moral behavior, focusing on spiritual needs and sacred text (rather then corporeal needs), creating bonds in the community through fasting and feasting together, and expiation for certain sins. The latter, related to atonement in Judaism, is directly mentioned in the Qur’an as the expiation of sins such as the accidental killing of a fellow human being and breaking of oaths to God:
God does not take you to task for a slip (or blunder of speech) in your oaths, but He takes you to task for what you have concluded by solemn, deliberate oaths. The expiation (for breaking such oaths) is to feed ten destitute persons (or one person for ten days) with the average of the food you serve to your families, or to clothe them, or to set free a slave. If anyone does not find (the means to do that), let him fast for three days.” (Al-Maedah, 5:89)
The three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, share a common ground in terms of faith and practices. Similar to prayer, fasting is common in three religions as well. After exploring the similarities and differences of fasting across the three faiths, it is evident that gratitude and thanksgiving are common purposes and benefits of fasting. While fasting to mourn is more specific to Judaism, fasting for atonement is more pronounced in Christianity and Judaism. Furthermore, fasting to facilitate charity, to gain mastery of soul, to achieve humility, and protection from gluttony is more of a common goal between Islam and Christianity. Finally, using free time to focus on studying the sacred text and prayer is emphasized more in Judaism and Islam. While the emphasis placed on each purpose in this article is admittedly subjective, the great benefit of fasting spans across the three Abrahamic faiths irrespective of the length and time of the particular fast, and traces of all benefits and purposes can be found in all three religions.