Fasting

break fast

kol nidre by lazarovic

Fasting is primarily an act of willing abstinence or reduction from certain or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. An absolute fast is normally defined as abstinence from all food and liquid for a defined period, usually 24 hours. Other fasts may be only partially restrictive, limiting particular foods or substances. The fast may also be intermittent in nature.

Fasting practices may preclude sexual intercourse and other activities as well as food. Extended fasting has been recommended as therapy for various conditions by health professionals of many cultures, throughout history, from ancient to modern. Fasting is also a part of many religious observances.

In a physiological context, fasting may refer to the metabolic status of a person who has not eaten overnight, or to the metabolic state achieved after complete digestion and absorption of a meal. Several metabolic adjustments occur during fasting, and some diagnostic tests are used to determine a fasting state. For example, a person is assumed to be fasting after 8–12 hours from their last meal. Metabolic changes toward the fasting state begin after absorption of a meal (typically 3–5 hours after a meal); ‘post-absorptive state’ is synonymous with this usage, in contrast to the ‘postprandial’ state of ongoing digestion. A diagnostic fast refers to prolonged fasting (from 8–72 hours depending on age) conducted under observation for investigation of a problem, usually hypoglycemia.

Fasting is often indicated prior to surgery or other procedures that require general anesthetics, because of the risk of pulmonary aspiration of gastric contents after induction of anesthesia (i.e., vomiting and inhaling the vomit, causing life-threatening aspiration pneumonia). Additionally, certain medical tests, such as cholesterol testing (lipid panel) or certain blood glucosemeasurements require fasting for several hours so that a baseline can be established. In the case of a lipid panel, failure to fast for a full 12 hours (including vitamins) will guarantee an elevated triglyceride measurement.

Fasting is often used as a tool to make a political statement, to protest, or to bring awareness to a cause. A hunger strike is a method of non-violent resistance in which participants fast as an act of political protest, or to provoke feelings of guilt, or to achieve a goal such as a policy change. A spiritual fast incorporates personal spiritual beliefs with the desire to express personal principles, commonly in the context of a social injustice. In 1929, Jatin Das (who fasted to death) and Bhagat Singh fasted for 116 days while protesting the British colonization of India. They surpassed the 97 day world record for hunger strikes set by an Irish revolutionary. The political and religious leader Mohandas K. Gandhi undertook several long fasts as political and social protests. Gandhi’s fasts had a significant impact on the British Raj and the Indian population generally.

In Northern Ireland in 1981, a prisoner, Bobby Sands, was part of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, protesting for better rights in prison. Sands had just been elected to the British Parliament and died after 66 days of not eating. His funeral was attended by 100,000 people and the strike ended only after 9 other men died. In all, ten men survived without food for 46 to 73 days, taking only water and salt. Mexian American labor activist César Chávez undertook a number of spiritual fasts, including a 25-day fast in 1968 promoting the principle of nonviolence, and a fast of ‘thanksgiving and hope’ to prepare for prearranged civil disobedience by farm workers. Chávez regarded a spiritual fast as ‘a personal spiritual transformation.’ Other progressive campaigns have adopted the tactic.

Once when the Buddha was touring in the region of Kasi together with a large sangha of monks he addressed them saying: ‘I, monks, do not eat a meal in the evening. Not eating a meal in the evening I, monks, am aware of good health and of being without illness and of buoyancy and strength and living in comfort. Come, do you too, monks, not eat a meal in the evening. Not eating a meal in the evening you too, monks, will be aware of good health and….. and living in comfort.’ Fasting is practiced by lay Buddhists during times of intensive meditation, such as during a retreat. The Buddha’s ‘Middle Path’ (moderation) avoids extremes of indulgence on the one hand and self-mortification on the other.

Prior to attaining Buddhahood, prince Siddhartha practiced a short regime of strict austerity—following years of serenity meditation under two teachers—during which he consumed very little food. These austerities with five other ascetics did not lead to progress in meditation, liberation (moksha), or the ultimate goal of nirvana. Henceforth, prince Siddhartha practiced moderation in eating which he later advocated for his disciples. However, on Uposatha days (roughly once a week) lay Buddhists are instructed to observe the eight precepts which includes refraining from eating after noon till the following morning. The eight precepts closely resemble the ten vinaya precepts for novice monks and nuns. The novice precepts are the same with an added prohibition against handling money.

Fasting is a practice in several Christian denominations or other churches. Some denominations do not practice it, considering it an external observance, but many individual believers choose to observe fasts at various times at their own behest. The Lenten fast observed in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church is a forty-day partial fast to commemorate the fast observed by Christ during his temptation in the desert. This is similar to the partial fasting within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (abstaining from meat and milk) which takes place during certain times of the year and lasts for weeks. The Bible sets aside one whole day a year for fasting, ‘The Day of Atonement’ (Leviticus: ‘Everyone must go without eating from the evening of the ninth to the evening of the tenth on the seventh month which is the Day of Atonement’).

For Roman Catholics, fasting, taken as a technical term, is the reduction of one’s intake of food to one full meal (which may not contain meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays throughout Lent) and two small meals (known liturgically as ‘collations,’ taken in the morning and the evening), both of which together should not equal the large meal. Eating solid food between meals is not permitted. Meat is understood not to include fish or cold-blooded animals. Roman Catholics must also observe the Eucharistic Fast, which involves taking nothing but water and medicines into the body for one hour before receiving the Eucharist. The ancient practice was to fast from midnight until Mass, but as Masses after noon and in the evening became common, this was soon modified to fasting for three hours. Current law requires merely one hour of eucharistic fast, although some Roman Catholics still abide by the older rules. The Catholic Church has also promoted a Black Fast, in which in addition to water, bread is consumed. Typically, this form of fasting was only used by monks and other religious individuals who practice mortifications and asceticism, but all Catholics are invited to take part in it with the advice and consent of their Spiritual Director.

Fasting is particularly important to Eastern Orthodox Christians, and is tied to the principle in Orthodox theology of the synergy between the body (Greek: ‘soma’) and the soul (‘pnevma’). That is to say, Orthodox Christians do not see a dichotomy between the body and the soul but rather consider them as a united whole, and they believe that what happens to one affects the other (this is known as the psychosomatic union between the body and the soul). Saint Gregory Palamas argued that man’s body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul. Christ, by taking a human body at the Incarnation, has made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification. This same concept is also found in the much earlier homilies of Saint Macarius the Great. Fasting can take up a significant portion of the calendar year. The purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but according to Sacred Tradition to guard against gluttony and impure thoughts, deeds and words. Fasting must always be accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving (donating to a local charity, or directly to the poor, depending on circumstances). To engage in fasting without them is considered useless or even spiritually harmful. To repent of one’s sins and to reach out in love to others is part and parcel of true fasting.

In Protestantism, the continental reformers criticized fasting as a purely external observance that can never gain a person salvation. Martin Luther believed that a Christian may choose to fast individually as a spiritual exercise to discipline his own flesh, but that the time and manner of fasting should be left to the individual’s discretion, thus he rejected the collective diet rules and prohibitions imposed by the canon law of the Catholic Church. This position was upheld by Lutheran churches, in that collective fasting was not officially enforced, whereas individual voluntary fasting was encouraged. John Calvin argued that instead of relying on designated fasting periods, the entire life of the religious should be ‘tempered with frugality and sobriety’ in such a way as to produce ‘a sort of perpetual fasting.’ He believed that collective public fasting could only be appropriate in times of calamity and grief for the community. Similarly, the Swiss Reformation of the ‘Third Reformer’ Huldrych Zwingli began with an ostentatious public sausage-eating during Lent—though Zwingli himself did not partake of the sausage.

In general, fasting remains optional in most Protestant groups and is less popular than among other Christian denominations. In more recent years, many churches affected by liturgical renewal movements have begun to encourage fasting as part of Lent and sometimes Advent, two penitential seasons of the liturgical year. Members of the Anabaptist movement generally fast in private. The practice is not regulated by ecclesiastic authority. Some other Protestants consider fasting, usually accompanied by prayer, to be an important part of their personal spiritual experience, apart from any liturgical tradition. It is also considered to be an appropriate physical preparation for partaking of the Eucharist, but fasting is not necessary for receiving the sacrament. Martin Luther wrote in his ‘Small Catechism’: ‘Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but a person who has faith in these words, ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin’ is really worthy and well prepared.”

Classical Pentecostalism does not have set days of abstinence and lent, but individuals in the movement may feel they are being directed by the Holy Spirit to undertake either short or extended fasts. Although Pentecostalism has not classified different types of fasting, certain writers within the movement have done so. Arthur Wallis writes about the ‘Normal Fast’ in which pure water alone is consumed. The ‘Black Fast’ in which nothing, not even water, is consumed is also mentioned. Doctors caution that undertaking a black fast beyond three days may lead to dehydration, may irreparably damage the kidneys, and result in possible death. In addition to the Normal Fast and the Black Fast, some undertake what is referred to as the ‘Daniel Fast’ (or Partial Fast) in which only one type of food (e.g., fruit or fruit and non-starchy vegetables) is consumed, following the example of Daniel and his friends’ refusal to eat the meat of Gentiles, which had been offered to idols and not slaughtered in a kosher manner.

For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormonism), fasting is total abstinence from food and drink accompanied by prayer. Members are encouraged to fast on the first Sunday of each month, designated as ‘Fast Sunday.’ During Fast Sunday, members fast for two consecutive meals for a total of 24 hours. The money saved by not having to purchase and prepare meals is donated to the church as a fast offering, which is then used to help people in need. The late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley asked: ‘What would happen if the principles of fast day and the fast offering were observed throughout the world? The hungry would be fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered. … A new measure of concern and unselfishness would grow in the hearts of people everywhere.’ Fasting is also encouraged for members any time they desire to grow closer to God and to exercise self-mastery of spirit over body. Members may also implement personal, family or group fasts any time they desire to solicit special blessings from God, including health or comfort for themselves and/or others.

Fasting is a very integral part of the Hindu religion. Individuals observe different kinds of fasts based on personal beliefs and local customs. Some Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Ekadasi, Pradosha, or Purnima. Certain days of the week are also set aside for fasting depending on personal belief and favorite deity. For example, devotees of Shiva tend to fast on Mondays, while devotees of Vishnu tend to fast on Thursdays and devotees of Ayyappa tend to fast on Saturdays. Tuesday fasting is common in southern India as well as northwestern India. In the south, it is believed that Tuesday is dedicated to Goddess Mariamman, a form of Goddess Shakti. Devotees eat before sunrise and drink only liquids between sunrise and sunset. In the North, Tuesday is dedicated to Lord Hanuman and devotees are allowed only to consume milk and fruit between sunrise and sunset. Thursday fasting is common among the Hindus of northern India. On Thursdays devotees listen to a story before opening their fast. On the Thursday fasters also worship Vrihaspati Mahadeva. They wear yellow clothes, and meals with yellow colour are preferred. Women worship the banana tree and water it. Food items are made with yellow-coloured ghee. Thursday is also dedicated to Guru and many Hindus who follow a guru will fast on this day.

Fasting during religious festivals is also very common. Common examples are Maha Shivaratri (Most people conduct a strict fast on Maha Shivratri, not even consuming a drop of water ), or the nine days of Navratri (which occurs twice a year in the months of April and October/November during Vijayadashami just before Diwali, as per the Hindu calendar). Karwa Chauth is a form of fasting practiced in some parts of India where married women undertake a fast for the well-being, prosperity, and longevity of their husbands. The fast is broken after the wife views the moon through a sieve. In the fifth month (Shravan Maas) of the Hindu calendar many celebrate Shraavana. During this time some will fast on the day of the week that is reserved for worship of their chosen god(s), while others will fast during the entire month.

In Islam, fasting for a month is an obligatory practice during the holy month of Ramadan, from ‘fajr’ (‘dawn’), until ‘maghrib’ (‘sunset’). Muslims are prohibited from eating and drinking (including water). They are also encouraged to temper negative emotions such as anger and addiction. Fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the Pillars of Islam, and thus one of the most important acts of Islamic worship. By fasting, whether during Ramadan or other times, a Muslim draws closer to God by abandoning bodily pleasures, such as food and drink. This makes the sincerity of their faith and their devotion all the more evident.

Muslims believe that fasting is more than abstaining from food and drink. Fasting also includes abstaining from any falsehood in speech and action, abstaining from any ignorant and indecent speech, and from arguing, fighting, and having lustful thoughts. Therefore, fasting strengthens control of impulses and helps develop good behavior. During the sacred month of Ramadan, believers strive to purify body and soul and increase their ‘taqwa’ (good deeds and God-consciousness). This purification of body and soul harmonizes the inner and outer spheres of an individual. Muslims aim to improve their body by reducing food intake and maintaining a healthier lifestyle. Overindulgence in food is discouraged and eating only enough to silence the pain of hunger is encouraged. For some Muslims, fasting may inculcate a sense of fraternity and solidarity, as they believe they are feeling and experiencing what their needy and hungry brothers and sisters are feeling. Those who are already poor and hungry are often considered exempt from fasting, as their condition renders them effectively fasting all the time; however, they still must refrain from eating during the day if they can. Moreover, Ramadan is a month of giving charity and sharing meals to break the fast together.

Fasting for Jews means completely abstaining from food and drink, including water, and can serve one or more of three purposes: Personal atonement, commemorative mourning, and collective gratitude (since food and drink are corporeal needs, abstinence from them serves to provide a unique opportunity for focus on the spiritual). Traditionally observant Jews fast six days of the year. With the exception of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), fasting is never permitted on Shabbat (sabbath), for the commandment of keeping Shabbat is biblically ordained and overrides the later rabbinically instituted fast days. Yom Kippur is considered to be the most important day of the Jewish year and fasting as a means of repentance is expected of every Jewish man or woman above the age of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah respectively. It is so important to fast on this day, that only those who would be put in mortal danger by fasting are exempt, such as the ill or frail (endangering a life is against a core principle of Judaism). Those that do eat on this day are encouraged to eat as little as possible at a time and to avoid a full meal. For some, fasting on Yom Kippur is considered more important than the prayers of this holy day. If one fasts, even if one is at home in bed, one is considered as having participated in the full religious service.

The second major day of fasting is Tisha B’Av, the day approximately 2500 years ago on which the Babylonians destroyed the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem, as well as on which the Romans destroyed the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem about 2000 years ago, and later after the Bar Kokhba revolt when the Jews were banished from Jerusalem, the day of Tisha B’Av was the one allowed exception. Tisha B’Av ends a three-week mourning period beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz. This is also the day when observant Jews remember the many tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people, including the Holocaust. The atmosphere of this fast is serious and deeply sad (in contrast to Yom Kippur which is a day of personal atonement). Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur are the major fasts and are observed from sunset to the following day’s dusk. The remaining four fasts are considered minor and fasting is only observed from sunrise to dusk.

Aside from these official days of fasting, Jews may take upon themselves personal or communal fasts, often to seek repentance in the face of tragedy or some impending calamity. Mondays and Thursdays are considered especially auspicious days for fasting. Traditionally, one also fasted upon awakening from an unexpected bad dream although this tradition is rarely kept nowadays. In the time of the Talmud, drought seems to have been a particularly frequent inspiration for fasts. In modern times as well the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has occasionally declared fasts in periods of drought. It is obligatory for a Jewish community to fast for 40 days within the year if someone in the community accidentally drops a Torah scroll or tefillin. This tradition has been widespread for many hundreds of years. The length of the fast varies, and some Jews will reduce the length of the fast through ‘tzedakah,’ or charitable acts.

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