General Information

Fasting is the practice of abstaining from food, either completely or partially, for a specified period. It is an ancient practice found in most religions of the world. Recent scientific research suggests that fasting may be healthful and, when engaged in carefully, may bring about heightened states of consciousness and sensibility. Traditionally, fasting has been a widely used form of Asceticism and a penitential practice observed for the purpose of purifying the person or of atoning for sins and wrongdoing.

Most religions designate certain days or seasons as times of fasting for their adherents, such as Lent, Yom Kippur and Ramadan. Certain events in the lives of individual persons have been considered appropriate times for fasting, such as the day or night before a major personal commitment. The vigil of knighthood is a historical instance of this practice. Prayer is supposed to accompany fasting. Fasting should be distinguished from abstinence, the religious practice of not eating meat on a specified day or at a designated meal.

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Fast, Fasting

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Fasting is the act of total or partial abstinence from food for a limited period of time, usually undertaken for moral or religious reasons. Religious dicta concerning fasting range from Zoroastrianism, which forbade it, to Jainism, which teaches that the believer's goal is a life of passionless detachment culminating ideally in death by voluntary starvation.

Nearly all religions promote or sanction fasting in some form or another. In primal religions it is often a means to control or appease the gods, a way to produce virility, or preparation for a ceremonial observance, such as initiation or mourning. The fast was used by the ancient Greeks when consulting oracles, by the American Indians to acquire their private totem, and by African shamans to make contact with spirits. Many Eastern religions use it to gain clarity of vision and mystical insight. Judaism, several branches of Christianity, and Islam all have fixed fast days, and usually associate fasting with the discipline of the flesh or with repentance for sin. Islam undertakes the annual fast of Ramadan, an entire month when Muslims are obliged to abstain from all food and water from sunrise to sunset.

In Judaism the day of atonement is the only public fast day prescribed by the law (Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:26-32; Num. 29:7-11). However, the OT also refers to many special public and private fasts, usually coupled with prayer, to signify mourning (1 Sam. 31:13; 11 Sam. 1:12), to show repentance and remorse (11 Sam. 12:15-23; 1 Kings 21:27-29; Neh. 9:1-2; Joel 2:12-13), or to demonstrate serious concern before God (11 Chr. 20:1-4; Pss. 35:13; 69:10; 109:24; Dan. 9:3). However, fasting that was not accompanied by genuine repentance and righteous deeds was denounced as an empty legal observance by the prophets (Isa. 58; Jer. 14:11-12).

Jesus himself apparently fasted during his so, called wilderness experience as a part of the preparation for his formal ministry (Matt. 4:1-2; Luke 4:1-2). However, the Gospels report that he spoke only twice about fasting, once to warn his disciples that it was to be a private act of simple devotion to God and once to indicate that it would be appropriate for his followers to fast after he left them (Matt. 6:16-18; 9:14-15; cf. Mark 2:18-20; Luke 5:33-35). It is clear that he did not stress fasting, nor did he lay down any rules concerning its observance as had John the Baptist and the Pharisees for their disciples.

The early Christian community did not emphasize fasting but observed it in connection with certain occasions of solemn commitment (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23). Moreover, Jewish Christians apparently followed the Jewish custom of fasting and prayer on Mondays and Thursdays until around the end of the first century when Wednesdays and Fridays were observed, probably in reaction against the Judaizers. However, such fasts were usually concluded by midafternoon and were not universally enforced. Also, from the second century on, two intensive fast days were observed in preparation for Easter.

In the fourth century, when Christianity finally became the only recognized faith of the Roman Empire, the consequent institutionalization of the church led to a much greater stress on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting thus became increasingly linked with a legalistic theology and the concept of meritorious works. For example, the early church's two-day fast before Easter came, in the fourth century, to be a Lenten observance of forty fast days, which by the tenth century was obligatory upon the entire Western church. In addition, fasting was a common element of discipline in the early monastic communities from the second century onward. When the monastic way replaced martyrdom as the highest act of devotion of the Christian life in the fourth century, monastic practices such as fasting were also elevated in the eyes of the faithful.

The church of Rome added a number of fast days to the calendar of the Christian year during the Middle Ages. It adopted the days of the chief agricultural operations in Italy as obligatory fasts called ember days: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the first Sunday in Lent; Pentecost; and September 14. A fourth season of fasting from December 13 to Christmas was added later. Also during the Middle Ages the Eastern Orthodox Church added obligatory fast days beginning November 15 during Advent, from Trinity Sunday until June 29, and the two weeks prior to August 15.

The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, with the exception of the Anglicans, rejected obligatory fast days along with much of the other prescribed ritual and formal religious acts of the Roman Church. The Anabaptists, more than any other reform group of the period, relegated fasting once more to the private sphere, leaving it up to the individual believer to determine its appropriateness for enhancing self-discipline and prayer.

The Roman Catholic Church maintained its church calendar of fast days until the twentieth century, when it was modified by several acts related to Vatican Council II. Moreover, the modern Catholic approach has been to link fasting to the call to love one's neighbor and to see it as a symbol of the Christian's identification with the poor and hungry of the world. In some Christian circles, Catholic and non-Catholic, evangelical and nonevangelical, there is the growing custom of meeting for a simple repast and giving the cost of the normal meal to relieve world hunger as a kind of modern-day version of fasting. Twentieth century Pentecostal charismatics have written extensively about the benefits of the fast, nearly always linking it with prayer, as a means to deepen spiritual life and/or to obtain God's favor. Some charismatic leaders even claim that the course of history can be shaped by prayer and fasting.

As with any religious practice, there are dangers in fasting, especially when emphasized at the expense of other biblical teachings or misused for selfish ends. The Bible notes such abuses as fasting as a means of getting things from God, as a substitute for genuine repentance, as a mere convention and therefore an end in itself, and as an occasion for outward religiosity (Isa. 58; Zech. 7:5; Matt. 6:16). Moreover, there is psychological evidence that fasting lends itself to self-induced visions which sometimes prove harmful. On the other hand, there is biblical evidence that fasting and prayer practiced together can be a useful part of individual and congregational life, though the practice should never be allowed to degenerate into an empty formal observance or a device for attempting to manipulate God.

R D Linder
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

H. Franke, Lent and Easter; A. Wallis, God's Chosen Fast; J. L. Beall, The Adventure of Fasting; D. Prince, Shaping History Through Prayer and Fasting; E. N. Rogers, Fasting: The Phenomenon of Self-Denial; A. Cott et al., Fasting: A Way of Life; A. M. Fulton, ed., The Fasting Primer; D. Dewelt, What the Bible Says about Prayer and Fasting.


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The sole fast required by the law of Moses was that of the great Day of Atonement (q.v.), Lev. 23:26-32. It is called "the fast" (Acts 27:9). The only other mention of a periodical fast in the Old Testament is in Zech. 7:1-7; 8:19, from which it appears that during their captivity the Jews observed four annual fasts. (1.) The fast of the fourth month, kept on the seventeenth day of Tammuz, the anniversary of the capture of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans; to commemorate also the incident recorded Ex. 32:19. (Comp. Jer. 52:6, 7.) (2.) The fast of the fifth month, kept on the ninth of Ab (comp. Num. 14:27), to commemorate the burning of the city and temple (Jer. 52:12, 13). (3.) The fast of the seventh month, kept on the third of Tisri (comp. 2 Kings 25), the anniversary of the murder of Gedaliah (Jer. 41:1, 2). (4.) The fast of the tenth month (comp. Jer. 52:4; Ezek. 33:21; 2 Kings 25:1), to commemorate the beginning of the siege of the holy city by Nebuchadnezzar. There was in addition to these the fast appointed by Esther (4:16).

Public national fasts on account of sin or to supplicate divine favour were sometimes held. (1.) 1 Sam. 7:6; (2.) 2 Chr. 20:3; (3.) Jer. 36:6-10; (4.) Neh. 9:1. There were also local fasts. (1.) Judg. 20:26; (2.) 2 Sam. 1:12; (3.) 1 Sam. 31:13; (4.) 1 Kings 21:9-12; (5.) Ezra 8:21-23: (6.) Jonah 3:5-9. There are many instances of private occasional fasting (1 Sam. 1:7: 20:34; 2 Sam. 3:35; 12:16; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 10:6; Neh. 1:4; Dan. 10:2,3). Moses fasted forty days (Ex. 24:18; 34:28), and so also did Elijah (1 Kings 19:8). Our Lord fasted forty days in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2). In the lapse of time the practice of fasting was lamentably abused (Isa. 58:4; Jer. 14:12; Zech. 7:5). Our Lord rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocritical pretences in fasting (Matt. 6:16). He himself appointed no fast. The early Christians, however, observed the ordinary fasts according to the law of their fathers (Acts 13:3; 14:23; 2 Cor. 6:5).

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Orthodox Church Information

Just as there are times for feasting in the Church, there are also times for fasting. Jesus Christ Himself often fasted and insisted that the people fast as well (See Matt. 4:2, Matt. 6:16-18, Mk. 9:14-29, Acts 14:23).

The Orthodox Church, regarding man as a unity of soul and body, has always insisted that the body must be trained and disciplined as well as the soul. "Fasting and self-control are the first virtue, the mother, the root, source, and foundation of all good."

Fasting is not a set of dietary laws or legalistic requirements. Rather, fasting accompanied by prayer, is a spiritual aid which disciplines the body and soul and enables them to strive together to bring the whole person closer to God, especially during the preparation periods of the great feast days of the Church.

The following are fast days and seasons:

The following are fast days on which fish is allowed:

The following days are completely fast-free:


Catholic Information

In general abstinence from food or drink, a term common to the various Teutonic tongues. Some derive the word from a root whose primary signification means to hold, to keep, to observe or to restrain one's self. The Latin term jejunium denotes an animal intestine which is always empty. Such abstinence varies according to the measure of restriction circumscribing the use of food and drink. Hence it may denote abstinence from all kinds of food and drink for a given period. Such is the nature of the fast prescribed by the Church before Holy Communion (natural fast). It may also mean such abstinence from food and drink as is dictated by the bodily or mental dispositions peculiar to each individual, and is then known as moral or philosophical fast. In like manner the term comprehends penitential practices common to various religious communities in the Church. Finally, in the strict acceptation of the term, fasting denotes abstinence from food, and as such is an act of temperance finding its raison d'ĂȘtre in the dictates of natural law and its full perfection in the requirements of positive ecclesiastical legislation.

In Christian antiquity the Eustathians (Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. II, 33) denied the obligation, for the more perfect Christians, of the Church fasts; they were condemned (380) by the Synod of Gangra (can. xiv) which also asserted incidentally the traditional antiquity of the ecclesiastical fasts (Hefele-Leclercq, Hist. des Conciles. French tr. Paris, 1908, 1, p. 1041). Contrary to the groundless assertions of these sectaries, moralists are one in maintaining that a natural law inculcates the necessity of fasting because every rational creature is bound to labour intelligently for the subjugation of concupiscence. As a consequence, rational creatures are logically obliged to adopt means commensurate with the attainment of this end (see MORTIFICATION). Amongst the means naturally subserving this purpose fasting lays claim to a place of primary importance. The function of positive law is to intervene in designating days whereon this obligation must be observed, as well as the manner in which the same obligation is to be discharged on days authoritatively appointed.

What pertains to the origin as well as to the historical development of this obligation in the Church may be gleaned easily from the articles on ABSTINENCE and BLACK FAST. The law of fasting, ecclesiastical in its genius, is unwritten in its origin, and consequently must be understood and applied with due regard for the customs of various times and places. See the corresponding historico-archaeological articles in the various modern dictionaries and encyclopedias of Christian Archaeology, e.g. Martigny, Kraus, Smith and Cheetham, Cabrol and Leclercq. Details will be found under ADVENT; LENT; VIGIL; EMBER DAYS.

In the United States of America all the days of Lent; the Fridays of Advent (generally); the Ember Days; the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost, as well as those (14 Aug.) of the Assumption; (31 Oct.) of All Saints, are now fasting days. In Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and Canada, the days just indicated, together with the Wednesdays of Advent and (28 June) the vigil of Saints Peter and Paul, are fasting days. Fasting essentially consists in eating but one full meal in twenty-four hours and that about midday. It also implies the obligation of abstaining from flesh meat during the same period, unless legitimate authority grants permission to eat meat. The quantity of food allowed at this meal has never been made the subject of positive legislation. Whosoever therefore eats a hearty or sumptuous meal in order to bear the burden of fasting satisfies the obligation of fasting. Any excess during the meal mitigates against the virtue of temperance, without jeopardizing the obligation of fasting.

According to general usage, noon is the proper time for this meal. For good reasons this hour may be legitimately anticipated. Grievous sin is not committed even though this meal is taken a full hour before noon without sufficient reason, because the substance of fasting, which consists in taking but one full meal a day, is not imperiled. In like manner, the hour for the midday meal and the collation, may for good reasons be conscientiously inverted. In many of our larger cities this practice now prevails. According to D'Annibale (Summa Theologiae Moralis, 4 ed. III, 134) and Noldin (Summa Theologiae Moralis, n. 674) good reasons justify one in taking a collation in the morning, dinner at noon, and the morning allowance in the evening, because the substance of fasting still remains intact. Nothing like a noteworthy interruption should he admitted during the course of the midday meal, because such a break virtually forms two meals instead of one. Common sense, taking into consideration individual intention and the duration of the interruption, must finally determine whether a given interruption is noteworthy or not. Ordinarily an interruption of one half hour is considered slight. Nevertheless, an individual, after having commenced the midday meal and meeting with a bonafide interruption lasting for an hour or more is fully justified in resuming and finishing the meal after the termination of an interruption. Finally, unless special reasons suggest the contrary, it is not allowed to give immoderate length to the time of this meal. Ordinarily, a duration of more than two hours is considered immoderate in this matter.

Besides a complete meal, the Church now permits a collation usually taken in the evening. In considering this point proper allowance must be made for what custom has introduced regarding both the quantity and the quality of viands allowed at this repast. In the first place, about eight ounces of food are permitted at the collation even though this amount of food would fully satisfy the appetites of some persons. Moreover, the attention must be paid to each person's temperament, duties, length of fast, etc. Hence, much more food is allowed in cold than in warm climates, more to those working during the day than to those at ease, more to the weak and hungry than to the strong and well fed. As a general rule whatever is deemed necessary in order to enable people to give proper attention to their duties may be taken at the collation. Moreover, since custom first introduced the collation, the usage of each country must be considered in determining the quality of viands permitted thereat. In some places eggs, milk, butter, cheese and fish are prohibited, while bread, cake, fruit, herbs and vegetables are allowed. In other places, milk, eggs, cheese, butter and fish are permitted, owing either to custom or to Indult. This is the case in the United States. However, in order to form judgments perfectly safe concerning this point, the Lenten regulations of each diocese should be carefully read. Finally, a little tea, coffee, chocolate or such like beverage together with a morsel of bread or a cracker is now allowed in the morning. Strictly speaking, whatever may be classified under the head of liquids may be taken as drink or medicine at any time of the day or night on fasting days. Hence, water, lemonade, soda, water, ginger ale, wine, beer and similar drinks may be taken on fasting days outside meal time even though such beverages may, to some extent, prove nutritious. Coffee, tea, diluted chocolate, electuaries made of sugar, juniper berries, and citron may be taken on fasting days, outside meal time, as medicine by those who find them conducive to health. Honey, milk, soup, broth, oil or anything else having the nature of food, is not allowed under either of the two categories already specified. It is impossible to decide mathematically how much food is necessary to involve a serious violation of this law. Moralists as well as canonists concur in holding that an excess of four ounces would seriously militate against the obligation of fasting, whether that much food was consumed at once or at various intervals during the day because Alexander VII (18 March, 1666) condemned the teaching of those who claimed that food so taken was not to be regarded as equalling or exceeding the amount allowed (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum, tenth ed. Freiburg im Br., 1908, No. 1129).

Though Benedict XIV (Constitutions, Non Ambiginius, 31 May, 1741; in superna, 22 Aug. 1741) granted permission to eat meat on fasting days, he distinctly prohibited the use of fish and flesh at the same meal on all fasting days during the year as well as on Sundays during Lent. (Letter to the Archbishop of Compostella, 10 June, 1745, in Bucceroni Enchiridion Morale No. 147). This prohibition binds all exempted from fasting either because they are compelled to labour or because they are not twenty-one years old. Furthermore this prohibition extends to those allowed meat on fasting days either by dispensation or by Indult. Sin is Committed each time the prohibited action takes place. The ecclesiatical law of fasting embodies a serious obligation on all baptized individuals capable of assuming obligations provided they have completed their twenty-first year and are not otherwise excused. This doctrine is merely a practical application of a universally accepted principle of moralists and canonists whereby the character of obligation in human legislation is deemed serious or light in so far as the material element, involved in the law bears or does not bear a close and intimate relation to the attainment of a prescribed end. Inasmuch as fasting considered as a function of the virtue of temperance bears such a relation to the promotion of man's spiritual well-being (see Lenten Preface in the Roman Missal), it certainly embodies an obligation generally serious. To this a priori reason may be added what Church history unfolds concerning the grave penalties attached to transgressions of this law. The sixty-ninth of the Apostolic Canons decrees the degradation of bishops, priests, deacons, lectors or chanters failing to fast during Lent, and the excommunication of laymen, who fail in this way. The fifty-sixth canon of the Trullan Synod (692) contains similar regulations. Finally Alexander VII (24 Sept., 1665) condemned a proposition formulated in the following terms: Whoso violates the ecclesiastical law of fasting to which he is bound does not sin mortally unless he acts through contempt or disobedience (Denzinger, op. cit., no. 1123). Though this obligation is generally serious, not every infraction of the law is mortally sinful. Whenever transgressions of the law fail to do substantial violence to the law, venial sins are committed. Inability to keep the law of fasting and incompatibility of fasting with the duties of one's state in life suffice by their very nature, to extinguish the obligation because as often as the obligation of positive laws proves extremely burdensome or irksome the obligation is forthwith lifted. Hence, the sick, the infirm, convalescents, delicate women, persons sixty years old and over, families whose members cannot have the necessaries for a full meal at the same time, or who have nothing but bread, vegetables or such like viands, those to whom fasting brings loss of sleep or severe headaches, wives whose fasting incurs their husband's indignation, children whose fasting arouses parent's wrath; in a word, all those who can not comply with the obligation of fasting without undergoing more than ordinary hardship are excused on account of their inability to fulfil the obligation. In like manner unusual fatigue or bodily weakness experienced in discharging one duty and superinduced by fasting lifts the obligation of fasting. However, not every sort of labour, but only such as is hard and protracted excuses from the obligation of fasting. These two conditions are not confined to manual labour, but may be equally verified with regard to brain work. Hence bookkeepers, stenographers, telegraph operators, legal advisers and many others whose occupations are largely mental are entitled to exemption on this score, quite as well as day-labourers or tradesmen. When these causes begetting exemption by their very nature, do not exist, lawfully constituted superiors may dispense their subjects from the obligation of fasting.

Accordingly the Sovereign Pontiff may always and everywhere grant valid dispensations from this obligation. His dispensations will be licit when sufficient reasons underlie the grant. In particular cases and for good reasons, bishops may grant dispensations in their respective dioceses. Unless empowered by Indult they are not at liberty to dispense all their subjects simultaneously. It is to be noted that usually bishops issue just before Lent circulars or pastorals, which are read to the faithful or otherwise made public, and in which they make known, on the authority of the Apostolic See, the actual status of obligahon, dispensations, etc. Priests charged with the care of souls may dispense individuals for good reason. Superiors of religious communities may dispense individual members of their respective communities provided sufficient reasons exist. Confessors are not qualified to grant these dispensations unless they have been explicitly delegated thereunto. They may, however, decide whether sufficient reason exists to lift the obligation.

Those who have permission from the Holy See to eat meat on prohibited days, may avail themselves of this concession at their full meal, not only on days of abstinence but also on fasting days. When age, infirmity or labour releases Christians from fasting, they are at liberty to to eat meat as often as they are justified in taking food, provided the use of meat is allowed by a general indult of their bishop (Sacred Penitentiaria, 16 Jan., 1834). Finally, the Holy See has repeatedly declared that the use of lard allowed by Indult comprehends butter or the fat of any animal.

No student of ecclesiatical discipline can fail to perceive that the obligation of fasting is rarely observed in its integrity nowadays. Conscious of the conditions of our age, the Church is ever shaping the requirements of this obligation to meet the best interests of her children. At the same time no measure of leniency in this respect can eliminate the natural and divine positive law imposing mortification and penance on man on account of sin and its consequences. (Council of Trent, Sess. VI. can. xx)

Publication information Written by J.D. O'Neill. Transcribed by Joseph P. Thomas. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

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