History of Fasting: A Brief History of Fasting

Fasting, or abstincence from food and frequently also from drinking) for an extended period of time, is certainly not new. It has actually been practiced for hundreds of years associated with spiritual ceremonies. Fasts are performed in all of the world’s major religions, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Confucianists, Hindus, Taoists, to name a few. Even though Buddhism emphasizes discipline  in eating instead of fasting, Buddhists in certain countries around the world, notably Tibet, do fast from time to time.

Initially, fasting had been one of various rituals where activities were decreased or stopped, producing a condition of repose equivalent, symbolically, to death, or to the condition prior to birth. Fasting was also done as part of fertility rituals in ancient ceremonies.

A number of these ceremonies were carried out during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and continued to be observed for centuries. Many historians link the emblematic utilization of matzo (unleavened bread) by Jews through the springtime celebration of Pesach (Passover), with these early beginnings. Remnants of those ancient rituals are also present in fasting done by Christians all through Lent prior to Easter.

In addition to fertility, fasting was often done to prevent catastrophe or as penitence for sin. Indigenous North American Indians did tribal fasts to find favor with the spirits and thus receive assistance in the prevention of looming threats and/or disasters. The Native Americans of Mexico as well as the Incas of Peru fasted regularly to “appease” the wrath of their respective gods.

In the ancient world, the Assyrians and also the Babylonians particularly, fasted as a form of penance. The jewish people also fast for purificaton and forgiveness of sins annually on “Yom Kippur” (The Day of Atonement). Yom Kippur has been observed four thousands of years since its inception by Moses as read in Leviticus 23:27.

The passage described that on that Holy Day, no work should be done. The text goes on to explain the unique rites that the priests did to absolve the people from their sins. One of these rituals removes the people’s sins and as a symbol puts them upon an animal that is consequently sent into the wilderness. This ceremony is the source of the phrase “scapegoat”. Muslims observe similar times of fasting each year during the month of Ramadan.

The historical Christian church also connected fasting with penitence and cleansing from sin (see Matthew 6:16; Mark 9:29). For the first 200 years after its inception, Christianity recognized fasting as something done in preparation for receiving Holy Communion and baptism, as well as for the ordination of new priests into the Catholic church.

While at first this type of fasting was done on one’s own volition, later on they became compulsory. In the sixth century lent fasting was broadened from the initial 40 hours, ( the amount of time that Christ spent in the grave prior to his resurrection), to 40 days of fasting from sunup to dusk – with only one meal allowed daily.

Following the Reformation (1517-1648), fasting was maintained by the majority of Protestant churches and became optional in certain instances. More stringent Protestants such as the Puritans, on the other hand, condemned not just the celebrations of the church, but also its fasting rituals.

Fasting was belittled from very early times. A lot of Old Testament prophets and Christian authors viewed fasting as being a meaningless custom carried out by individuals who were living in sin. In our contemporary world fasting is often sharply criticized, particularly by some in the medical profession.

Doctors and psychologists have questioned the worthiness of fasting for long periods of time as they maintain that it is sometimes harmful. Roman Catholic fasting days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In the US, fasts are done primarily by Episcopalians and Lutherans among Protestants, by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and by Roman Catholics.

The hunger strike, a type of fasting, continues to be used as a political tool. Countless political prisoners in several parts of the globe have engaged in hunger strikes to catch the government’s ear and bring attention to their cause. Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the battle for India’s independence, carried out fasts regularly to motivate his followers to resist violence and adhere to his cherished precept of nonviolence.



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16 Responses to “History of Fasting: A Brief History of Fasting”

  1. Hester on November 2nd, 2010 10:30 pm

    Amazing how fasting in ancient times had such profound meaning, whereas today most people do it for purely vain reasons (weight loss, anti-aging etc…).

  2. Robert Dave Johnston on November 7th, 2010 8:32 pm

    I just am happy that anyone would fast, even if it is only to lose weight and look better. Their health will get better with fasting and, I have found, the spiritual aspect of fasting sneaks in and often leads the person to be so enlightened and refreshed. :-)

  3. goerchi on November 11th, 2010 3:32 pm

    ASH Wednesday!! When are you pagan idoliters going to wake up? There is nowhere in the Bible where we have to rub ash on our heads as some sort of spiritual symbol, it is yet another man made tradition derived from pagan Rome! If you think false worship and idols are ok i suggest you read your Bible again, if any of you think this is the seal of God i pity you, the seal of God is in the 4th commandment, wake up!! Worship God, not man and his traditions.

  4. Robert Dave Johnston on November 12th, 2010 2:08 pm

    Goerchi I don’t see how your comment has ANYTHING to do with the discussion here. Cool it with the religious condemnation brother… I admire your zeal, but let’s use it to love and help others, not to judge and cut them down! :-)

  5. read on November 25th, 2010 11:55 am

    It's not the government's job to protect airplanes. It's job is to protect our rights. The planes' owners should protect their own property. They aren't burdened by the bureaucracy of the tsa, and it is very much in their financial interest to both prevent terrorism and to treat their customers with dignity and respect. You could prevent nearly all terrorism by checking ids, passports, and questioning of suspicious people by QUALIFIED personel and yes, checking out people from certain countries.

  6. fitchlaune krasilvy on December 22nd, 2010 10:54 am

    #Np GOoD FrIDay- Kanye West

  7. shuguomie on December 31st, 2010 11:49 pm

    Dear Vivator.

    The United Nation did the right thing in 1948. The Vatican dragged their feet. The problem was the Papal doctrines and teachings, that God of the Bible was finished with the Jewish people after the death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah.

    The state of Israel either became a hot potato, or a hair in the soup.

    Could it be possible that the eternal promises to the Jewish people are still valid?

    Could the existence of Israel be more a question of the character of our God, than a matter of how righteous the Jewish people are?

    To be pro-Messiah, and pro Israel, does not make a man anti those who are not. But the truth is painful for all who live in error, and decides to fight or ignore God of the Bible. His Words are the truth. His promises can be trusted.

  8. bowdle tsuko on January 20th, 2011 9:25 pm

    I am sorry your ignorance takes the best of you. It is really sad that there are people like you still out there that just want to keep ancient rituals ancients without any evolution at all. Keep well, and get some education buddy.

  9. lehalso on February 16th, 2011 4:00 pm

    In Brittany, traditionally you turn any mirrors to the wall, empty all the water-jugs/cuves, and open a window so that the soul can find its way out. Religious practices here are such a mix of “old” (pagan) beliefs onto which Christian practices were grafted, it's quite fascinating, and because everyone turns out for funerals in churches which are poorly attended on Sundays, death is very much a way of life, and the various rituals are a means of having something specific to do for those long and painful moments.
    I had the experience of having to deal with the whole process, from the last moments in hospital to the coffee-and-cakes in the restaurant, via having to translate English hymns and tributes for the ceremony, accompanying a friend whose mother died. I carefully jotted down notes then typed all the procedures out to leave with my Will – having to deal […]

  10. selbon on February 17th, 2011 9:48 pm

    ..today, even on our holy day, I've decided not to be mr nice guy..esp on collecting debt..! Ppl take adv on my silent..but not today!!

  11. dann on February 24th, 2011 1:40 am

    I'm not really Jewish….but I LOVE Jewish people and I love Israel.

  12. bcs on February 24th, 2011 3:28 pm

    Who Were the Druids In Celtic Mythology and Why Did the Druids Conduct Spiritual Ceremonies In Oak Forests? –

  13. hold mun on March 7th, 2011 10:15 am

    #News Lieberman says Pope's exoneration could bring peace: Foreign minister thanks Pope Benedict XVI …

  14. zabee on March 16th, 2011 9:55 pm

    Well a “regular Catholic” usually means you're a Roman Catholic… There are two main different “types” of Catholics. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics… Usually, when people say that they're Catholic – they mean Roman Catholic. Those that are Orthodox Catholics usually call themselves Eastern Orthodox rather than Catholics…

    I think the biggest difference is that Roman Catholics are lead/governed by The Vatican (The Pope) etc…another big thing is that Roman Catholic priests don't get married whereas Eastern Orthodox Priests can get married. Roman Catholics also believe that Mary was born without sin whereas Eastern Orthodox don't… there are other minor differences but those are the ones I know of for sure… :) Don't worry, I'm pretty sure you're Roman Catholic… You'd know if you weren't LOL

  15. Dakota0204 on April 26th, 2011 5:37 am

    That’s awesome. I’m glad that there are Christians and Christian churches even in countries where Christianity isn’t as popular or widely practiced.

  16. Cleansing | Meagan Adele Lopez' Blog on June 7th, 2011 10:13 pm

    […] which foods it does. I asked her about the Master Cleanse, and she feels the same way I do – almost every culture/religion in the world has a fast incorporated in their diets, and she felt it could only be […]

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