In Judaism, fasting is the biblical or rabbinic precept or custom of refraining from eating and drinking.
Although the origins of the ritual of fasting are obscure, several current theories claim that it originated as (1) a spiritual preparation for partaking of a sacred meal (W.R. Smith); (2) a method for inducing a state of susceptibility to visions (E.B. Tylor); and (3) a means of providing new vitality during periods of human or natural infertility (T.H. Gaster). Scriptural citations have been adduced to support all these theories, but fasting in the Bible clearly emerged in response to more spiritual needs. The Hebrew root for fasting, ẓwm (צום), can be used both as a verb and a noun, e.g., "David fasted a fast" (II Sam. 12:16), a meaning verified in the next verse: "he ate no food." A synonymous idiom ʿinnah nefesh (lit. "afflict the body") includes fasting as part of a general regimen of abstinence, a broader meaning confirmed by the following:
(a) laws annulling women's vows and oaths that contain the phrase "all self-denying oaths to afflict her body" (Num. 30:14, cf. verses 3, 7, 10–13), referring to all forms of abstinence, not just fasting; (b) Daniel, who expressly "afflicts himself" (Dan. 10:12) not only by abstaining from choice food, meat, and wine (in biblical terminology, he is not actually fasting) but also from anointing himself (10:3); and (c) the example of King David, who, in addition to fasting, sleeps on the ground, does not change his clothes, and refrains from anointing and washing (II Sam. 12:16–20, though the term ʿinnah nefesh is absent). In biblical poetry ẓwm and ʿinnah nefesh are parallel but not synonymous. Indeed, one verse (Isa. 58:5) indicates that it is rather the root ẓwm which has taken on the broader sense of ʿinnah nefesh: "…that a man should bow his head like a bulrush and make his bed on sackcloth and ashes, is this what you call a fast…?" Thus, the rabbis declare that ʿinnah nefesh, enjoined for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:27–32), consists not only of fasting but of other forms of self-denial such as abstention from "washing, anointing, wearing shoes, and cohabitation" (Yoma 8:1; cf. Targ. Jon., Lev. 16:29).
Fasting is attested in the oldest strata of biblical literature and there can be no doubt that spontaneous fasting was widespread from earliest times both among individuals and groups. In the ritual practiced in the First Temple, fasting was clearly a permanent feature (Isa. 1:13, lxx; Jer. 36:9, "before the Lord"; cf. Joel 1:14; 2:15–17). The death of a national leader (e.g., King Saul) could initiate a day-long fast (II Sam. 1:12), or, alternatively, the fast might be observed for seven days (I Sam. 31:13). The authority to proclaim a public fast was vested in the elders of the local community, who, however, could be pressured by the royal palace to proclaim a fast (e.g., for Naboth's undoing, I Kings 21:8–12).
The purposes of fasting are various. Its most widely attested function, for the community as well as the individual, is to avert or terminate a calamity by eliciting God's compassion. For example, God mitigates Ahab's punishment because he fasted and humbled himself (I Kings 21:27–29). King David fasted in the hope that "the Lord will be gracious to me and the boy will live. But now that he is dead why should I fast?" (II Sam. 12:22–23). Many other passages also indicate the use of fasting as a means of winning divine forgiveness (e.g., Ps. 35:13; 69:11; Ezra 10:6), implying that fasting is basically an act of penance, a ritual expression of remorse, submission, and supplication.
Fasting was practiced as a preparation for communing with the spirits of the dead or with the Deity, as when Saul fasted the day before the appearance of Samuel's apparition (I Sam. 28:20). To be vouchsafed a theophany, Moses fasted for as long as 40 days (Ex. 34:28 [twice, according to Deut. 9:9, 18]; Elijah, I Kings 19:8). On the two occasions when Daniel's prayers were answered by means of a vision (Dan. 9:20ff.; 10:7ff.), his preparatory rituals included fasting (Dan. 9:3; 10:3). That death occasioned a fast is implied by the couriers' surprise when King David refused to fast after the death of the infant son born to him by Bath-Sheba (II Sam. 12:21).
When a calamity, human or natural, threatened or struck a whole community, a public fast was proclaimed. Thus, Israel observed fasts in its wars against Benjamin (Judg. 20:26), the Philistines (I Sam. 7:6; 14:24), and its Transjordanian enemies (II Chron. 20:3); similarly fasts were observed in the hope of averting annihilation by the Babylonians (Jer. 36:3, 9; see below) and by the Persians (Esth. 4:3, 16). The purpose of fasts during wartime was to seek God's direct intervention (e.g., I Sam. 7:9ff.) or advice as transmitted through an oracle (e.g., Judg. 20:26–28). Fasting served as a means of supplicating God to end a famine caused by a plague of locusts (Joel 1:14; 2:12, 15), and to alleviate the oppression of foreign rule (Neh. 9:1). As a preventive or intercessory measure, fasting was used to avert the threat of divine punishment, exemplified by the fast declared for Naboth's alleged cursing of God (I Kings 21:9) and after Jonah's prophecy of Nineveh's doom (3:5).
The biblical evidence thus far cited indicates that fasting, both individual and collective, was a spontaneous reaction to exigencies. In the pre-exilic period there is no record of specific fast days in the annual calendar (except the Day of Atonement), although some Bible critics even conjecture that this, too, was originally an emergency rite and was fixed on the tenth of Tishri only at the end of the First Temple. There is a record of a fast day in Jeremiah's time (Jer. 36:3ff.), but this too originated as an emergency rite ("a fast day was proclaimed," verse 9) and was not repeated. That portion of Deutero-Isaiah which describes a fast (Isa. 58:3ff.) became the haftarah reading for the Day of Atonement morning service, but the text can hardly be speaking of an observance of the Day of Atonement (cf. v. 4).
Fixed fast days are first mentioned by the post-Exilic prophet Zechariah who proclaims the word of the Lord thus: "The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth…" (Zech. 8:19; cf. 7:3, 5). Jewish tradition has it that these fasts commemorate the critical events which culminated in the destruction of the Temple: the tenth of Tevet (the tenth month), the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem; the 17th of Tammuz (the fourth month), the breaching of the walls; the ninth of Av (the fifth month), when the Temple was destroyed; and the third of Tishri (the seventh month), when Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judah, was assassinated. Some scholars maintain that these fast days are much older, marking the beginning of a Lenten period which preceded the seasonal festivals, and to which only later tradition affixed the events of the national catastrophe. It is argued that the historical basis for the four fast days coinciding with the events ascribed to them is weakin the light of present knowledge. Jeremiah dates the destruction of the First Temple to the tenth of Av (52:12ff.), whereas II Kings claims the seventh (25:8ff.); there is, however, no biblical witness for the ninth. It is surprising that a permanent fast day was proclaimed for the murder of Gedaliah, who was a Babylonian puppet and not a member of the House of David. Lastly, there is no scriptural authority for the 17th of Tammuz as the date for the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, the claim of the Book of Zechariah (e.g., 7:5) that the four fasts were instituted upon the destruction of the state cannot be discounted. If, as it is now suggested, the fast recorded in Jeremiah was prompted by the sacking of Ashkelon (November/December 604 B.C.E.) and by the similar fate which threatened Jerusalem, it is then conceivable that four different fast days sprang up simultaneously as a reaction to the trauma of destruction and exile. Moreover, would Zechariah have been asked whether the fasts should be abolished if the historical reality of the Second Temple had not rendered them meaningless? Indeed, the people consulted the prophet Zechariah about abolishing the fasts only when the Second Temple was approaching completion (Zech. 7:1; cf. Ezra 6:15), a time which coincided with the end of the 70 years of exile predicted by Jeremiah (Zech. 7:5; cf. Jer. 25:12). There is no need to look for other reasons to account for the proclamation of the fasts than the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Thus, fasting, a spontaneous phenomenon in the days of the First Temple, may have entered the calendar as a regular and recurring event only after the exile. Finally, fasting as a discipline, a routine for the pious, is attested only in post-biblical times in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Qumran literature.
During the Second Temple period, daily or biweekly fastings were practiced for reasons of asceticism , especially among women (Judith 8:6; Luke 2:37; TJ, Ḥag 2:2, 77d), but also among men (Luke 18:12; Mark 2:18), or in preparation for an apocalyptic revelation (Dan. 10:3, 12; ii Bar. 12:5; 20:5–21:1; 43:3; iv Ezra 5:13–20; 6:35; Sanh. 65b; TJ, Kil. 9:4, 32b). The Jewish literature of the Second Temple period also advocates fasting as a way of atonement for sins committed either unintentionally (Ps. of Sol. 3:9) or even deliberately (Test. Patr., Sim. 3:4), or to prevent them (ibid., Joseph 3:4; 4:8; 10:1–2). These reasons for fasting were strengthened by the destruction of the Second Temple and even more by the repression of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the subsequent religious persecutions.
The laws of fasting detailed in talmudic literature and by halakhic authorities (Maim. Yad, Ta'aniyyot, 4; Tur and Sh. Ar., OḤ, 579) have basically not changed from the biblical period. Founded on very ancient popular and spontaneous customs, they were, in the main, like the reasons for fasting, not peculiar to the Jewish people, but current in the whole of the ancient Near East. The description of a public fast held by the Phoenicians of Carthage, at the end of the second century b.c.e. (Tertullian, De jejuniis 16), is almost identical to descriptions of fasts in the Bible, in Second Temple literature, and in rabbinic sources.
The fast was accompanied by prayer (during the First Temple period sacrifices were offered) and confession of sins (Judg. 20:26; I Sam. 7:6; Ezra 10:1). From the Second Temple period onward, the public fast was also accompanied by the reading of the Torah (Neh. 9:3). On solemn fasts (Ta'an. 4:1; Tosef. Ta'an. 4:1), four prayers – Shaḥarit, Ḥaẓot ("noon"), Minḥah, and Ne'ilat She'arim – were recited as well as Ma'ariv. The Amidah of the fast day consisted of 24 benedictions – "the eighteen of every day, to which another six were added" (Ta'an. 2:2–4; Ḥemdah Genuzah (1863), nos. 160–1; Tur, OḤ, 579) – and the liturgy was elaborated with special passages of supplication (Anenu – "Answer us!," Ta'an. 14a), seliḥot, and prayers for mercy. The central part of the service was the sounding of the shofar (Joel 2:1) or the ḥaẓoẓerot ("trumpets"; I Macc. 3:54), trumpets (as main instruments) accompanied by horns (RH 3:4; Tosef. to RH 3:3). The blowing of shofarot and trumpets was performed in a different manner in the Temple and on the Temple Mount from the other localities (RH 27a; Ta'an. 16b); the exact procedure, however, is not known. (According to one opinion, there was no blowing outside the Temple area at all; see Ta'an. 2:4–5.) During the Middle Ages, in some Jewish communities, shofarot were sounded, in others, trumpets (see Beit Yosef to Tur, OḤ, 579).
Prayers were generally held in the open (II Chron. 20:5; Judith 4:11) and all the people humiliated themselves publicly by tearing their clothes, wearing sackcloth (I Kings 21:27; Joel 2:13; Ps. 35:13; Judith 4:10, 8:5), and putting ashes or earth on their heads (Isa. 58:5; Neh. 9:1; Joseph and Asenath, 10). The cemetery was also visited. (For the various ways in which these customs were understood see TJ, Ta'an. 2:1, 65a; Ta'an. 16a.) The humiliation was applied even to the most holy objects; at times also the priests (Joel 1:13; Judith 4:14–15), the king (Jonah 3:6), or the nasi (Ta'an. 2:1) wore sackcloth and ashes. There were those who covered even the altar with sackcloth (Judith 4:12), and the ark, containing the Torah scrolls, was taken into the street and covered with ashes (Ta'an. 2:1). During the mass assembly (Joel 2:16; Judith 4:11), one of the elders would rebuke the people and the affairs of the community were investigated in order to determine who was the cause of the evil (I Kings 21:9–13; Ta'an. 2:1; Ta'an. 12b).
In many places young children and animals were obliged to fast – a practice which prevailed not only among other nations (Jonah 3:5, 7; TJ, Ta'an. 2:1, 65b) but even in Israel (Judith 4:9–11; Pseudo-Philo's Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 30:4–5; concerning the participation of the young children cf. II Chron. 20:13; Joel 2:16). The sages, however, exempted young children (and animals), the sick, those obliged to preserve their strength, and, in most cases, pregnant and nursing women (Tosef. to Ta'an. 2:12; 3:2).
There is some similarity, especially in the case of the solemn fasts, between the customs of fasting and those of mourning . On ordinary fast days only food and drink were prohibited, while on the important ones washing (for pleasure), anointing, the wearing of shoes (for pleasure), and cohabitation were also forbidden. People also refrained from work on these days (some, who were stricter, considered work to be absolutely prohibited (TJ, Ta'an. 1:6, 64c)) and shops were closed (Ta'an. 1:5–6). It was also customary for some to sleep on the ground (II Sam. 12:16).
Ordinary fast days lasted for the duration of the daylight hours; the important fasts were a full 24 hours. Fasts were held either for one day or sometimes for a series of three or seven days; occasionally even daily for a continued period. (Ta'an. 1:5–6; cf. also e.g., Judith 4:13). In exceptional cases, fasts were also held on the Sabbath and the festivals, but it was usually forbidden to fast on those days; some authorities also forbade fasting on the eve of the Sabbath, of festivals, and of the New Moon. In order not to mar the celebration of joyful events in Jewish history, Hananiah b. Hezekiah b. Garon (first century C.E.) compiled the Megillat Ta'anit ("Scroll of Fasting") which lists 35 commemorative dates on which a public fast could not be proclaimed. In time, however, the Megillat Ta'anit was abrogated. It was customary to hold public fast days on Mondays and Thursdays (Tosef. to Ta'an. 2:4); individuals, however, especially after the destruction of the Temple, took upon themselves to fast every Monday and Thursday (Ta'an. 12a).
The halakhah is that in such cases the individual, in contrast to the community, has to commit himself to fast during the afternoon of the preceding day (ibid.). It was also possible to fast for a specific number of hours (Ta'an. 11b–12a). On some occasions, the fast was not a total one, but people refrained only from meat, wine, anointment with oil, and other pleasures (Cowley, Aramaic, no. 30; Dan. 10:3; Test. Patr., Reu. 1:10; Judah 15:4; iv Ezra 9:24; as well as generally in talmudic literature and in that of the Middle Ages).
In the ancient Near East, prayer and fasting were advocated as a means to have one's requests fulfilled by the gods (Ahikar, Armenian version, 2:49, from where, it appears, the idea was derived in Tobit, short version, 2:8; cf. also Test. Patr., Ben. 1:4). The Bible emphasizes that the fast is not an end in itself but only a means through which man can humble his heart and repent for his sins; his repentance must manifest itself in his deeds (Joel 2:13; Jonah 3:8). The idea is especially stressed in Isaiah (58:3ff.) where the contrast is made between a fast which is not accompanied by any real repentance, and which is therefore unacceptable to God, and the true fast which leads to God's merciful forgiveness: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him… Then shalt thou call, and the Lord will answer."
The Second Temple period literature also stressed that a fast without sincere repentance is valueless and senseless (Test. Patr., Ash. 2:8; 4:3; cf. ibid., Joseph 3:5 – in addition to the fast, Joseph gave his food to the poor and the sick). In the Second Temple period fasting was also seen as an "ascetic exercise" which serves to purify man and bring him closer to God. This appears to have been the original significance of the fasts of the members of the ma'amadot (Ta'an. 4:2–3 (supplement); cf. Theophrastus on the Jews who fasted during the offering of the sacrifices, and Philo on the Day of Atonement). This conception of fasting closely resembles the concept of complete abstinence and asceticism whose purpose is to induce ecstasy and apocalyptic visions and is found not only in the apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple period (the Qumran sect seems to have held a "fast" day of which little is known), but also among certain circles of talmudic rabbis, especially after the destruction of the Temple. This "philosophy" led to an exaggerated propagation of fasting which, in turn, aroused a sharp counteraction in general rabbinic literature; the rabbis condemned ascetic women, especially widows and "fasting maids" (TJ, Sot. 3:4, 19a). R. Yose even went further and declared: "The individual has no right to afflict himself by fasting, lest he become a burden on the community which will then have to provide for him" (Tosef. Ta'an. 2:12); as did Samuel , according to whose opinion "Whoever fasts is called a sinner" (Ta'an. 11a).
The study of the Torah is of greater importance than fasting and therefore "a scholar has no right to fast because, in doing so, he decreases the work of heaven" (Ta'an. 11a–b). This led to a trend in the halakhah which sought to limit even public fasts and their severity, emphasizing however at the same time the original significance of fasting – good deeds and repentance. It found expression in Saadiah Gaon 's opinion (Ketav ha-Tokhehah ve-ha-Hazharah – "Letter of Reproach and Warning") that rather than keep a voluntary (or vowed) fast, it is preferable for a person to desist from committing a sin. Fasting was widely practiced by the mystics and the kabbalists, especially by Ḥasidei Ashkenaz , but the latter-day Hasidim were opposed to the idea.
In modern times, except for the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Av , which are the two major fast days, other statutory fasts seem to lack general appeal. Orthodox authorities have, therefore, tried to reinvest some fast days with more relevant meaning (e.g., declaring the Tenth of Tevet as a fast day to commemorate those who perished during the Nazi persecutions and whose yahrzeit is unknown) but to no great avail. The extension of Jewish sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem (1967) has increased the tendency to abolish the fast days of the Third of Tishri (Fast of Gedaliah), the Tenth of Tevet, and the 17th of Tammuz (but not the Ninth of Av ). Reform Judaism recognizes only one mandatory fast – the Day of Atonement. Its general attitude toward other fast days (public or private) is negative, based upon Isaiah 58:3–8.
Fast days fall into three main categories: (1) fasts decreed in the Bible or instituted to commemorate biblical events; (2) fasts decreed by the rabbis; (3) private fasts.
(1) FASTS DECREED OR MENTIONED IN THE BIBLE. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on which it is commanded "Ye shall afflict your souls" so that the individual may be cleansed from sins (Lev. 16:29–31; 23:27–32; Num. 29:7ff.); this is the only fast ordained in the Pentateuch.
The Ninth of Av (Tishah be-Av), a day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples (see Jer. 52:12–13 where, however, the date is given as the Tenth), and other calamitous occasions.
The 17th of Tammuz, in commemoration of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in the First Temple period (Jer. 39:2 where the date is the 9th) and Titus breaching the walls of Jerusalem, and of other calamities which befell the Jewish people (Ta'an. 4:6, Ta'an. 28b, also Sh. Ar., OḤ, 549:2).
The Tenth of Tevet, in memory of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar , king of Babylon (II Kings 25:1–2, Jer. 52:4ff.; Ezek. 24:1–2).
The Third of Tishri, called Ẓom Gedalyah (the Fast of Gedaliah), in memory of the slaying of Gedaliah and his associates (Jer. 41:1–2; II Kings 25:25).
The Fast of Esther (Ta'anit Ester) on the 13th of Adar, the day before Purim (Esth. 4:16).
Besides the Day of Atonement, which is a pentateuchal fast, the other four fast days were also already observed in the period of the Second Temple. Zechariah prophesied that they would be transformed into days of joy and gladness (Zech. 8:19).
On the Day of Atonement and on the Ninth of Av, fasting is observed by total abstention from food and drink from sunset until nightfall of the following day; on the other fast days, the fast lasts only from before dawn until nightfall of the same day. All fasts may be broken if danger to health is involved. Pregnant and nursing women are, under certain circumstances, exempt from observance (Sh. Ar., OḤ, 50:1 (Isserles) and 554:5).
If one of the above occurs on a Sabbath, the fasting is delayed until Sunday (Meg. 1:3 and Meg. 5a); only in the case of the Day of Atonement is the fast observed even on Sabbath. In the case of the Fast of Esther, observance is on the preceding Thursday (Sh. Ar., OḤ, 686:2).
(2) FASTS DECREED BY THE RABBIS. It has become customary for the especially pious to fast from morning until evening on the following days:
During the Ten Days of Penitence (i.e., between Rosh Ha-Shanah and the Day of Atonement) and as many days as possible during the month of Elul (Sh. Ar., OḤ, 581:2).
The first Monday and Thursday, and the following Monday after Passover and Sukkot (Tur and Sh. Ar., OḤ, 492). This fast was interpreted as an atonement for possible sins committed while in a state of drunkenness and gluttony during the holidays (see Tos. to Kid. 81a S.V. Sekava).
ShOVaVIM TaT (initial letters of eight consecutive weekly Pentateuch portions starting with Shemot which are eight Thursdays of the winter months of an intercalated year).
During the Three Weeks of Mourning between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av (Tur. and Sh. Ar., OḤ, 551:16). This fast was motivated by a profound grief for the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Seventh of Adar , traditional date of the death of Moses observed in many communities by the members of the ḥevra kaddisha ("burial society") who fasted prior to their annual banquet held on the evening of that same day.
Yom Kippur Katan ("Minor Yom Kippur"), the last day of each month, on which many communities fasted and recited a special liturgy.
The eve of Passover, firstborn males' fast. This fast is a symbol of the sanctification of the Jewish firstborn who were saved during the tenth plague in Egypt (Ex. 13:1ff.). It is also kept in order to stimulate the appetite for the maẓẓah ("unleavened bread") at the festive meal (Sof. 21:3).
Days commemorating disastrous events in Jewish history (full list in Tur and Sh. Ar., OḤ, 580:2).
In addition to the fixed days listed above, fasts are held on the following private occasions:
The anniversary ( yahrzeit ) of a parent's death or of that of a teacher (Ned. 12a).
The groom and the bride fast on their wedding day until the ceremony (Isserles to Sh. Ar., EH, 61:1), unless it is Rosh Ḥodesh (Isserles to Sh. Ar., OḤ, 573:1).
To avert the evil consequences of nightmares (Ta'anit Ḥalom). In talmudic times, it was believed that bad dreams could have pernicious effects (Shab. 11a). This fast was regarded as of such urgency that the rabbis permitted it even on the Sabbath, but advocated fasting on a weekday as well as a repentance for having dishonored the Sabbath joy through fasting (Ta'an. 12b; Ber. 31b). In later centuries, however, the obligatory nature of this fast was mitigated by halakhic authorities (see Sh. Ar., OḤ, 288, 5).
If a Torah scroll is dropped, it is customary for those present to fast a day.
In the mishnaic period, the members of the Sanhedrin fasted on the day on which they sentenced a person to death (Sanh. 63a).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group; All Rights Reserved.
A. Buechler, Types of Jewish-Palestinian Piety (1922), 128–264; idem, Studies in Sin and Atonement (1928), 441–56; M.S. Freiberger, Das Fasten im alten Israel (1927); G.F. Moore, Judaism (1927), index; M. Grintz, Sefer Yehudit (1957), index S.V. Ḥom; Allon, Meḥkarim, 2 (1958), 120–7; E. Samuel, in: Turei Yeshurun, 16 (1970), 17–22. In the Bible: W.R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, ed. by S.A. Cook (19273), 434, 673; J.A. Montgomery, in: jbl, 51 (1932), 183–213; T.H. Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year (1955), 190–211; Kaufmann, Y., Toledot, 4 (1956), 266–8; A. Malamat, in: IEJ 6 (1956), 251ff.; E.B. Tylor, in: EB, S.V. Fast. Post-biblical Period: Urbach, in: Sefer Yovel… Y. Baer (1960), 48–68; Lowy, in: JJS, 9 (1958), 19–38; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, index S.V. Fasttage.