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fasting, partial or temporary abstinence from food, a widely used form of asceticism. Among the stricter Jews the principal fast is the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur; in Islam the faithful fast all the daytime hours of the month of Ramadan. Fasting is general in Christianity. The most widely observed fasts are Lent and Advent. Both of these are preliminary to seasons of great rejoicing, and traditionally the vigils of several feasts were also kept as fasts, e.g. (in the West), those of Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, the Assumption, and All Saints. Ember days were also fasts in the West. Protestants have generally abandoned fasting, but in New England an annual Fast Day was proclaimed (in Massachusetts until the 20th cent.). In the late 1990s there was renewed interest among evangelical Christians in the United States in fasting and prayer as a means of spiritual revival. The Roman Catholic Church differentiates between fasting (eating only one full meal and little else in a day) and abstinence (eating no flesh meat). In 1966, Pope Paul VI issued Poenitemini, an apostolic constitution reorganizing the discipline of the Catholic Church. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are now the only required days of fast. The observance of Fridays as days of abstinence is now urged rather than, as formerly, made a matter of obligation. Roman Catholics are asked to abstain from food and drink for one hour prior to receiving communion. Fasting and hunger strikes have also been used by various political and social activists to bring attention to the causes they support.
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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Fasting consists of voluntarily going without food for a period of time in order to sharpen the spiritual senses or prepare for religious ritual.

American Indian boys of some tribes would fast for four days as part of their vision quest, the ritual that earned them a new name and an adult's place in the tribe. Shamans of many indigenous traditions fasted before a particularly difficult healing or an important ritual involving the security of the tribe.

The Hebrew Day of Atonement is a prominent occasion for a public fast (Leviticus 16:9), and fasting (sawm) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are urged to refrain from food, drink, smoking, and sex during daylight hours.

Giving up something for Lent (see Christianity, Calendar of) is a time-honored Christian tradition designed to be a daily reminder to pray or meditate every time the urge arises for what was sacrificed.

Although Jesus spent a long time fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry, he spends very little time talking about the practice. In some cases he even seemed to discourage it (Matthew 6:16-18). This may account for the fact that the early Church doesn't seem to place nearly as much emphasis on fasting as the later Church does. (See Acts 13:2, 3 and 14:23 for the only examples of early Church fasting given in the Bible.) Undoubtedly the early Egyptian Monastic movement, with its emphasis on Christian asceticism (see Ascetic) gave fasting a jump-start in the developing Christian tradition.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Fasting is the practice of purposely going without food or without certain kinds of food. Since ancient times many different cultural traditions throughout the world have encouraged people to fast, frequently for religious reasons. Often fasting occurs before initiation ceremonies, or as a means of opening oneself to communion with the Divine. In recent times fasting has also served as a form of political protest. In the ancient Mediterranean world into which Jesus was born, however, fasting was primarily religious in nature.

Christianity inherited the custom of fasting from Judaism. Nevertheless, early Christian leaders adapted the practice to suit the demands of the Christian religion. They identified appropriate occasions for fasting, creating a schedule of Christian fast days, and later modified the practice itself. By the fourth century many Christians had begun to observe an entire season devoted to fasting and prayer, known as Lent. These devotions prepared Christians to celebrate the Easter festival that followed. Today many Christians who fast at no other time of the year continue to fast during some or all of Lent.

From Judaism to Christianity

The ancient Hebrews fasted as a means of expressing grief, enhancing prayer, opening oneself to God, cultivating humility, and displaying repentance, that is, the desire to return to an upright way of life. These fasts required going without food and water for a specified period, often from sunrise to sunset. They might also involve going barefoot, sitting on the ground, wearing clothes made from a rough kind of material called sackcloth, and smudging one's head with ashes (see also Ash Wednesday). The ancient Jews also fasted on the afternoon preceding Passover, a religious holiday which begins at sundown on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan. Some writers believe that the short fast that preceded early Christian Easter celebrations may have been modeled on this Jewish practice.

Christian scripture informs us that Jesus himself fasted. Nevertheless, he criticized those who made a public display of their fasting, identifying it as a form of bragging. Instead he recommended that those who fast act and dress as they would normally and direct their prayers privately to God (Matthew 6:16-17).

Early Christian Fasting

The early Christians fasted for a variety of religious purposes. Like the Jewish fasts which inspired them, these early Christian fasts involved going without food for all or part of the day. Christian scripture demonstrates that the devout fasted as a means of intensifying prayer (Acts 14:23). Fasting was also a common means of expressing repentance. Candidates for baptism, that is, initiation into the Christian faith, were expected to fast before undergoing the ritual. Other special religious occasions also called for fasting. Priests fasted before their ordination, the ritual whereby they were formally accepted as Christian ministers. By the fourth century many Christians had adopted the practice of fasting before receiving Holy Communion (see also Eucharist). In addition to fasting on special occasions, the early Christians established regular, weekly fast days. Evidence from as early as the year 100 A.D. shows that Christians fasted on Fridays, in commemoration of Jesus' crucifixion, and Wednesdays, in commemoration of his betrayal (see also Good Friday and Spy Wednesday). By the fourth century these weekly fast days had become widespread. Around the year 400 A.D., however, Christians living in western Europe abandoned the Wednesday fast and instead began to fast on Fridays and Saturdays. These fasts were modified over time and eventually eliminated. Christians from eastern Europe, the Middle East and north Africa, however, kept both the Wednesday and Friday fasts, practices which they maintain to this day.

The early Christians fasted in order to bring about a desired state of mind, heart, and spirit. More specifically they fasted as a means of cultivating repentance, of deepening prayer, and of identifying with the sufferings and sacrifice of Christ. These spiritual activities eventually came to be seen as the proper way to prepare for the annual Easter festival. Thus fasting became an important component of Lent, the forty-day period of preparation for Easter.

The Origins of Lenten Fasting

Historical evidence shows that some early Christian communities observed Holy Saturday, or both Holy Saturday and Good Friday, by fasting. These devotions prepared them for the Easter feast to come. Nevertheless, community leaders disagreed as to exactly how long the fast should last. Writing about Easter preparations in the year 190 A.D. a Christian leader named Irenaeus declared that "some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days, and others even for several, while others reckon forty hours both of day and night to their fast." In some communities these fasts coincided with the fasts undertaken by catechumens in preparation for baptism at Easter time. In other communities Christians carried out forty-day fasts in commemoration of Jesus' forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). These forty-day fasts were scheduled in January and February, however. By the fourth century all of these customs had merged together giving rise to Lent, an approximately forty-day season of fasting and prayer preceding Easter which we now call Lent.

At roughly the same time Christian leaders began to emphasize the parallels between the observance of Lent and Jesus' fast in the desert at the start of his ministry. This comparison tended to increase the importance of fasting as a Lenten custom. Moreover, it inspired some Christian authorities to argue that the Lenten fast should last exactly forty days to mirror Christ's ordeal in the desert. In early times Christian communities showed little concern for the exact number of fast days contained in the six-week Lenten season. As fasting became a more important component of Lenten devotions, however, critics began to charge that beginning the fast on Quadragesima Sunday shortchanged the Lenten season. Quadragesima Sunday falls six Sundays, or forty-two days, before Easter. These critics also pointed out that Sundays couldn't count as true days of fast and penitence since they commemorate the resurrection of Christ. This left the season of Lent with only thirty-six days. Sometime during the seventh and eighth centuries Christian leaders across western Europe started to add four more days to the fast, expanding Lent from six to six and one-half weeks. This meant that Western Christians began Lent on the Wednesday following the seventh Sunday before Easter, a day which became known as Ash Wednesday. The Lenten fast ended with the late-night Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday.

Lenten Fasting in Medieval Western Europe

During the Middle Ages a series of complex rules governed Lenten fasting in western Europe. Much later, in the eighteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church began to distinguish fasting from abstinence. Roman Catholic religious authorities defined fasting as going without food and abstinence as refraining from eating certain kinds of foods, such as meat. In everyday speech, however, people tend to refer to both of these practices as fasting.

In the early Middle Ages western European Christians observed Lent by going without food until after sundown or after vespers, the evening prayer service. Then they ate a meal that contained no meat or dairy products. This discipline proved too severe, however, since the fast lasted for forty days. Around the ninth century some communities began to eat their daily meal around 3:00 p.m., after the afternoon service called "nones." By the twelfth century the practice of eating one daily meal after nones had become commonplace. Yet those who engaged in physical labor, including monks and nuns, still found it difficult to wait until mid-afternoon to eat. So religious communities began offering the service of nones earlier and earlier in the day, until it followed the service called sext, scheduled for around 12:00 p.m. In fact, this practice explains the origins of the English word "noon." The word "nones" comes from the Latin word for nine, and refers to the fact that 3:00 p.m. was considered the ninth hour of the day. During Lent, when nones was moved to midday, people began to refer to that time of day as "noon." By the thirteenth century most Western Christians ate their one Lenten meal around noon.

In the late Middle Ages, people began to supplement the daily Lenten meal with snacks. This practice began in monasteries, whose inhabitants observed many more days of fasting throughout the year than did lay Christians. On monastic fast days, monks took a snack, called a collation, in the evening in addition to the daily meal. This snack consisted of a small amount of wine and a small portion of bread, fruit, or vegetables. Eventually the monks allowed themselves this privilege during Lent as well. Following their lead, lay Christians began to supplement their one daily meal with beverages at other times of the day. By the thirteenth century this practice had become commonplace. By the fourteenth century most Western Christians had begun to take an evening snack as well as a midday meal. In the sixteenth century Church authorities also approved a morning snack.

In western Europe the rules governing which foods could be eaten during Lent began to loosen around the ninth century. Some scholars believe that at the start of the Middle Ages Western Christians included fish in the list of foods forbidden during Lent. Others disagree. In any case it appears that fish was an acceptable Lenten food during the Middle Ages. By the ninth century dairy products were permitted in many locations as well, especially in areas where they were considered dietary staples. In other places people made a small donation to the church in return for the privilege of eating dairy foods during Lent. These donations were often used for building projects. This custom funded the construction of a magnificent cathedral in the city of Rouen, France. Even today one of its steeples is still called the "butter tower," since it was reportedly paid for by donations made by local people who wanted to eat butter and other dairy products during Lent.

Protestant Customs

During the sixteenth century a religious reform movement called the Reformation surged across western Europe, giving birth to the Protestant churches. The founder of this movement, Martin Luther, criticized Roman Catholic teachings on fasting, because he suspected that these teachings led people to think that they could cancel out their sins by depriving themselves of food. He also opposed indulgences, arrangements whereby certain sins were officially forgiven by the Church in exchange for a donation, such as those that funded the building of the Rouen Cathedral's butter tower. Nevertheless, Luther did not ban the Lenten fast.

In England civil laws as well as church law required citizens of the realm to fast during Lent. A 1570 Lenten law threatened those who broke the fast with three months in jail and a fine of sixty shillings. In the late seventeenth century, however, Londoners could obtain a license to eat meat from officials at St. Paul's Cathedral in exchange for a donation to the poor.

During the time of the Reformation people began to openly question the practice of Lenten fasting. In a poem entitled "To Keep a True Lent" English poet-priest Robert Herrick (1591-1674) expressed these sentiments concerning fasting and the observance of Lent:

…'tis a fast to dole Thy sheaf of wheat, And meat, Unto the hungry soul. It is to fast from strife, From old debate, And hate; To circumcize thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent; To starve thy sin, Not bin; And that's to keep thy Lent. (Myers, 60-61)

Today Protestant Christians vary in their Lenten observances. Most denominations do not officially require that their members fast, but rather leave such practices up to the individual. In the United States Episcopalians and Lutherans tend to be among those Protestants more likely to observe the Lenten fast.

Roman Catholic Customs

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Roman Catholics continued to relax the fasting rules they had inherited from medieval times. Until 1917 Roman Catholics were expected to fast throughout Lent, except on Sundays. This meant limiting food intake to one full meal per day. In practice, however, many faithful Catholics took an evening and morning snack in addition to the midday meal. Like the meal itself, however, these snacks must not contain meat, eggs, or milk products. Although meat was allowed on Sundays, it could not be combined with fish. What's more, observant Roman Catholics were expected to abstain from eating meat both on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year. Finally, fasting and abstinence were practiced on the eve of many feast days, and other days as well. The new code of Canon Law, adopted in 1918, changed some of these fast rules for Roman Catholics. For example, dairy products were no longer included in the list of foods from which Roman Catholics must abstain on fast days or days of abstinence, and Saturdays were no longer observed as fast days. Other major changes in the rules governing fasting occurred in the 1960s.

Today Roman Catholic authorities maintain that the faithful must fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. They must also abstain from eating meat on these days, as well as on all Fridays during Lent. During the rest of the year, however, they are no longer required to forgo eating meat on Fridays. These changes encourage Roman Catholics to observe Lent by engaging in activities other than fasting and abstinence, especially charitable works, exercises of piety, and other activities likely to foster repentance and spiritual renewal. Still, many Roman Catholics, and some Protestants, choose to observe Lent by giving up a favorite food for the duration of the season.

Orthodox Customs

Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity developed in eastern Europe and the countries surrounding the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea. The Orthodox churches split apart from the Western Christian tradition about 1,000 years ago. They follow a different church calendar than that commonly followed by Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants. Since the Orthodox use a different set of rules to calculate the date of Easter, Western and Eastern Lent are out of synch with one another (see also Easter, Date of). In addition, Orthodox Christians developed their own distinctive Lenten fasting customs.

Sometime during the early Middle Ages Orthodox Christians expanded their Lenten fast from six to seven weeks. Many writers assert that in early medieval times, Eastern Christians fasted neither on Sundays nor on Saturdays, except on Holy Saturday. Thus Orthodox Christians decided to begin their fast somewhat earlier than did Western Christians, in order to fill the tally of forty days. Today Orthodox Lent begins on the evening of the seventh Sunday preceding Easter, called Forgiveness Sunday. The first full day of Lent falls on the following day, Clean Monday. Nevertheless, fasting begins a week before the start of Lent, with the removal of meat from the diet (see also Pre-Lent). Unlike Western Christians, Orthodox Christians have maintained the strict fasting rules they inherited from medieval times.

Contemporary Orthodox Christians fast by abstaining from eating certain foods rather than by going without food. Throughout Lent strictly observant Orthodox Christians will not consume meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, olive oil, and alcoholic beverages. The removal of meat products from the diet in the week before Lent gives Orthodox Christians an opportunity to ease into this regimen. Some Orthodox Church leaders assert that the faithful may relax the fast somewhat on Saturdays and Sundays, adding olive oil and alcoholic beverages to their diet on those days. The fast is also eased on the Feast of the Annunciation and sometimes also on Palm Sunday, when fish is permissible. In practice, however, not all Orthodox Christians follow this regimen throughout Lent. Many modify the fast in order to suit their own abilities and needs. For example, some shorten its duration by fasting only during the first week of Lent, all Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, and Holy Week.

Creative Cuisine

Over the centuries creative cooks compiled a variety of recipes that satisfied the stomach as well as fulfilled the rules of the fast. Throughout southern Europe cooks depended on dried, salted cod to meet both of these requirements. Until the sixteenth century, when Europeans began to fish for cod in North America, fresh fish was difficult for many Europeans to obtain during winter. This made salt cod a real boon to Lenten cooks. The Portuguese developed more than 100 recipes for it and the French have more recipes for salt cod than they do for any other fish. Russian cooks invented mushroom pies to take the place of meat pies during Lent. To this day Russian cooks tend to view mushrooms as a meat substitute rather than a vegetable dish or garnish. Greek chefs served up vegetable pies, without the feta cheese that one finds in them during the rest of the year, as well as bean dishes. In addition they also invented taramosalata, a spread made with olive oil, fish eggs and garlic. Until the nineteenth century, pretzels were a favorite Lenten snack in Austria, Germany, and Poland. Italian bakers came up with a sweet, hard, almond cookie called can- tucci as a substitute for pastries during Lent. Somewhere along the way the people of Tuscany discovered that these cookies taste even more delicious when dipped in wine. They are still enjoyed this way today. In Malta the Lenten cookie kwarizemal, made with honey and almonds, bears a name that comes from the local word for Lent. As the hardships imposed by the Lenten fast declined, many of these dishes lost their association with the season and became year-round favorites.

Purpose of Lenten Fasting

Although Christians may differ in their fasting methods, all agree that fasting should be practiced as a means of achieving a spiritual goal, rather than as an end unto itself. In general Christians view Lenten fasting as an aid to mindfulness, that is, as a tool that keeps one's attention from wandering. Many also view it as a means of disciplining the body, thereby freeing the soul to attend to matters of the spirit. Thus the mild discomfort endured while fasting serves to remind fasters of their own limitations and errors, their commitment to ethical behavior and service to others, the need for prayer and communion with God, or the sacrifice and sufferings of Christ.

Further Reading

Clancy, P. M. J. "Fast and Abstinence." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 5. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. "Fasting." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. "Fasts and Fasting." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Gammie, John G. "Fasting." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Hinson, E. Glenn. "Fasting." In Everett Ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Volume 1. New York: Garland, 1997. Hopko, Thomas. The Orthodox Faith. Volume Two, Worship. Syosset, NY: The Orthodox Church in America, 1997. Hopley, Claire. "Lenten Delights." The World and I 16, 3 (March 2001): 112. Lynch, J. E. "Fast and Abstinence." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 16. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1972. Niemann, Paul J. The Lent, Triduum, and Easter Answer Book. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, 1998. Rader, Rosemary. "Fasting." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 5. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Rogers, Eric N. Fasting: The Phenomenon of Self-Denial. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1976. Roth, Cecil, ed. "Fast." In his The Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1959. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Smith-Christopher, Daniel J. "Fasting." In David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986. "Wednesday." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. Wigoder, Geoffrey. "Fasting and Fast Days." In his Encyclopedia of Judaism. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Web Sites

"Fasting," an essay by the Rev. George Mastrantonis describing Greek Orthodox fasting customs posted on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, New York, NY, web site at: "The Great Lent," an essay by the Rev. George Mastrantonis describing the history and customs of Lent in the Greek Orthodox Church, posted on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, New York, NY, web site at:

"Great Lent," a page describing the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Christians concerning Lent, sponsored by the Orthodox Church in America:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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