What Is the Biblical Fast?
In the Bible and throughout the centuries, God’s people have practiced the spiritual discipline of fasting during times of need and times of holy observances. Moses, Elijah, Queen Esther, and Jesus are among the many biblical men and women who fasted in order to draw closer to God and seek His will. Watch as Fellowship Board Chairman Bishop Paul Lanier shares his thoughts and reflections on this practice and shares a call to God’s people to come together in prayer and fasting.
What Is the Biblical Fast?
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.” — Zechariah 8:19
Fasting in Judaism has been a longstanding practice, in some instances tied to the observance of key festivals and holy days, but also as a communal response to tragedies and a call to repentance. References to fasting can be found in the books of Samuel, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Psalms, and more. It was quite natural in ancient times for people to fast as part of their service to God. Spontaneous personal and communal fasts were also common.
Six official days, however, are also mentioned in the Bible as times for fasting. So what are these fast days and why were they established to be observed for generations to come?
What Are the Jewish Fast Days?
The first and most paramount of all fast days is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Of all the fast days, this day alone was prescribed by God in the Bible. Leviticus 16:29 commands God’s people to “deny yourselves” on Yom Kippur. This included eating or drinking, washing or bathing, marital relations, wearing leather shoes, and applying luxurious oils. As the name of the day suggests, denying ourselves is part of the process of attaining atonement on Yom Kippur. This is a fast of repentance, and appropriately, the day is spent mostly in prayer and introspection.
Yom Kippur is considered a major fast day, and in Judaism, it has only one other counterpart — the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av. This fast commemorates the monumental events of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem — each of which occurred hundreds of years apart on the exact same date.
What Are Jewish Fast Days of Mourning?
In truth, Tisha B’Av was destined to be a day of calamity as, according to Jewish tradition, it was on this day that the 12 spies sent by Moses to see the Promised Land returned to the Israelites with a bad report, causing the people’s hearts to turn away from God. Because of that, God barred that generation from entering the Promised Land and sent them back into the desert to wander for another 40 years.
Both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on this day, along with a host of other Jewish tragedies throughout history: the defeat of Bar Kochba’s revolt, thus ending Jewish resistance to the Romans (135 CE); the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the onset of the Spanish Inquisition (1492); and more recently, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp (1942).
Like Yom Kippur, we refrain from the same five activities, and also like Yom Kippur, the fast begins at dusk and ends at nightfall the following day. The fast of Tisha B’Av, however, is one of mourning and sadness. In How Firm a Foundation, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein wrote, “We are to vicariously feel the depth of grief and sadness that has marked this date throughout history. For we, too, are mourners on Tisha B’Av; we, too, ‘let tears stream down like a torrent day and night’ over the fall of Jerusalem, the ‘daughter of Zion’ (Lamentations 2:18).”
What Are the Minor Jewish Fast Days?
Three of the four minor fasts are also related to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. In the Book of Zechariah, the prophet referred to them by the Hebrew months in which they fall: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful…” The fourth month is Tammuz, and on the 17th day of that month, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, allowing the enemy to enter. It took three weeks of fighting, but in the fifth month, on the ninth of Av, the First Temple was destroyed.
The seventh month is Tishrei, and on the third day of that month, Jews observe the Fast of Gedaliah. After the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, they appointed a righteous Jew, Gedaliah, to govern the Jewish people. However, provoked by a foreign king, a prince of Judah assassinated Gedaliah. This led the Babylonians to exile the Jews remaining in the Holy Land, and the land sat barren for the next 52 years. The tenth month is Tevet, and on the tenth day of that month, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, which essentially marked the beginning of the end for the Jewish community at that time.
On the minor fast days, Jews only refrain from eating and drinking. In addition, they are observed from dawn until dusk and do not begin the night before as with major fast days.
What Is the Fast of Esther?
Another communal fast day on the Jewish calendar is the Fast of Esther. This day recalls the three days that Esther and the Jews fasted before she approached King Xerxes in order to save the Jews from the wicked Haman. The fast is observed the day before Purim, the holiday that celebrates the events in the Book of Esther. It was on this day that the Jews again fasted as they defended themselves against their enemies. Both events are remembered during the Fast of Esther because it was thanks to Esther and her cousin Mordecai that a royal decree was issued allowing the Jews to mobilize and defend themselves from attacks.
As this is not one of the four fast days specifically mentioned by the prophets, it is observed with greater leniency than the other fast days. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and others of generally weak health (who would suffer by fasting) are not required to participate.
Finally, one other fast applies only to firstborn males. It is called the Fast of the Firstborn and is observed the day before Passover. On this day, we remember that while God caused all the Egyptian firstborn males to perish during the tenth and final plague, He saved the firstborn Israelites.
These fast days commemorate events that are of utmost importance in Judaism, which is why they are observed annually. However, as the verse in Zechariah explains, these days can — and will — become days of joy. Even though fast days may recall tragic events, they are not intended, in and of themselves, to be tragic. Rather, they are days of opportunity — when people of faith can become closer to God, right wrongs, and rectify events of the past.
What Is the Fast That God Desires?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” — Isaiah 58:6–7
When we think of Jewish fast days, many of us think of sadness. This is not surprising considering that four out of our six communal fast days recall tragic events, such as the siege of Jerusalem during Temple times, the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and of course, the destruction of God’s Holy Temples. These, and other events that took place on these same days, are the darkest days in Jewish history.
However, the most prominent of all Jewish fast days, Yom Kippur, is somber, yet celebratory. On this day we focus on repentance, but we also celebrate God’s mercy and forgiveness. In fact, the Jewish sages taught that Yom Kippur is one of the two most joyful days of the year on the Jewish calendar.
Similarly, the Fast of Esther, which recalls the miracle of the Purim story recorded in the Book of Esther, is ultimately a happy day and considered the most joyous holiday. While we acknowledge the terrible decree that hung over the heads of the Jews in Persia thousands of years ago, we know that with prayer, repentance, and fasting, the story ultimately resulted in the salvation and preservation of the Jewish people.
What Is the Point of Fasting?
So what is the point of Jewish fast days? Are they about lamenting or celebrating the past?
The answer is neither. Fast days, whether they commemorate good times or bad times, have three main outcomes: To get us to stop our daily routines, consider our actions, and decide on changes that need to be made in our lives.
God doesn’t need us to go a day without food or water. It does not please Him to watch us suffer. In fact, according to Judaism, God will hold us accountable if we do not enjoy all that He has given us, including the food that He created for our enjoyment.
However, God allows us to fast if it will lead to something greater. God does not want us to suffer, but He also doesn’t want us to make poor life decisions, which will lead to even greater suffering. This is why He allows us to deny ourselves food and water so that we might reconsider our ways. When we hold back from our physical needs, we are free to focus on our spiritual needs.
As we go hungry, we become more sensitive to helping others. When we feel weak, we remember that we are completely dependent on God and His provisions in order to survive. When we refrain from physical pleasure, we demonstrate to God that our spiritual pursuits are more important than our material endeavors.
God wants us to fast only if it leads us to act. He only enjoys an empty stomach if it leads to a full heart.
A Means to an End
In the Book of Isaiah, God explained to His people: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
This idea is echoed in the Talmud, Judaism’s Oral Tradition, which teaches that a person who takes on a personal fast day, even though it weakens him, is a sinner. If fasting causes us to lessen our service of God, instead of improving our service, we have missed the entire point of fasting altogether.
Our fast days are considered auspicious times — days on which we can accomplish great things and rectify past mistakes. Just as festival days carry with them energy for positive change and growth, so do our fast days. These are days of opportunity for us — if only we take advantage of them. If we use our physical hunger as a springboard for our spiritual thirst and truly seek out God, we can transform all fast days into days of joy and celebration.
Since fasting is only a means to an end, the Bible encourages us to focus on the ultimate goal — and not just on fast days, but on all days. As Daniel says, “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue” (4:27).
On fast days, and on all days, what we give up is less important than what we give forward. Giving charity, giving our hearts, and giving our time to pursue justice and righteousness are the greatest gifts that we can give to God. This is the kind of fast that He desires, and which pleases Him the most.