Sep 24, 2015

Why Do So Many Religions Fast?

September 22, 2015
Miriam Krule

Earlier this month, NPR’s Morning Edition featured a story on Jains in India who practice sallekhana—fasting to death. Although the practice is fairly rare—NPR reports that it’s only performed when people are sick or close to death and that only about 200 people attempt it each year—it’s controversial. India’s Supreme Court is currently considering whether sallekhana should be banned in a country where suicide is illegal. The Jains who practice it, however, believe that the fast is a way to purify the soul for the next life.

Sallekhana is an extreme Eastern example of a practice widespread in Western religions: fasting, which plays a prominent role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On Tuesday night, Jews around the world will begin the holiest day of their year, Yom Kippur, when they will abstain from food and drink and ask for forgiveness. (Jewish days are counted from sundown to sundown.) The 25-hour period is the culmination of 10 days of repentance that begins with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. While many will spend that time immersed in prayers, the fast is considered the most important aspect of observance: If you had to choose between either fasting or praying while breaking the fast by drinking water, fasting would be the better choice in the eyes of Jewish tradition. Jews believe “affliction of the soul,” as fasting is referred to in the Bible, will help them focus and bring them closer to forgiveness.

The only other 25-hour fast in the Jewish calendar is on the ninth day of the month of Av, known as Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. On these fast days, Jews abstain from food and drink and spend the day immersed in prayer. Whereas on Yom Kippur the focus is on forgiveness and the day is treated as a Sabbath where people refrain from work, Tisha B’Av is considered a day of sadness, and observers act as if they’re in mourning: sitting on the floor, not greeting one another, and not looking in the mirror. There are various “lesser” fast days on the Jewish calendar that, unlike Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, only take place from sunup to sundown. These tend to commemorate hard times for the Jewish people, often periods of exile. In addition, the community can occasionally call a fast day in times of trouble, like war or drought. On June 1, 1967, as the nation prepared for war, the chief rabbinate called for a day of fasting and prayer. In November 2010, in the midst of a drought, Israel’s chief rabbis issued a fast day to pray for rain.

Christians are less likely to fast than Jews are. The act of abstaining isn’t foreign to them—Catholics observe Lent, a month where people decide on their own what they want to give up (this can be anything from smoking to sugar)—but many Christian faiths have moved away from the practice.

R. Marie Griffith, author of Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity and the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, told me that Christian traditions of self-abnegation and repentance through fasting have changed considerably over time. “Fasting is part of ancient Jewish tradition, and Christianity of course comes from that,” Griffith said. “Jesus spoke extensively about fasting: Sometimes it has to do with repentance, self-discipline, remembering that we’re humble beings before God’s power. The Roman Catholic tradition that emerged from that took it very seriously, and church fathers and mothers were very serious fasters.” This dedication to fasting lasted for about 1,500 years, but with the Protestant Reformation, a lot of the practices that weren’t considered clearly mandated by the Bible—Jesus talks about his own fasting, but doesn’t set out guidelines for others—began to change. People would still fast, but it just wasn’t as prominent or as strictly dictated. Today, conservative evangelicals are the most active Christian fasters, though even for them it’s not as prominent a part of the tradition as it once was. Mormons are another exception, but their practice, while inspired by biblical sources, is also drawn from the Book of Mormon. Mormons traditionally skip two meals on the first Sabbath of each month, donating the money they would have spent on the meals to the poor.

The Muslim tradition, which draws inspiration from sources in both the Old and New Testaments, has one of the most well-known and visible relationships with fasting—for the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink during the day and break the fast with a meal, called iftar, after sundown. The fast is prescribed in the Quran in Chapter 2 Verse 183, but the directions are open to a bit of interpretation, leading to some variation in practice—for example, while it’s not a common interpretation, some people see in Verse 184 the option to feed the poor as a substitute for fasting. Most observers agree, though, that the fast should take place over the course of a month, a nod to the belief that the Quran was revealed to Mohammed over the course of a month. (This is also why many Muslims listen to the entirety of the Quran, one-thirtieth a day, over the course of Ramadan.)

Ayesha S. Chaudhry, an associate professor of Islamic studies and gender studies at the University of British Columbia, told me that fasting often serves as a community-building activity where everyone is abstaining together and then eating together.* “Sunup to sundown every day for a month, everyone comes together and engages in a practice that separates them from everyone around them, but also brings the community together.” And although the practice is fairly universal, Chaudhry pointed out that because Muslims use a lunar calendar, the timing of Ramadan varies year-to-year and in places farther from the equator, the fast can require very long periods of deprivation. Because fasting in Islam originated in Mecca, where the proximity to the equator kept the fast pretty consistently at 12 hours, many people in Scandinavian countries, for example, adopt an arbitrary 12-hour fast.

Miriam Krule is a Slate assistant editor. She writes about religion and culture and edits the photography blog Behold.

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