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Fasting and Fast Days

FASTING AND FAST DAYS, the precept (or custom) of refraining from eating and drinking.

In the Bible

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.


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.