Prayer Time

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Fasting is usually defined as a withholding of all natural food, drinks and sex from the body for a determined period voluntarily appointed for moral or religious ends. This institution has found wide acceptance in all religious systems, although its forms and motives vary with different creeds and nationalities.


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, can be used both as a verb and a noun, e.g., " David fasted a fast" ( 11Sam.12:16), a meaning verified in the next verse: "he ate no food."


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, Ixx; 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(11Sam. 1:12), or, alternatively, the fast might be observed for seven days (1Sam.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, 1Kings 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).


In the book of Tobit,  an adventure tale usually dated by scholars to the third or second century BCE, Tobit tells his children on his deathbed that “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness” (Tobit 12:8; NRSV). Tobit’s statement that “prayer with fasting is good,” is wisdom style advice on proper living. This fasting is voluntary, individual, and an expression of piety, like the amount of charity an individual gives.

The Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament offers another attestation to growth of the “pious fasting” movement.  In Matthew 9:14-16, Jesus debates the merits of fasting with the disciples of John the Baptist:

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’ (NRSV) 

This passage implies that the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast often. The word “often” suggests that these fasts are not tied to calendrical dates or past events, but are (spontaneous or regular) acts of piety. John’s disciples want to know why Jesus’s disciples do not display similar acts of piety.

Jesus’ answer presumes that fasting is an act of mourning rather than piety. He predicts that one day, his disciples will lose their beloved—this is a reference to his own imminent death at the hands of the Romans—and when that happens, Jesus’s disciples will have reason to fast. Their fasting will function as acts of mourning, not of piety.

In Matthew 6:  And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (NRSV).

This passage suggests that Jesus, like the Pharisees and the disciples of John, believes in fasting for piety, but that such behavior should be done secretly and without fanfare. Reading these texts together suggests that Jesus’ gripe with the disciplines of John was that they made their fasting known and public, and Jesus saw this as hypocrisy. Despite this, fasting gained prominence in Christian circles and emerged as an act that reflected personal piety. In addition, many ascetic Christian communities arose that encouraged its members to avoid sex, food, and other physical indulgences that distract from leading a purely spiritual life.


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