1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fasting
FASTING (from “fast,” derived from old Teutonic fastêjan; synonyms being the Gr. νηστεύειν, late Lat. jejunare), an act which is most accurately defined as an abstention from meat, drink and all natural food for a determined period. So it is defined by the Church of England, in the 16th homily, on the authority of the Council of Chalcedon and of the primitive church generally. In a looser sense the word is employed to denote abstinence from certain kinds of food merely; and this meaning, which in ordinary usage is probably the more prevalent, seems also to be at least tolerated by the Church of England when it speaks of “fast or abstinence days,” as if fasting and abstinence were synonymous. More vaguely still, the word is occasionally used as an equivalent for moral self-restraint generally. This secondary and metaphorical sense (νηστεύειν κακότητος) occurs in one of the fragments of Empedocles. For the physiology of fasting, see Dietetics; Nutrition; also Corpulence.
Starvation itself (see also Hunger and Thirst) is of the nature of a disease which may be prevented by diet; nevertheless there are connected with it a few peculiarities of scientific and practical interest. “Inedia,” as it is called in the nomenclature of diseases by the London College of Physicians, is of two kinds, arising from want of food and from want of water. When entirely deprived of nutriment the human body is ordinarily capable of supporting life under ordinary circumstances for little more than a week. In the spring of 1869 this was tried on the person of a “fasting girl” in South Wales. The parents made a show of their child, decking her out like a bride on a bed, and asserting that she had eaten no food for two years. Some reckless enthusiasts for truth set four trustworthy hospital nurses to watch her; the Celtic obstinacy of the parents was roused, and in defence of their imposture they allowed death to take place in eight days. Their trial and conviction for manslaughter may be found in the daily periodicals of the date; but, strange to say, the experimental physiologists and nurses escaped scot-free. There is no doubt that in this instance the unnatural quietude, the grave-like silence, and the dim religious light in which the victim was kept contributed to defer death.
One thing which remarkably prolongs life is a supply of water. Dogs furnished with as much as they wished to drink were found by M. Chossat (Sur l’inanition, Paris, 1843) to live three times as long as those who were deprived of solids and liquids at the same time. Even wetting the skin with sea-water has been found useful by shipwrecked sailors. Four men and a boy of fourteen who got shut in the Tynewydd mine near Porth, in South Wales, in the winter of 1876–1877 for ten days without food, were not only alive when released, but several of them were able to walk, and all subsequently recovered. The thorough saturation of the narrow space with aqueous vapour, and the presence of drain water in the cutting, were probably their chief preservatives—assisted by the high even temperature always found in the deeper headings of coal mines, and by the enormous compression of the confined air. This doubtless prevented evaporation, and retarded vital processes dependent upon oxidation. The accumulation of carbonic acid in the breathed air would also have a similar arrestive power over destructive assimilation. These prisoners do not seem to have felt any of the severer pangs of hunger, for they were not tempted to eat their candles. With the instinctive feeling that darkness adds a horror to death, they preferred to use them for light. At the wreck of the “Medusa” frigate in 1816, fifteen people survived on a raft for thirteen days without food.
It is a paradoxical fact, that the supply of the stomach even from the substance of the starving individual’s body should tend to prolong life. In April 1874 a case was recorded of exposure in an open boat for 32 days of three men and two boys, with only ten days’ provisions, exclusive of old boots and jelly-fish. They had a fight in their delirium, and one was severely wounded. As the blood gushed out he lapped it up; and instead of suffering the fatal weakness which might have been expected from the haemorrhage, he seems to have done well. Experiments were performed by a French physiologist, M. Anselmier (Archives gén. de médecine, 1860, vol. i. p. 169), with the object of trying to preserve the lives of dogs by what he calls “artificial autophagy.” He fed them on the blood taken from their own veins daily, depriving them of all other food, and he found that the fatal cooling incident to starvation was thus postponed, and existence prolonged. Life lasted till the emaciation had proceeded to six-tenths of the animal’s weight, as in Chossat’s experiments, extending to the fourteenth day, instead of ending on the tenth day, as was the case with other dogs which were not bled.
Various people have tried, generally for exhibition purposes, how long they could fast from food with the aid merely of water or some medicinal preparation; but these exhibitions cannot be held to have proved anything of importance. A man named Jacques in this way fasted at Edinburgh for thirty days in 1888, and in London for forty-two days in 1890, and for fifty days in 1891; and an Italian named Succi fasted for forty days in 1890.
Religious Fasts.—Fasting is of special interest when considered as a discipline voluntarily submitted to for moral and religious ends. As such it is very widely diffused. Its modes and motives vary considerably according to climate, race, civilization and other circumstances; but it would be difficult to name any religious system of any description in which it is wholly unrecognized. The origin of the practice is very obscure. In his Principles of Sociology Herbert Spencer collected, from the accounts we have of various savage tribes in widely separated parts of the globe, a considerable body of evidence, from which he suggested that it may have arisen out of the custom of providing refreshments for the dead, either by actually feeding the corpse, or by leaving eatables and drinkables for its use. It is suggested that the fasting which was at first the natural and inevitable result of such sacrifice on behalf of the dead may eventually have come to be regarded as an indispensable concomitant of all sacrifice, and so have survived as a well-established usage long after the original cause had ceased to operate. But this theory is repudiated by the best authorities; indeed its extreme precariousness at once becomes evident when it is remembered that, now at least, it is usual for religious fasts to precede rather than to follow sacrificial and funeral feasts, if observed at all in connexion with these. Spencer himself (p. 284) admits that “probably the practice arises in more ways than one,” and proceeds to supplement the theory already given by another—that adopted by E. B. Tylor—to the effect that it originated in the desire of the primitive man to bring on at will certain abnormal nervous conditions favourable to the seeing of those visions and the dreaming of those dreams which are supposed to give the soul direct access to the objective realities of the spiritual world. Probably, if we leave out of sight the very numerous and obvious cases in which fasting, originally the natural reflex result of grief, fear or other strong emotion, has come to be the usual conventional symbol of these, we shall find that the practice is generally resorted to, either as a means of somehow exalting the higher faculties at the expense of the lower, or as an act of homage to some object of worship. The axiom of the Amazulu, that “the continually stuffed body cannot see secret things,” meets even now with pretty general acceptance; and if the notion that it is precisely the food which the worshipper foregoes that makes the deity more vigorous to do battle for his human friend be confined only to a few scattered tribes of savages, the general proposition that “fasting is a work of reverence toward God” may be said to be an article of the Catholic faith.
Although fasting as a religious rite is to be met with almost everywhere, there are comparatively few religions, and those only of the more developed kind, which appoint definite public fasts, and make them binding at fixed seasons upon all the faithful. Brahmanism, for example, does not appear to enforce any stated fast upon the laity. Among the ancient Egyptians fasting seems to have been associated with many religious festivals, notably with that of Isis (Herod. ii. 40), but it does not appear that, so far as the common people were concerned, the observance of these festivals (which were purely local) was compulsory. The νηστεία on the third day of the Thesmophoria at Athens was observed only by the women attending the festival (who were permitted to eat cakes made of sesame and honey). It is doubtful whether the fast mentioned by Livy (xxxvi. 37) was intended to be general or sacerdotal merely.
Jewish Fasts.—While remarkable for the cheerful, non-ascetic character of their worship, the Jews were no less distinguished from all the nations of antiquity by their annual solemn fast appointed to be observed on the 10th day of the 7th month (Tisri), the penalty of disobedience being death. The rules, as laid down in Lev. xvi. 29-34, xxiii. 27-32 and Numb. xxix. 7-11, include a special injunction of strict abstinence (“ye shall afflict your souls”) from evening to evening. This fast was intimately associated with the chief feast of the year. Before that feast could be entered upon, the sins of the people had to be confessed and (sacramentally) expiated. The fast was a suitable concomitant of that contrition which befitted the occasion. The practice of stated fasting was not in any other case enjoined by the law; and it is generally understood to have been forbidden on Sabbath. At the same time, private and occasional fasting, being regarded as a natural and legitimate instinct, was regulated rather than repressed. The only other provision about fasting in the Pentateuch is of a regulative nature, Numb. xxx. 14 (13), to the effect that a vow made by a woman “to afflict the soul” may in certain circumstances be cancelled by her husband.
The history of Israel from Moses to Ezra furnishes a large number of instances in which the fasting instinct was obeyed both publicly and privately, locally and nationally, under the influence of sorrow, or fear, or passionate desire. See, for example, Judg. xx. 26; 1 Sam. vii. 6 (where the national fast was conjoined with the ceremony of pouring out water before the Lord); Jer. xxxvi. 6, 9; and 2 Sam. xii. 16. Sometimes the observance of such fasts extended over a considerable period of time, during which, of course, the stricter jejunium was conjoined with abstinentia (Dan. x. 2). Sometimes they lasted only for a day. In Jonah iii. 6, 7, we have an illustrative example of the rigour with which a strict fast might be observed; and such passages as Joel ii. and Isa. lviii. 5 enable us to picture with some vividness the outward accompaniments of a Jewish fast day before the exile.
During the exile many occasional fasts were doubtless observed by the scattered communities, in sorrowful commemoration of the various sad events which had issued in the downfall of the kingdom of Judah. Of these, four appear to have passed into general use—the fasts of the 10th, 4th, 5th and 7th months—commemorating the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, the capture of the city, the destruction of the temple, the assassination of Gedaliah. As time rolled on they became invested with increasing sanctity; and though the prophet Zechariah, when consulted about them at the close of the exile (Zech. viii. 19), had by no means encouraged the observance of them, the rebuilding of the temple does not appear to have been considered an achievement of sufficient importance to warrant their discontinuance. It is worthy of remark that Ezekiel’s prophetic legislation contains no reference to any fast day; the book of Esther (ix. 31), on the other hand, records the institution of a new fast on the 13th of the 12th month.
In the post-exile period private fasting was much practised by the pious, and encouraged by the religious sentiment of the time (see Judith viii. 6; Tob. xii. 8, and context; Sirach xxxiv. 26; Luke ii. 37 and xviii. 12). The last reference contains an allusion to the weekly fasts which were observed on the 2nd and 5th days of each week, in commemoration, it was said, of the ascent and descent of Moses at Sinai. The real origin of these fasts and the date of their introduction are alike uncertain; it is manifest, however, that the observance of them was voluntary, and never made a matter of universal obligation. It is probable that the Sadducees, if not also the Essenes, wholly neglected them. The second book (Seder Moed) of the Mishna contains two tractates bearing upon the subject of fasting. One (Yoma, “the day”) deals exclusively with the rites which were to be observed on the great day of expiation or atonement the other (Taanith, “fast”) is devoted to the other fasts, and deals especially with the manner in which occasional fasting is to be gone about if no rain shall have fallen on or before the 17th day of Marcheschwan. It is enacted that in such a case the rabbis shall begin with a light fast of three days (Monday, Thursday, Monday), i.e. a fast during which it is lawful to work, and also to wash and anoint the person. Then, in the event of a continued drought, fasts of increasing intensity are ordered; and as a last resort the ark is to be brought into the street and sprinkled with ashes, the heads of the Nasi and Ab-beth-din being at the same time similarly sprinkled. In no case was any fast to be allowed to interfere with new-moon or other fixed festival. Another institution treated with considerable fulness in the treatise Taanith is that of the אנשׁי מעמר (viri stationis), who are represented as having been laymen severally representing the twenty-four classes or families into which the whole commonwealth of the laity was divided. They used to attend the temple in rotation, and be present at the sacrifices; and as this duty fell to each in his turn, the men of the class or family which he represented were expected in their several cities and places of abode to engage themselves in religious exercises, and especially in fasting. The suggestion will readily occur that here may be the origin of the Christian stationes. But neither Tertullian nor any other of the fathers seems to have been aware of the existence of any such institution among the Jews; and very probably the story about it may have been a comparatively late invention. It ought to be borne in mind that the Aramaic portion of the Megillath Taanith (a document considerably older than the treatises in the Mishna) gives a catalogue only of the days on which fasting was forbidden. The Hebrew part (commented on by Maimonides), in which numerous fasts are recommended, is of considerably later date. See Reland, Antiq. Hebr. p. iv. c. 10; Derenbourg, Hist. de Palestine, p. 439.
Practice of the Early Christian Church.—Jesus Himself did not inculcate asceticism in His teaching, and the absence of that distinctive element from His practice was sometimes a subject of hostile remark (Matt. xi. 19). We read, indeed, that on one occasion He fasted forty days and forty nights; but the expression, which is an obscure one, possibly means nothing more than that He endured the privations ordinarily involved in a stay in the wilderness. While we have no reason to doubt that He observed the one great national fast prescribed in the written law of Moses, we have express notice that neither He nor His disciples were in the habit of observing the other fasts which custom and tradition had established. See Mark ii. 18, where the correct reading appears to be—“The disciples of John, and the Pharisees, were fasting” (some customary fast). He never formally forbade fasting, but neither did He ever enjoin it. He assumed that, in certain circumstances of sorrow and need, the fasting instinct would sometimes be felt by the community and the individual; what He was chiefly concerned about was to warn His followers against the mistaken aims which His contemporaries were so apt to contemplate in their fasting (Matt. vi. 16-18). In one passage, indeed, He has been understood as practically commanding resort to the practice in certain circumstances. It ought to be noted, however, that Matt. xvii. 21 is probably spurious; and that in Mark ix. 29 the words “and fasting” are omitted by Westcott and Hort as well as by Tischendorf on the evidence of the Cod. Sinaiticus (first hand) and Cod. Vaticanus. The reference to “the fast” in Acts xxvii. 9 has generally been held to indicate that the apostles continued to observe the yearly Jewish fast. But this inference is by no means a necessary one. According to Acts xiii. 2, 3, xiv. 23, they conjoined fasting with prayer at ordinations, and doubtless also on some other solemn occasions; but at the same time the liberty of the Christian “in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath” was strongly insisted on, by one of them at least, who declared that meat whether taken or abstained from commendeth not to God (Col. ii. 16-23; 1 Cor. viii. 8; Rom. xiv. 14-22; 1 Tim. iv. 3-5). The fastings to which the apostle Paul alludes in 2 Cor. vi. 5, xi. 27, were rather of the nature of inevitable hardships cheerfully endured in the discharge of his sacred calling. The words which appear to encourage fasting in 1 Cor. vii. 5 are absent from all the oldest manuscripts and are now omitted by all critics; and on the whole the precept and practice of the New Testament, while recognizing the propriety of occasional and extraordinary fasts, seem to be decidedly hostile to the imposition of any of a stated, obligatory and general kind.
The usage of the Christian church during the earlier centuries was in this, as in so many other matters, influenced by traditional Jewish feeling, and by the force of old habit, quite as much as by any direct apostolic authority or supposed divine command. Habitual temperance was of course in all cases regarded as an absolute duty; and “the bridegroom” being absent, the present life was regarded as being in a sense one continual “fast.” Fasting in the stricter sense was not unknown; but it is certain that it did not at first occupy nearly so prominent a place in Christian ritual as that to which it afterwards attained. There are early traces of the customary observance of the Wednesday and Friday fasts—the dies stationum (Clem. Alex. Strom. vii. 877), and also of a “quadragesimal” fast before Easter. But the very passage which proves the early origin of “quadragesima,” conclusively shows how uncertain it was in its character, and how unlike the Catholic “Lent.” Irenaeus, quoted by Eusebius (v. 24), informs us with reference to the customary yearly celebration of the mystery of the resurrection of our Lord, that disputes prevailed not only with respect to the day, but also with respect to the manner of fasting in connexion with it. “For some think that they ought to fast only one day, some two, some more days; some compute their day as consisting of forty hours night and day; and this diversity existing among those that observe it is not a matter that has just sprung up in our times, but long ago among those before us.” It was not pretended that the apostles had legislated on the matter, but the general and natural feeling that the anniversaries of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ ought to be celebrated by Christians took expression in a variety of ways according to the differing tastes of individuals. No other stated fasts, besides those already mentioned, can be adduced from the time before Irenaeus; but there was also a tendency—not unnatural in itself, and already sanctioned by Jewish practice—to fast by way of preparation for any season of peculiar privilege. Thus, according to Justin Martyr (Apol. ii. 93), catechumens were accustomed to fast before baptism, and the church fasted with them. To the same feeling the quadragesimal fast which (as already stated) preceded the joyful feast of the resurrection, is to be, in part at least, attributed. As early as the time of Tertullian it was also usual for communicants to prepare themselves by fasting for receiving the eucharist. But that Christian fasts had not yet attained to the exaggerated importance which they afterwards assumed is strikingly shown in the well-known Shepherd of Hermas (lib. iii. sim. v.), where it is declared that “with merely outward fasting nothing is done for true virtue”; the believer is exhorted chiefly to abstain from evil and seek to cleanse himself from feelings of covetousness, and impurity, and revenge: “on the day that thou fastest content thyself with bread, vegetables and water, and thank God for these. But reckon up on this day what thy meal would otherwise have cost thee, and give the amount that it comes to to some poor widow or orphan, or to the poor.” The right of bishops to ordain special fasts, “ex aliqua sollicitudinis ecclesiasticae causa” (Tertullian), was also recognized.
Later Practice of the Church.—According to an expression preserved by Eusebius (H.E. v. 18), Montanus was the first to give laws (to the church) on fasting. Such language, though rhetorical in form, is substantially correct. The treatise of Tertullian,—Concerning Fasting: against the Carnal,—written as it was under Montanistic influence, is doubly interesting, first as showing how free the practice of the church down to that time had been, and then as foreshadowing the burdensome legislation which was destined to succeed. In that treatise (c. 15) he approves indeed of the church practice of not fasting on Saturdays and Sundays (as elsewhere, De corona, c. 3, he had expressed his concurrence in the other practice of observing the entire period between Easter and Pentecost as a season of joy); but otherwise he evinces great dissatisfaction with the indifference of the church as to the number, duration and severity of her fasts. The church thus came to be more and more involved in discussions as to the number of days to be observed, especially in “Lent,” as fast days, as to the hour at which a fast ought to terminate (whether at the 3rd or at the 9th hour), as to the rigour with which each fast ought to be observed (whether by abstinence from flesh merely, abstinentia, or by abstinence from lacticinia, xerophagia, or by literal jejunium), and as to the penalties by which the laws of fasting ought to be enforced. Almost a century, however, elapsed between the composition of the treatise of Tertullian (cir. 212) and the first recorded instances of ecclesiastical legislation on the subject. These, while far from indicating that the church had attained unanimity on the points at issue, show progress in the direction of the later practice of catholicism. About the year 306 the synod of Illiberis in its 26th canon decided in favour of the observance of the Saturday fast. The council of Ancyra in 314, on the other hand, found it necessary to legislate in a somewhat different direction,—by its 14th canon enjoining its priests and clerks at least to taste meat at the love feasts. The synod of Laodicea framed several rules with regard to the observance of “Lent,” such as that “during Lent the bread shall not be offered except on Saturday and Sunday” (can. 49), that “the fast shall not be relaxed on the Thursday of the last week of Lent, thus dishonouring the whole season; but the fast shall be kept throughout the whole period” (can. 50), that “during the fast no feasts of the martyrs shall be celebrated” (can. 51), and that “no wedding or birthday feasts shall be celebrated during Lent” (can. 52). The synod of Hippo (393 A.D.) enacted that the sacrament of the altar should always be taken fasting, except on the Thursday before Easter. Protests in favour of freedom were occasionally raised, not always in a very wise manner, or on very wise grounds, by various individuals such as Eustathius of Sebaste (c. 350), Aerius of Pontus (c. 375), and Jovinian, a Roman monk (c. 388). Of the Eustathians, for example (whose connexion with Eustathius can hardly be doubted), the complaint was made that “they fast on Sundays, but eat on the fast-days of the church.” They were condemned by the synod of Gangra in Paphlagonia in the following canons:—Can. 19, “If any one fast on Sunday, let him be anathema.” Can. 20, “If any one do not keep the fasts universally commanded and observed by the whole church, let him be anathema.” Jovinian was very moderate. He “did not allow himself to be hurried on by an inconsiderate zeal to condemn fasting, the life of celibacy, monachism, considered purely in themselves. . . . He merely sought to show that men were wrong in recommending so highly and indiscriminately the life of celibacy and fasting, though he was ready to admit that both under certain circumstances might be good and useful” (Neander). He was nevertheless condemned (390) both by Pope Siricius at a synod in Rome, and by Ambrose at another in Milan. The views of Aerius, according to the representations of his bitter opponent Epiphanius (Haer. 75, “Adv. Aerium”), seem on this head at least, though unpopular, to have been characterized by great wisdom and sobriety. He did not condemn fasting altogether, but thought that it ought to be resorted to in the spirit of gospel freedom according as each occasion should arise. He found fault with the church for having substituted for Christian liberty a yoke of Jewish bondage.
Towards the beginning of the 5th century we find Socrates (439) enumerating (H.E. v. 22) a long catalogue of the different fasting practices of the church. The Romans fasted three weeks continuously before Easter (Saturdays and Sundays excepted). In Illyria, Achaia and Alexandria the quadragesimal fast lasted six weeks. Others (the Constantinopolitans) began their fasts seven weeks before Easter, but fasted only on alternate weeks, five days at a time. Corresponding differences as to the manner of abstinence occurred. Some abstained from all living creatures; others ate fish; others fish and fowl. Some abstained from eggs and fruit; some confined themselves to bread; some would not take even that. Some fasted till three in the afternoon, and then took whatever they pleased. “Other nations,” adds the historian, “observe other customs in their fasts, and that for various reasons. And since no one can show any written rule about this, it is plain the apostles left this matter free to every one’s liberty and choice, that no one should be compelled to do a good thing out of necessity and fear.” When Leo the Great became pope in 440, a period of more rigid uniformity began. The imperial authority of Valentinian helped to bring the whole West at least into submission to the see of Rome; and ecclesiastical enactments had, more than formerly, the support of the civil power. Though the introduction of the four Ember seasons was not entirely due to him, as has sometimes been asserted, it is certain that their widespread observance was due to his influence, and to that of his successors, especially of Gregory the Great. The tendency to increased rigour may be discerned in the 2nd canon of the synod of Orleans (541), which declares that every Christian is bound to observe the fast of Lent, and, in case of failure to do so, is to be punished according to the laws of the church by his spiritual superior; in the 9th canon of the synod of Toledo (653), which declares the eating of flesh during Lent to be a mortal sin; in Charlemagne’s law for the newly conquered Saxony, which attaches the penalty of death to wanton disregard of the holy season. Baronius mentions that in the 11th century those who ate flesh during Lent were liable to have their teeth knocked out. But it ought to be remembered that this severity of the law early began to be tempered by the power to grant dispensations. The so-called Butter Towers (Tours de beurre) of Rouen, 1485–1507, Bourges and other cities, are said to have been built with money raised by sale of dispensations to eat lacticinia on fast days.
It is probable that the apparent severity of the medieval Latin Church on this subject was largely due to the real strictness of the Greek Church, which, under the patriarch Photius in 864, had taken what was virtually a new departure in its fasting praxis. The rigour of the fasts of the modern Greek Church is well known; and it can on the whole be traced back to that comparatively early date. Of the nine fundamental laws of that church (ἐννέα παραγγέλματα τῆς ἐκκλησίας) two are concerned with fasting. Besides fasts of an occasional and extraordinary nature, the following are recognized as of stated and universal obligation:—(1) The Wednesday and Friday fasts throughout the year (with the exception of the period between Christmas and Epiphany, the Easter week, the week after Whitsunday, the third week after Epiphany); (2) The great yearly fasts, viz. that of Lent, lasting 48 days, from the Monday of Sexagesima to Easter eve; that of Advent, 39 days, from November 15 to Christmas eve; that of the Theotokos (νηστεία τῆς Θεοτόκου), from August 1 to August 15; that of the Holy Apostles, lasting a variable number of days from the Monday after Trinity; (3) The minor yearly fasts before Epiphany, before Whitsunday, before the feasts of the transfiguration, the invention of the cross, the beheading of John the Baptist. During even the least rigid of these the use of flesh and lacticinia is strictly forbidden; fish, oil and wine are occasionally conceded, but not before two o’clock in the afternoon. The practice of the Coptic church is almost identical with this. A week before the Great Fast (Lent), a fast of three days is observed in commemoration of that of the Ninevites, mentioned in the book of Jonah. Some of the Copts are said to observe it by total abstinence during the whole period. The Great Fast continues fifty-five days; nothing is eaten except bread and vegetables, and that only in the afternoon, when church prayers are over. The Fast of the Nativity lasts for twenty-eight days before Christmas; that of the Apostles for a variable number of days from the Feast of the Ascension; and that of the Virgin for fifteen days before the Assumption. All Wednesdays and Fridays are also fast days except those that occur in the period between Easter and Whitsunday. The Armenians are equally strict; but (adds Rycaut) “the times seem so confused and without rule that they can scarce be recounted, unless by those who live amongst them, and strictly observe them, it being the chief care of the priest, whose learning principally consists in knowing the appointed times of fasting and feasting, the which they never omit on Sundays to publish unto the people.”
At the council of Trent no more than a passing allusion was made to the subject of fasting. The faithful were simply enjoined to submit themselves to church authority on the subject; and the clergy were exhorted to urge their flocks to the observance of frequent jejunia, as conducive to the mortification of the flesh, and as assuredly securing the divine favour. R. F. R. Bellarmine (De jejunio) distinguishes jejunium spirituale (abstinentia a vitiis), jejunium morale (parsimonia et temperantia cibi et potus), jejunium naturale (abstinentia ab omni prorsus cibo et potu, quacunque ratione sumpto), and jejunium ecclesiasticum. The last he defines simply as an abstinence from food in conformity with the rule of the church. It may be either voluntary or compulsory; and compulsory either because of a vow or because of a command. But the definition given by Alexander Halensis, which is much fuller, still retains its authority:—“Jejunium est abstinentia a cibo et potu secundum formam ecclesiae, intuitu satisfaciendi pro peccato et acquirendi vitam aeternam.” It was to this last clause that the Reformers most seriously objected. They did not deny that fasting might be a good thing, nor did they maintain that the church or the authority might not ordain fasts, though they deprecated the imposition of needless burdens on the conscience. What they protested against was the theory of the opus operatum et meritorium as applied to fasting. As matter of fact, the Reformed churches in no case gave up the custom of observing fast days, though by some churches the number of such days was greatly reduced. In many parts of Germany the seasons of Lent and Advent are still marked by the use of emblems of mourning in the churches, by the frequency of certain phrases (Kyrie eleison, Agnus Dei) and the absence of others (Hallelujah, Gloria in excelsis) in the liturgical services, by abstinence from some of the usual social festivities, and by the non-celebration of marriages. And occasional fasts are more or less familiar. The Church of England has retained a considerable list of fasts; though Hooker (E.P. v. 72) had to contend with some who, while approving of fastings undertaken “of men’s own free and voluntary accord as their particular devotion doth move them thereunto,” yet “yearly or weekly fasts such as ours in the Church of England they allow no further than as the temporal state of the land doth require the same for the maintenance of seafaring men and preservation of cattle; because the decay of the one and the waste of the other could not well be prevented but by a politic order appointing some such usual change of diet as ours is.”
In the practice of modern Roman Catholicism the following are recognized as fasting days, that is to say, days on which one meal only, and that not of flesh, may be taken in the course of twenty-four hours:—The forty days of Lent (Sundays excepted), all the Ember days, the Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent, and the vigils of certain feasts, namely, those of Whitsuntide, of St Peter and St Paul, of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of All Saints and of Christmas day. The following are simply days of abstinence, that is to say, days on which flesh at all events must not be eaten:—The Sundays in Lent, the three Rogation days, the feast of St Mark (unless it falls in Easter week), and all Fridays which are not days of fasting. In the Anglican Church, the “days of fasting or abstinence” are the forty days of Lent, the Ember days, the Rogation days, and all the Fridays in the year, except Christmas day. The evens or vigils before Christmas, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Easter day, Ascension day, Pentecost, St Matthias, the Nativity of St John Baptist, St Peter, St James, St Bartholomew, St Matthew, St Simon and St Jude, St Andrew, St Thomas, and All Saints are also recognized as “fast days.” By the 64th canon it is enacted that “every parson, vicar or curate, shall in his several charge declare to the people every Sunday at the time appointed in the communion-book [which is, after the Nicene creed has been repeated] whether there be any holy-days or fast-days the week following.” The 72nd canon ordains that “no minister or ministers shall, without licence and direction of the bishop under hand and seal, appoint or keep any solemn fasts, either publicly or in any private houses, other than such as by law are or by public authority shall be appointed, nor shall be wittingly present at any of them under pain of suspension for the first fault, of excommunication for the second, and of deposition from the ministry for the third.” While strongly discouraging the arbitrary multiplication of public or private fasts, the English Church seems to leave to the discretion of the individual conscience every question as to the manner in which the fasts she formally enjoins are to be observed. In this connexion the homily Of Fasting may be again referred to. By a statute of the reign of Queen Elizabeth it was enacted that none should eat flesh on “fish days” (the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year) without a licence, under a penalty. In the Scottish Presbyterian churches days of “fasting, humiliation and prayer” are observed by ecclesiastical appointment in each parish once or twice every year on some day of the week preceding the Sunday fixed for the administration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In some of the New England States, it has been usual for the governor to appoint by proclamation at some time in spring a day of fasting, when religious services are conducted in the churches. National fasts have more than once been observed on special occasions both in this country and in the United States of America.
On the subject of fasting the views of Aerius are to a large extent shared by modern Protestant moralists. R. Rothe, for example, who on this point may be regarded as a representative thinker, rejects the idea that fasting is a thing meritorious in itself, and is very doubtful of its value even as an aid to devotional feeling. Of course when bodily health and other circumstances require it, it becomes a duty; and as a means of self-discipline it may be used with due regard to the claims of other duties, and to the fitness of things. In this last aspect, however, habitual temperance will generally be found to be much more beneficial than occasional fasting. It is extremely questionable, in particular, whether fasting be so efficient as it is sometimes supposed to be in protecting against temptation to fleshly sin. The practice has a well-ascertained tendency to excite the imagination; and in so far as it disturbs that healthy and well-balanced interaction of body and mind which is the best or at least the normal condition for the practice of virtue, it is to be deprecated rather than encouraged (Theologische Ethik, sec. 873-875).
Mahommedan Fasts.—Among the Mahommedans, the month Ramadan, in which the first part of the Koran is said to have been received, is by command of the prophet observed as a fast with extraordinary rigour. No food or drink of any kind is permitted to be taken from daybreak until the appearance of the stars at nightfall. Extending as it does over the whole “month of raging heat,” such a fast manifestly involves considerable self-denial; and it is absolutely binding upon all the faithful whether at home or abroad. Should its observance at the appointed time be interfered with by sickness or any other cause, the fast must be kept as soon afterwards as possible for a like number of days. It is the only one which Mahommedanism enjoins; but the doctors of the law recommend a considerable number of voluntary fasts, as for example on the tenth day of the month Moharram. This day, called the “Yom Ashoora,” is held sacred on many accounts:—“because it is believed to be the day on which the first meeting of Adam and Eve took place after they were cast out of paradise; and that on which Noah went out from the ark; also because several other great events are said to have happened on this day; and because the ancient Arabs, before the time of the prophet, observed it by fasting. But what, in the opinion of most modern Moslems, and especially the Persians, confers the greatest sanctity on the day of Ashoora is the fact of its being that on which El-Hoseyn, the prophet’s grandson, was slain a martyr at the battle of the plain of Karbala.” It is the practice of many Moslems to fast on this day, and some do so on the preceding day also. Mahomet himself called fasting the “gate of religion,” and forbade it only on the two great festivals, namely, on that which immediately follows Ramadan and on that which succeeds the pilgrimage. (See Lane, Modern Egyptians, chaps, iii., xxiv.)
- “The Fathers assembled there . . . decreed in that council that every person, as well in his private as public fast, should continue all the day without meat and drink, till after the evening prayer. And whosoever did eat or drink before the evening prayer was ended should be accounted and reputed not to consider the purity of his fast. This canon teacheth so evidently how fasting was used in the primitive church as by words it cannot be more plainly expressed” (Of Good Works; and first, of Fasting.)
- As indeed they are, etymologically; but, prior to the Reformation, a conventional distinction between abstinentia and jejunium naturale had long been recognized. “Exceptio eduliorum quorundam portionale jejunium est” (Tertullian).
- Confucianism ought perhaps to be named as one. Zoroastrianism is frequently given as another, but hardly . In the Liber Sad-der, indeed (Porta xxv.), we read, “Cavendum est tibi a jejunio; nam a mane ad vesperam nihil comedere non est bonum in religione nostra”; but according to the Père de Chinon (Lyons, 1671) the Parsee religion enjoins, upon the priesthood at least, no fewer than five yearly fasts. See Hyde, Veterum Persarum religio, pp. 449, 548 (ed. 1700).
- During the middle ages the prevalent notion was that it had its origin in paradise. The germ at least of this idea is to be found in Tertullian, who says: “Acceperat Adam a Deo legem non gustandi de arbore agnitionis boni et mali, moriturus si gustasset; verum et ipse tunc in psychicum reversus . . . facilius ventri quam Deo cessit, pabulo potius quam praecepto annuit, salutem gula vendidit, manducavit denique et periit, salvus alioquin si uni arbusculae jejunare maluisset” (De jejuniis, c. 3).
- Principles of Sociology, i. pp. 170, 284, 285. Compare the passage in the appendix from Hanusch, Slavischer Mythus, p. 408.
- Spencer, Prin. of Sociology, i. 256, &c.; E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, i. 277, 402; ii. 372, &c.
- Hooker, E.P. v. 72. In the Westminster Assembly’s Larger Catechism fasting is mentioned among the duties required by the second commandment.
- The Brahmans themselves on the eleventh day after the full moon and the eleventh day after the new “abstain for sixty hours from every kind of sustenance”; and some have a special fast every Monday in November. See Picart, The Religion and Manners of the Brahmins.
- נפשׁ is here to be taken as substantially equivalent to “desire,” “appetite.”
- See Judith viii. 6. “And yet it may be a question whether they (the Jews) did not always fast upon Sabbath,” says Hooker (E.P. v. 72, 7), who gives a curious array of evidence pointing in this direction. He even makes use of Neh. viii. 9-12, which might be thought to tell the other way. Justinian’s phrase, “Sabbata Judaeorum a Mose in omne aevum jejunio dicata” (l. xxxvi. c. 2; comp. Suetonius, Augustus, 76) may be accounted for by the fact that the day of atonement is called Sabbat Sabbatôn (“a perfect Sabbath”).
- There is, as Graf (Gesch. Bücher des A.T. p. 41) has pointed out, no direct evidence that the fast on the 10th of the 7th month was ever observed before the exile. But the inference which he draws from this silence of the historical books is manifestly a precarious one at best. Bleek calls Lev. xvi. “ein deutliches Beispiel Mosaïscher Abfassung” (Einleitung, p. 31, ed. 1878).
- The allusion to the ark warns us to be cautious in assuming the laws of the Mishna to have been ever in force.
- The idea, however, is found in the Clementine Homilies, ix. 9. Compare Tertullian De jejuniis, c. 8: “Docuit etiam adversus diriora daemonia jejuniis praeliandum.”
- On the manuscript evidence the words “I was fasting,” in Acts x. 30, must also be regarded as doubtful. They are rejected by Lachmann, Tregelles and Tischendorf.
- Quinam isti (adversarii) sint, semel nominabo: exteriores et interiores botuli psychicorum.... Arguunt nos quod jejunia propria custodiamus, quod stationes plerumque in vesperam producamus, quod etiam xerophagias observemus, siccantes cibum ab omni carne et omni jurulentia et uvidioribus quibusque pomis, nec quid vinositatis vel edamus vel potemus; lavacri quoque abstinentiam congruentem arido victui.
- The language of the canon is ambiguous; but this interpretation seems to be preferable, especially in view of canon 23, which enacts that jejunii superpositiones are to be observed in all months except July and August. See Hefele, Councils, i. 148 (Engl. trs.).
- Compare the 52nd [51st] of the Apostolical canons. “If any bishop or presbyter or deacon, or indeed any one of the sacerdotal catalogue, abstains from flesh and wine, not for his own exercise but out of hatred of the things, forgetting that all things were very good ... either let him reform, or let him be deprived and be cast out of the church. So also a layman.” To this particular canon Hefele is disposed to assign a very early date.
- Compare canon 64 of the (supposed) fourth synod of Carthage: “He who fasts on Sunday is not accounted a Catholic” (Hefele, ii. 415).
- Priscillian, whose widespread heresy evoked from the synod of Saragossa (418) the canon, “No one shall fast on Sunday, nor may any one absent himself from church during Lent and hold a festival of his own,” appears, on the question of fasting, not to have differed from the Encratites and various other sects of Manichean tendency (c. 406).
- Cap. iii. pro partib. Saxoniae: “Si quis sanctum quadragesimale jejunium pro despectu Christianitatis contempserit et carnem comederit, morte moriatur. Sed tamen consideretur a sacerdote ne forte causa necessitatis hoc cuilibet proveniat, ut carnem comedat.” See Augusti, Christliche Archäologie, x. p. 374.
- See Fink’s article “Fasten” in Ersch and Gruber’s Encyclopädie; Lane, Modern Egyptians; and Rycaut, Present State of the Armenian Church.