The New International Encyclopædia/Fast

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FAST (AS. fæsten, Icel. fasta, Goth. fastubni, OHG. fasta, Ger. Fasten, fast, from AS. fæstan, Icel. fasta, Goth. fastan, OHG. fastēn, Ger. fasten, to fast; probably connected with AS. fæst, Icel. fastr, OHG. fasti, feste, Ger. fest, fast, firm). A term used in express either total abstinence from meat and drink, or at least a certain restraint in respect of food. As a religious custom, fasting seems in have originated in the conceived necessity of proper preparation for communion with the ancestral spirits in the sacrificial meal and in the ecstatic state. It was thus a sacrifice offered to the Divinity, the acceptance of which was indicated by permission to partake in the sacrificial banquet and by the vision vouchsafed to the devotee. Hence its universal occurrence in some form in all religions and among common worshipers as well as among the religious leaders. It has been observed wherever ancestral worship has flourished, even though there was no marked tendency toward mysticism, and has not only maintained itself, but has developed especial intensity as a means of inducing an extraordinary psychical receptivity to spiritual impressions in monotheistic and pantheistic forms of religion otherwise preserving only slight traces of their animistic origin. The reduced vitality and increased nervous excitability occasioned by lack of proper nourishment have tended to produce a mental condition favorable to the seeing of visions and the hearing of voices, necessarily interpreted as objective realities. By curbing the appetites and the passions, they have served as means of moral discipline. On the other hand, the reaction has added joy and exhilaration to the following communion with the Divinity. See Festivals.

The custom prevailed among the Aztecs and Toltecs of Mexico, the Incas of Peru, and other American aborigines. It has been found among the Pacific Islanders, who occasionally use strong purges before venturing to eat holy meat. In China and Japan there are possible traces of it before contact with Buddhism; and it has been kept in eastern Asia wherever Brahmanism and Buddhism have spread. If the climatic conditions of India forced attention to dietary rules, the introspective attitude of her people naturally led to observation of the effects upon the mental activities of abstinence from food. Insensibility to pain, clairvoyance, attainment to a higher superconscious state, absorption in the divine, seemed the rewards or results of a patient endurance. Already in the Yajur-Veda period this estimate of the value of fasting becomes apparent, and it is still widely prevalent in all parts of India. In the Mithras cult, a mixture of Iranian and orgiastic elements, it was a necessary preparation for initiation into the mysteries. As this faith spread over Armenia, Cappadocia, Pontus, and Syria, the importance of the already-existing religious custom was everywhere enhanced. It was indeed a characteristic requirement made by mystic cult societies in many lands. At least as early as the seventh century B.C. the Orphic societies in Greece demanded total abstinence from meat and beans, and subsequently the highest rites in the Eleusinian mysteries were preceded by a day of fasting. Similarly, fasting was required previous to initiation in the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, while in earlier time it does not seem to have been widely observed in Egypt, though it is known through Herodotus that at Busiris a fast preceded the sacrificial meal. The Romans also to some extent practiced fasting in connection with their festivals, and in later times before initiation in cult societies.

It is not certain that the Babylonians kept the custom; and the story of the fast in Nineveh (Jonah iii. 5 sqq.) merely shows that the late Jewish authors took for granted that the Assyrians fasted to avoid a great national calamity, though they may have been quite right in this assumption. In Israel, fasting was, in earlier times, spontaneous and not regulated by law. The purpose appears to have been to arouse Yahweh's pity (II. Sam. xii. 22), to avert national calamity (I. Sam. vii. 6), to express sorrow for the dead (I. Sam. xxxi. 13), to prepare for a sacrificial meal (I. Sam. xxi. 5), or to render a man fit for a special revelation (Ex. xxxiv. 28; Deut. ix. 9, 18). After the Exile, days of public fasting were instituted. They are first mentioned in Zech. viii. 19, where the fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months are referred to and the question whether they should be observed is discussed. These fasts were ordained in commemoration of the misfortunes that bad befallen Jerusalem, viz. the capture of the city on the 9th of Tammuz, the destruction of the temple on the 9th of Ab, the murder of Gedaliah on the 3d of Tishri (Jer. xli. 2), and the beginning of the siege on the 10th of Ab. The only day set apart for fasting in the Mosaic law is the tenth of the seventh month (Tishri). It is thought by modern scholars to have been instituted later than the four fast days previously mentioned. See Atonement, Day of.

Still later is the observance of the 13th of Adar as a fast day. (See Purim.) While the earlier prophets denounced the custom of fasting, the later prophetic writers seem to have regarded it as valuable. Prayer and fasting are often united, and the necessity of fasting as a preparation for divine revelations is emphasized (Dan. ix. 3; x. 2, 3, 12; IV. Ezra v. 13; vi. 31). The Pharisaic party practiced fasting on two days in the week, Monday and Thursday, though it is doubtful whether it ever was more than partial; the Essenes were led by their ascetic tendencies to attach much value to fasting, while the Sadducees, more conservative in such matters, did not go beyond the fast days prescribed in the law. As the Babylonian exile, rendering sacrifices impossible for a time, led to a development of fast days, so the misfortunes that in later times have befallen the Jewish people have occasioned the establishment of new fast days. These, however, have not become permanent. There are half days of fasting at the summer and winter solstices which may go back to earlier times; those before Rosh Hashshana, or the New Year's Day, and the Day of Atonement, seem to be later developments. Fasting is often prescribed on certain memorial days. An orthodox Jew fasts on his birthday after reaching the age of thirteen, and on the birthday of his first-born son till the latter reaches the age of thirteen, in commemoration of the sparing of the Israelite first-born in Egypt. The anniversary of the death of parents is also similarly observed. Fasting with the Jews always implies entire abstinence and lasts from daybreak till the appearance of the first three stars, except on the Day of Atonement and the 9th of Ab, when the period begins with sunset of the preceding day. Children, pregnant women, and the sick are exempted from the observance of fasting.

In the reported sayings of Jesus, He refers only twice to fasting. In Matt. vi. 16-18, He says: “When thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face, that thou be not seen of men to fast,” thus condemning all ostentatious fasting, and inferentially all public display of contrition. In Matt. ix. 14-17 and parallels, He answers the question why He and His disciples do not fast. All scholars are agreed that the strikingly original utterances concerning the new wine and the old bottles and the new piece and the old garment are genuine. Assuming the authenticity also of the remarks concerning the bridegroom who is to be taken away, Roman Catholic interpreters understand, not improperly, the words, “And then they shall fast in those days,” to be a direct exhortation, and that the disciples were only exempted from fasting during the presence of their Master on earth. This must indeed have been the manner in which the words were apprehended in the early Church. But the genuineness of this saving is seriously questioned by competent critics, and it is most naturally understood as a justification of a practice not observed by Jesus Himself or His disciples in His lifetime, but subsequently adopted. It seems to be earlier than the story of His fast for forty days (Matt, iv.). These passages probably show that at the end of the first century fasting was quite generally observed in the Church. This is also shown by Acts xiii. 2, 3; xiv. 23; II. Cor. vi. 5: xi. 27, and the interpolations found in the received text of Matt. xvii. 21; Mark ix. 29; Acts x. 30; I. Cor. vii. 5. In the Oxyrhyneus fragment containing what claim to be the sayings of Jesus. He is represented as having said, “If ye fast not in respect of the world, ye shall not find the Kingdom of God.” The language is probably to be taken figuratively, may be directed against physical fasting, and certainly does not come from Jesus. Fasting was required as a preparation for holy acts and feasts, for ordination and baptism. The forty hours between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, commemorating the time when Christ lay in the sepulchre, were annually celebrated, and early fathers allude to the forty days of Lent as handed down and observed by the Church. The moral earnestness of the Montanistic movement found expression in vigorous fasting. (See Montanus.) While Wednesdays and Fridays had no doubt been observed by fasting before his time, Montanus emphasized the necessity of abstaining from all food on these days, and probably was the first to lay down definite rules concerning fasting. The growing Catholic Church was led by this movement to regulate more closely the matter of fasting and to grant certain relaxations. At the Council of Orleans (541), abstinence from meat during Lent, except on Sundays, was prescribed. The eighth Council of Toledo (633) declared those who ate meat, during Lent sinners unworthy to partake in the resurrection. But the severe laws on this subject which prevailed in earlier times generally, and were made still stricter in the monastic rules (the Cistercians, for example, eating nothing at all until two o'clock in the afternoon), have been much relaxed in later days as a concession to the needs of modern complexity of life and severity of climate. To regulate the details of fasting has always been considered as within the authority of the Church: in George Herbert's phrase, “The Bible bids us fast—the Church says ‘Now.’ ” Accordingly the power of dispensation is considered by Roman Catholic theologians to reside primarily and universally in the Pope, for practical purposes also in the bishops, and (for individual cases) in parish priests and confessors. Fasting is divided into the natural or absolute and total fast, which means entire abstinence from any sort of food or drink, no matter in how small quantities; the ecclesiastical or partial fast; and abstinence. The first only applies to the regulation for those who are to receive Holy Communion; it lasts from the previous midnight until after communion, and is never relaxed except in the case of the dying. The second allows only one full meal in the day, with a small collation in the evening, and two ounces of dry bread with the morning coffee or tea. The third does not regulate the quantity, but forbids the use of meat. Normally, all weekdays in Lent, the ember-days (q.v.) at the four seasons, certain vigils (q.v.), and in some countries the Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent, are observed as strict fasts under the above definition; but the regulations vary considerably in detail in different countries. Recently a dispensation granted for ten years and already once renewed allows the bishops of the United States to relax very much the Lenten fast for the working classes. Those who are under twenty-one or over sixty, the insane, sick, or convalescent persons, pregnant and nursing women, and those whose occupations are specially laborious or exhausting, are excused from fasting. Strictly, the prohibition of flesh-meat includes the products of the animals whose flesh is not to be eaten, as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, classed together as lacticinia; but in northern countries, at least, these are usually allowed, either by custom or express dispensation. The Roman Catholic Church regards fasting as a means of grace, under two aspects—that of the actual mortification and that of obedience to ecclesiastical precept.

In the Greek Church fasting is kept with much greater severity. The Easter fast lasts 48 days, that of Christmas 39 days, that in honor of the Virgin 14 days, and that of the Apostles begins on Monday after Trinity and extends to the 29th of June. There are also many vigils preparatory for great festivals. The Church of England considers fasting as praiseworthy, but not as obligatory, a useful exercise preparatory for the means of grace, but not itself one. The days named by the English Church as seasons of fasting are the forty days of Lent, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; the ember-days, the three rogation days, all the Fridays of the year (except Christmas Day), and the eves or vigils of certain festivals.

Mohammed commanded but one fast, viz. that during the month of Ramadan (see Ramadan), although he recommended fasting at certain other times as a meritorious act. The fast of Ramadan is rigorously observed, at least in letter, by all Mussulmans. Whether fasting was practiced in Arabia before contact with Judaism or Christianity is doubtful. Certain of the fasts recommended by Mohammed seem to be imitations; that on the 10th of Muharram (see Muharram), for instance, corresponds to the Day of Atonement on the 10th of Tishri.

Abstinence from food may cause a grave condition of the body, and may even endanger life. In an experiment upon an animal which was caused to fast for 13 days, the more important tissues lost the following percentages of dry solid matter: The adipose tissues, 97 per cent.; the spleen, 63.1 per cent.; the liver, 56.6 per cent.; the muscles, 30.2 per cent.; the blood, 17.6 per cent.; the brain and spinal cord, none. The tissues in general became more watery than in health. As the amount of muscle lost during the fasting period contained about 15.2 grains of nitrogen, more than half the lost nitrogen came from metabolism of muscular tissue. Experience has taught that the weight of an adult's body may remain approximately constant for months or years, even under varying conditions of diet. Also, the relative proportions of the various tissues of the body remain constant, in addition to an unchanged weight. Evidently, in such cases, the expenditure of the body must precisely balance its income. If it did not lose as much nitrogen as it takes in, the body would gain in muscle. If it did not lose as much carbon as it takes in, it would put on fat. It may be losing or gaining carbon, losing or gaining fat, and yet the proteid constituents remain constant in amount, the expenditure of nitrogen being exactly equal to the income of nitrogen. This condition is called ‘nitrogenous equilibrium.’ In a fasting animal, while urea is excreted and carbonic acid is given off, the expenditure of nitrogen is very small. The glycogen and then the fat disappear, and, lastly, some of the proteid. But, as the figures given show, the heart and central nervous system are supported, and lose but little in weight, while other organs are sacrificed to feed them.

The results obtained from the study of fasting men differ a little from those in the case of starving animals. In men, the excretion of nitrogen diminishes continuously for several days. There is a diminution of the chlorine and urea in the urine, and an increase in phenol. The respiratory quotient sinks to a figure less than the one corresponding to oxidation of fats alone. The inference must be that some of the carbon of the disintegrated proteids is stored up in the body as glycogen.

After a certain period of fasting, fever, restlessness, and delirium generally set in. The delirium may be mild, with hallucinations of food and drink, or it may be furious. Age and obesity have a considerable influence upon the length of time life persists, in the face of actual starvation. A case is recorded, of the wreck of the frigate Medusa in 1876, when fifteen people survived without food on an open raft, for thirteen days. In the case of a convict, quoted by Berard, life was sustained on water alone for sixty-three days. Eight miners survived five days and sixteen hours with almost no food. But, generally, death occurs in man after from five to eight days of total deprivation of food. Chossat states that death from starvation occurs after a loss of four-tenths of the weight of the body. Though there have been many alleged cases of fasting for thirty days, or even some years, by certain professional fasters or religious women, nothing of the sort could possibly have happened, impostures having thus been practiced invariably in every ease. Dogs live from thirty to thirty-five days if deprived entirely of food and drink.

Hibernating animals (see Hibernation) are capable of sustaining the want of food for an apparently indefinite period of weeks during the winter sleep; but no warm-blooded animal can endure fasting in anything like the same degree as the reptiles—in many of which, indeed, the natural state of existence is one of long intervals between the times of taking food, and in which the vital change of texture is remarkably slow. Thus, the remarkable amphibious animal, the Proteus anguinus, has been known to live for years without food, and the same is true of salamanders, tortoises, and even goldfishes. In attempting the recovery of persons reduced by fasting, food must be given in very small quantities at a time, and of the most nourishing and digestible quality; stimulants should be either withheld or very cautiously administered. The most important point, next to the regulation of the food, and sometimes even before food is given at all, is the removal of the chill of the body by gradually applied heat; for, in addition to emaciation and arrest of secretion, the animal heat falls perceptibly during fasting.

Bibliography. Consult the Hebrew archæologies of Nowack (Freiburg, 1894) and Benzinger (ib., 1894); Linsenmayr, Die Entwicklung der kirchlichen Fastendiziplin bis zum Konzil von Nicäa (Munich, 1877); Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites (Cambridge, 1894); Smend, Alttestamentliche Religionsgeschichte (Freiburg, 1899); Duchesne, Origines du culte chrétien (Paris, 1898). For the physiological effects, consult: Flint, Text-Book of Human Physiology (New York, 1879); Stewart, Manual of Physiology (London, 1895).