I. Hebrew.

II. In the Church.

Weekly Fasts (§ 1).

The Conception of Fasting (§ 2).

The Fast Before Easter (§ 3).

The Advent Fast (§ 4).

Other Fasts (§ 5).

Mode of Observance (§ 6).

The Present Practise (§ 7).


I. Hebrew: The word commonly used in Hebrew to express the idea of fasting is a common Semitic possession, is used by Arameans, Arabs, and Ethiopians, and appears in both the early and the late Old Testament writings (II Sam. xii. 16; Dan. ix. 3). In Isa. lviii. 3 "fasting" is in parallelism with "afflict the soul," a phrase often used to express the idea (Lev. xvi. 29, 31; Num. xxix. 7). The occasions of fasting among the Hebrews appear to have been three: (1) As a preparation for some religious duty. Thus Moses remained fasting on Sinai for forty days and nights when about to receive the tables of the decalogue (Ex. xxxiv. 28), and Daniel fasted for a considerable time before receiving his revelation (Dan. ix. 3, x. 2, cf. T. Nöldeke, Geschichte des Qorans, Gottingen, 1860). (2) As an accompaniment or manifestation of mourning. So the Jabesh-Gileadites and David mourned Saul (I Sam. xxxi. 13, II Sam. i. 12). The fact that David did not mourn after the death of his child by Bathsheba caused surprise in his attendants, and this suggests the customariness of fasting after a death. There was doubtless some religious significance in the act (cf. Wellhausen, Heidentum, p. 182). (3) As an act of self-abnegation and humility to conciliate deity (I Kings xxi. 28; Jer. xiv. 12). Specific cases are: David, when he feared the death of his child (II Sam. xii. 16); Ahab, to avert the disaster predicted by Elijah (I Kings xxi. 27-29); Nehemiah, over the sad condition of Jerusalem (Neh. i. 4); the whole people fasted in times of peril or misfortune (II Chron. xx. 3; Jer. xxxvi. 9; I Macc. iii. 47). In postexilic times the days on which disasters had occurred were celebrated as fast-days (Zech. vii. 3), and it became a manifestation of consciousness of sin (Neh. ix. 1; cf. I Kings xxi. 9). The fast was also employed to secure a happy issue out of dangerous circumstances (I Sam. xiv. 24; Esther iv. 16). By the Law only one fast was ordained, that of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi. 29, cf. verse 21; see ATONEMENT, DAY of). Accompaniments of the fast were ceremonies like the rending of clothing and placing of ashes on the head. The usual period of abstention was one day (I Sam. xxiv. 14), though it might be three days (Esther iv. 16) or during seven days from morning till evening (I Sam. xxxi. 13). In postexilic times the tendency was to multiply fasts, in face of the clear pronouncements of the prophets (cf. Isa. lviii. and Zech. vii. 5-6). See SYNAGOGUE. (F. Buhl)


II. In the Church:

1. Weekly Fasts. The primitive Church took over the custom of fasting from Judaism. Jesus did not oppose the practise which he found prevalent (see above); he condemned only the ostentatious fasting of the Pharisees (Matt. vi. 16-18). From Judaism also the Church took the oldest injunctions concerning Christian fasting. The Jews had observed Monday and Thursday as fast-days, and whoever wished to fast did so on those two days, though there was no general command to fast. There were also optional fast-days. The Gentile-Christian Churches appointed Wednesday and Friday. That from the beginning two days were thus distinguished shows the dependence on Judaism, although a protest is also evidenced by the change of days. In the time of Paul no definite Christian custom seems to have existed (Rom. xiv. 5-6), but there was one by the time of the Didache (viii. 1). In Tertullian's day the optional character of fast-days was still emphasized (De oration, xviii.); later they became obligatory, and all that was left to the individual was the extent of the fast. It usually lasted to the ninth hour. Fasting was based in principle upon the suffering of Christ. The commemoration of the death of Jesus on Friday seems to be very old, and it is possible that from the beginning (cf. Mark ii. 20), as the resurrection of Jesus was commemorated every Sunday, so was his death every Friday. For the observance of Wednesday it was not so easy to find such a motive; and the various artificial derivations of the usage from the history of the Passion, designating it as the day on which Jesus was betrayed, or on which the Sanhedrin decided to kill him, are obviously later justifications of the choice of a day. From the beginning of the third century a third weekly fast, on Saturday, was instituted in Rome. The explanation of this varies. The statement is clearly legendary that Peter before his struggle with Simon Magus induced the Church at Rome to fast with him on Saturday, and that this practise had been maintained ever since (Cassian, De institutis cænobiorum, iii. 10). But it is not impossible that the Saturday fast was considered a weekly repetition of the fast before Easter, as Innocent I. (Epist., xxv. 4) and Augustine (Epist., xxxvi. 21) state. It is possible, too, that an anti-Jewish temper may have led to the institution, and that afterward, because the Jews celebrated Saturday as a festival, the Christians dishonored it by fasting. The Roman custom did not spread widely. The East always declined to adopt it and from the end of the fourth century considered Saturday as well as Sunday a holy day. Even Milan refused to adopt the Roman custom, and in Africa it was observed only here and there (Augustine, Epist., xxxvi. 31). When in the West three fast-days in the week appeared too many, Wednesday, not Saturday, was given up. But the most important and solemn fast-day was always Friday.


2. The Conception of Fasting. The conception of fasting was the one generally customary in antiquity. It was considered an exercise of piety, not directly required by God but pleasing to him, like almsgiving and prayer. Mechanical formalism was occasionally opposed by the remark that a devout life is more important than frequent fasting (Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudo, v.). How accurately the performance was balanced may be seen from the linguistic distinction between statio, "a half-fast," jejunium, "a complete fast," and superpositio, "an additional fast" (till the next day). And how strictly the rule was adhered to may be seen from the fact that it was even thought necessary to abstain from the Lord's Supper on fast-days (Tertullian, De oratione, xix.). Every personal misfortune induced pious Christians to abstain from food and drink, and in a general calamity, such as a persecution, the bishops usually appointed a fast-day for the Church; in both cases the regular days were usually chosen. The length to which some went is seen from the prohibition of fasting on holy days, on Sunday, and in the time between Easter and Pentecost, on the ground that fasting is a sign of sorrow and consequently incompatible with festal seasons. The connection between alms and fasting was early emphasized by the custom of giving to the poor provisions saved on fast-days.


3. The Fast before Easter. Abstinence from eating and drinking before religious rites and sacred festivals springs from another conception. It is a very old and widespread belief that with food demons enter into the body of man. Hence he who wishes to have intercourse with God, must be abstemious in order to become a pure vessel of the Spirit. For this reason the prophet prepares himself by fasting for the revelation (Shepherd of Hermas, Visio, ii. 2, iii. 1, 10); and concerning exorcism it is written (Matt. xvii. 20) "This kind goeth not out save by prayer and fasting." [This verse is omitted in the critical text, and the word "fasting" is omitted in the parallel, Mark ix. 29]. Absolution and ordination were preceded by a fast. In the Didache (vii. 4) both the baptizer and the candidate fast before baptism; and the Lord's Supper was to be received fasting. Out of such ideas the fast before Easter developed. Easter is the only very ancient annual festival of the Church, and to appoint a general fast before it was only to observe a custom which was everywhere considered a matter of course. The first clear evidence of the custom occurs in the second century. Here only the day before was observed as a fast-day, there two or more days; others again fasted for forty hours (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., V., xxiv. 12-13). Appeal was made to Matt. ix. 15 and this fast was regarded as a sacred obligation of every Christian. On the basis of the passage cited, the duration of the fast seems to have been made coextensive with the time of Christ's resting in the grave. On the night before Easter the faithful assembled in the church. With the moment at which Christ rose the fasting ceased, and the Paschal Eucharist was celebrated (Syriac Didascalia, xxi.). In the course of the third century the fast was extended to the six days of Holy Week, but the innovation was combined with the ancient custom by making the fasting on the last two days stricter. At the beginning of the fourth century, in the time of the great persecution, the forty days' fast was introduced, on the analogy of the forty days' fast of Jesus (Matt. iv. 2), of Moses (Ex. xxxiv. 28) and of Elijah (I Kings xix. 8). The oldest testimony for the Quadragesima is the fifth canon of the Council of Nicæa (325); in the West it is found first in the time of Ambrose. Again a combination of the new with the old was attempted by making Holy Week a special time of fasting. But it was done in different ways. Athanasius includes the "six holy and great days" in the Quadragesima, and makes Lent begin with the Monday after the first Sunday in Lent, all days, even Saturday and Sunday (except Palm Sunday), being fast-days, so that he gets precisely forty days. Epiphanius, on the other hand, makes the forty days' fast precede the six days' fast, and, as with him Sundays are not fast-days, Lent begins on Sexagesima-Sunday, eight weeks before Easter (Hær., lxxv. 6; De fide, xxii.). In the Apostolic Constitutions also (v. 13), the forty days precede the Passover fast; but the Saturdays too are excepted, so that only five days in the week remain. The distinction between the two seasons of fasting seems to have disappeared by the end of the fourth century, so that the forty days of Lent are the regular fast days before Easter. Though the custom of different churches varied in the fourth century, in the fifth a certain amount of harmony was reached by fixing the fast either at six or at seven weeks according as Saturday was treated as a fast-day or a holy day (Sozomen, Hist. eccl., vii. 19). Rome observed six weeks, beginning with the Monday after the first Sunday in Lent. In the seventh century the fast was made to begin with the Wednesday after Quinquagesima, or Ash Wednesday. This is the present custom of the Latin Church. In the East the fast-season was also extended in the seventh century from seven to eight weeks, which, with five fast-days in each, makes up the total of forty. But a trace of the older custom is still visible in the treatment of the first or "Butter Week" [so called because in it butter, milk, and eggs are allowed] as a sort of preparatory fast. See ASH WEDNESDAY; HOLY WEEK; and LENT).


4. The Advent Fast. From the middle of the fourth century the birth of Jesus was celebrated on Dec. 25, first in Rome, and before the end of the century in the East also. It was but natural that, like Easter, the new high festival should also be preceded by a forty days' fast. The reckoning of the forty days differed in the East and the West, according as Saturday was considered a holy day or a fast-day. Milan and the entire territory of the Gallican liturgy followed the East. The fast commenced there with St. Martin's day, Nov. 11, and Advent was therefore called Quadragesima Martini; nowadays Advent commences in the East on Nov. 15. The Roman custom appointed a shorter time and afterward reduced the original time still further to the present four weeks.


5. Other Fasts. In the Greek Church there is another season of fasting preparatory to the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul on June 29. This also was originally intended to be a period of forty days; but since that would have conflicted with the feast of Pentecost, its beginning was fixed for the Monday after the octave of that feast, which reduces it in some years to only nine days. There is evidence of a fast after the long festal season from Easter to Pentecost from the end of the fourth century in different parts of the Church, Western as well as Eastern, apparently connected to some extent with the feast of the apostles, though no trace of it now remains in the West beyond the single day's vigil. A fast before Epiphany was customary in the fourth century within the domain of the Gallican liturgy, in northern Italy, France, Spain, so far as the ecclesiastical power of Milan then reached. It seems to owe its origin to a rivalry with the Roman Christmas festival; as the latter had its fast, so it was thought necessary that the older Epiphany festival on Jan. 6 must have its fast too. The fast of the Virgin is the most recent of the four great fasts of the Greeks. The festival of the death of Mary, Aug. 15, was introduced by the Emperor Maurice (582-602); the fast lasts from Aug. 1 to Aug. 15. On the other hand the ember fast is a Roman custom. The quattuor tempora, according to Leo I., occur before Easter, before Pentecost, in September and in December. The exact date has been differently fixed; since Urban II. (1095), they fall in the weeks after the first Sunday in Lent, Pentecost, the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept. 14), and St. Lucy's day (Dec. 13). They are observed by fasting on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, the three ancient Roman fast-days. The meaning seems to have been originally that of supplication for a blessing on the fruits of the earth. In some countries the second ember-season was referred to the corn-harvest, the third to the vintage, the fourth to the olive-harvest, and the first was omitted.


6. Mode of Observance. The mode of observing the fasts was various even in the oldest times. In considering the large number of fast-days observed in the first Christian centuries, it must not be forgotten that the population of the South, and especially that of the East is satisfied with meager and primitive food, and hardly knows any regular times for meals. None the less, the requirement of fasting during the whole of Lent seemed too difficult, and even in the fourth century all Christians were not enjoined to fast during the whole forty days. Most fasted two or three weeks (Chrysostom, Hom. xvi. ad popul. Antiochen.). By fasting was generally understood abstinence from all food till evening, or one meal a day; and this was to be as simple as possible. In the first centuries only bread, salt, and water was allowed. Afterward fruits and eggs, sometimes fish and even poultry were allowed, so that the fasting was finally limited to a prohibition of flesh and wine (Socrates, Hist. eccl., v. 22). To limit thus the enjoyment of food to the barest necessities, or to refrain from certain designated articles of food constitutes "abstinence" in the technical sense. The injunctions were at first only of local or provincial authority. During the Middle Ages a vast system of casuistry developed in the Roman Church touching upon questions of permitted and forbidden food, indulgences and dispensations. In the fourth century (canons 1., li. of the Council of Laodicea, c. 360) ecclesiastical legislation made Lent a tempus clausum, by prohibiting anniversaries of martyrs, weddings, and birthday celebrations.


7. The Present Practise. At present the laws of the Greek Church are stricter than those of the Roman. It still observes, besides the four great seasons of fasting, also the vigils of the Epiphany, St. John Baptist's day and Holy Cross day, and the weekly fast on Wednesday and Friday; so that half of the year is spent in fasting. The people are said as a rule to observe the fasts with strictness, but the educated classes have in large measure emancipated themselves from these regulations, and even the clergy are not enthusiastic advocates of their observance. In the Roman Catholic Church the influence of changed social conditions and climate has brought about a mitigation of the law of fasting. Advent has partially lost its character as a season of fasting, and the rules for Lent are generally very lenient. The ember-days are still observed. Of the three weekly fast-days Friday is retained, though as a day not of strict fasting but of abstinence from meat. The Church of Rome cares less for the amount of fasting than for the act of obedience performed by its members in observing its rules on this point. [These vary considerably in different places. Speaking generally, the obligation of fasting is not imposed upon any persons under twenty-one or over sixty; and those who are bound to fast are allowed to take, besides the one meal a day of the older use, a small piece of bread with tea or coffee in the morning, and a light meal or collation in the evening. The fast before communion, on the other hand, is absolute, not allowing even a drop of water from the preceding midnight.]


In the Lutheran Church the fast-seasons are continued in days appointed for penance and prayer (see FAST-DAY). They are generally observed about the time of the old fast-days, e.g., the ember-days, or are specially appointed on account of public calamities, great wars, destructive storms, and the like. Lent is still spoken of as a season of fasting, and is considered by stricter Protestants as a time in which music, dancing, games, public amusements, and weddings are prohibited. In many places the people still abstain from eating and drinking before receiving the Lord's Supper; otherwise fasting is considered a Roman Catholic practise. [Calvin, whose views were generally adopted by the Reformed churches, commends the practise of fasting, if guarded against superstition; and the Westminster Confession says that "solemn fastings" are "in their times and seasons" to be used in a holy and religious manner. Thus in Scotland it was long customary to observe a yearly fast on some day in the week preceding the Communion Sunday: but the religious side of this observance has largely fallen into disuse, and the day has become merely a public holiday. For the history of the New England usage, derived from the Puritans, see FAST-DAY. The Church of England has a table of fasts in its Prayer-book, including all Fridays, Lent, the ember-days, and certain vigils, but merely enjoins a special measure of devotion and abstinence on these days, laying down no precise law for their observance.]