One of the shortest definitions of the word “fast” comes from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and it simply reads
to eat no food for a period of time
In Judaism, fasting is practiced during seven days of the year, and they are divided into major and minor fasting days. Though fasting is not mentioned in the Torah, there are several instances in the rest of the Tanakh. The fasting days were instituted by our rabbis and sages throughout the years, and though only seven days of the year were assigned for fasting, those who follow the rules do it with devotion and fully aware of the act.
Jews fast because it is a chance for each of us to observe the holiday in a personal way. It is a day of intense introspection and communication with G-d. It requires an internal peace which comes about from slowing down our biological rhythm. Fasting helps us to wake up internally.
It is also said that fasting takes us away from the mundane and into the realm of the departed by not introducing nourishment into our physical bodies; therefore, connecting with our ancestors who are deprived of Earthly pleasures we enjoy.
There are two Major Fasts and each lasts approximately 25 hours or from sundown the day before to an hour after sundown on the fasting day. These fasts are total fasts, which means that the person who fasts does not eat, or drink absolutely anything during the 25 hours the fast lasts, and it also means that there is no bathing, no brushing of hair or teeth, and no wearing leather shoes; however, if there is danger in following any of these conventions, a person is not obligated to follow them.
The Major Fast days are:
(Please click on each one to go to the particular page for more information)
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. Perhaps the most important day for fasting and prayer, is practiced for repentance. The idea is to perform penance for any sins committed during the year and restoring one’s soul to a state of wholeness. No work is allowed during this Holy Day.
Tisha B’Av is the day that commemorates the Day the second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were dispersed throughout the world, otherwise known as the Diaspora. The fasting rules are the same as those for Yom Kippur.
There are five minor fasts. During Minor Fast days, the fast begins before dawn and lasts until sundown of the same day. The observer can eat any time before the sun goes up, and wait until three stars are visible in the firmament to break the fast. Work is not forbidden.
The Minor Fast days are:
- The Fast of Gedaliah
- The Fast of Tevet
- The Fast of Esther
- The Fast of The First Born
- The Fast of Tammuz
The Fast of Gedaliah, observed on the 3rd of Tishrei (the day after Rosh Hashanah) , is to commemorate the destruction of the First Temple and the aftermath that ensued with the battles after the fall of the Temple
The Fast of Tevet, observed on the 10th of Tevet, is to commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia.
The Fast of Esther, observed on the day before Purim, is to commemorate the three-day fast observed by the Jewish people in the story of Purim, requested by Queen Esther so she could talk to her husband, the King of Persia.
The Fast of The First Born usually falls on the day before Pesach, the 14th of Nisan, and commemorates the miracle that bypassed all Jewish firstborns during the last of the 10 plagues (the killing of the first-born of the Egyptians). Only the eldest child in the Jewish family observes this fast.
The Fast of Tammuz, observed on the 17th of Tammuz, commemorates the entrance into Jerusalem that precipitated the fall of the Second Temple.
After every fast, it is encouraged to return to our daily lives full of love and compassion and with a better understanding of those suffering in the world. Fasting serves the dual purpose of engaging our biological and spiritual selves.