Fasting Defined: Etymology & Purpose of Devotional Fasting (1/3)

Etymology & Purpose of Devotional Fasting

A holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, that it may not wanton, or to prepare the better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him … In regard, then, to the discipline of which we now treat, whenever supplication is to be made to God on any important occasion, it is befitting to appoint a period for fasting and prayer. [John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion].

The simple definition of fasting — to abstain from food — does not fully describe this devotional act practiced by adherents all major religions. Only be understanding its sacred elements and cultural significance do we grasp its full meaning and inherent spiritual merit.

We start near home looking at its etymology, expand geographically and chronologically to explore theological and therapeutic aspects, then conclude with a discussion of the universal and timeless nature of fasting.

Scholars generally agree that the English word “fasting” is derived from the Teutonic word for abstinence from food or drink. The Proto-Germanic word fastejan, meaning “to hold, to keep, to observe or to restrain oneself,” is the probable root.

In Latin, the word jejunium, literally refers to the empty intestine of an animal, and suggests sealing or binding of the stomach or the mouth. The Spanish word for fasting, ayunar, and the French word jeûner, both come from this Latin root.

. . . fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting. There, I suggest, is a kind of general definition of what is meant by fasting. [Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life].

Vows, Penitence & Purification

The primary connotation of fasting is “holding, restraining and binding” as a devotional act. This is manifested in three ways, all related to establishing or enhancing a spiritual relationship with the Divine:

1) a binding vow or intention to forgo something pleasant or valuable for spiritual or devotional reasons;

2) disciplining and controlling any appetite, activity, attitudes, or other things considered to have no religious or spiritual value;

3) holding oneself apart for ceremonial purification from defilement or uncleanness by the performance of appropriate rites.

O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you. I pledge myself to do your will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength. Not to kill. Not to steal. Not to covet. Not to bear false witness. To honor all persons. Not to do to another what I would not wish done to myself. To chastise the body. Not to seek after pleasures. To love fasting… [Saint Benedict].

Fasting, Oaths and Vows 

The fast usually begins with a personal oath or vow to perform a spiritual act, either voluntarily or as a ritual obligation. By binding ourselves, we are offering a personal sacrifice with the hope of gaining Divine favor.

We become spiritually bound to hold fast to the sacred vow or promise and to overcome the temptation to yield, give way or succumb to appetites, secular demands, or social pressure. In the Bible, Saul commands his soldiers not to eat during a day of fighting.

Now the men of Israel were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the troops tasted food. [1 Samuel 14:24-44].

Similarly, enemies of St. Paul bound themselves, under a “curse oath” (anathematizo), to fast until they had slain him.

The next morning a group of Jews got together and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. [Acts 23:12].

In Hinduism, a religious vow, vrata, may be fulfilled by fasting, upav?sa. Fasting can also be a substitute for a vow or offered in exchange for an oath. In Islam, the expiation of a vow may be accomplished by fasting three days:

Thus, the breaking of an oath must be atoned for by feeding ten needy persons with more or less the same food as you are wont to give to your own families, or by clothing them, or by freeing a human being from bondage; and he who has not the wherewithal shall fast for three days [instead]. This shall be the atonement for your oaths whenever you have sworn [and broken them]. But be mindful of your oaths! [Quran 5:89].

Our fasting can include holding back our gaze, restraining our talking, our suppressing what we hear, and limiting other sources of pleasure, entertainment and distractions. A form of Taoist meditation, xin zhia, “fasting of the mind,” focuses on restraining thoughts.  The Quran tells the story of Maryam (Mary) fasting from speaking after giving birth to Jesus.

So eat and drink and refresh the eye: Then if you see any mortal, say: “Surely I have vowed a fast to the Beneficent God. So I shall not speak to any man today.” [Quran 19:26].

Self-denial, Penitence and Remorse

Satisfying our profane cravings, indulging in worldly desires, and capitulating to lustful passions often leave a bad taste in our mouth. Fasting then becomes a manifestation of remorse, contrition and penance. It binds, restrains and disciplines our appetites by sealing the mouth, the gate of nourishment to the stomach, and also the passageway for defilement of the heart. [Matthew 15:11].

By holding in check our desire to satisfy the palate, we seek to demonstrate sincerity, devotion and repentance. It is a self-flagellation by which we flog our body with hunger and whip our mind with spiritual lashes of remorse.

The severest punishment a man can receive who has injured another, is to have committed the injury ; and no man is more severely punished than he who is subject to the whip of his own repentance. [Seneca—De Ira. III. 26].

Fasting sometimes includes eating something disliked, or punishing the body by limiting the diet to bare essentials. Christian monks during the Middle Ages often included bitter herbs in their meals, considering their fast to consist not only of restricting the desire to satisfy hunger, but also the pleasures of savoring tasty morsels. Such self-denial is appropriately labeled as abstinence or abnegation.

At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks. [Daniel 10:3].


A third binding or restrictive aspect in fasting is holding apart or separating a person for purpose of purification. To approach the Divine Reality, we must have a pure of heart. Fasting provides a traditional method for such purification. Thus, ritual states of purity demanded by religious ceremonies and sacraments often includes fasting.

The right practice of abstinence is needful not only to the mortification of the flesh but also to the purification of the mind. For the mind then only keeps holy and spiritual fast when it rejects the food of error and the poison of falsehood. [St. Leo the Great].

Fasting enhances the solemnity and sacredness of our thoughts and encourages an attitude of piety and God-consciousness.  In Chinese, zhia or zia means “fasting” and also refers to the preparatory measures prior to a religious ceremony to ensure ritual purity.

Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. [Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) ].

The Zhai Gong, or Fasting Palace, was where a Chinese emperor fasted for three days before being allowed to worship. In addition to fasting, he abstained from recreation, women, and handling of criminal cases. Soto was the Isle of Penitence, where the Incas retreated for fasting and humiliation.

The Sanskrit word for fasting, upav?sa, literally means sitting near or close to God. This represents a purified and elevated condition which allows connection with the Absolute.

Laity who receive and observe the vows known as the Lay Bodhisattva Precepts stop eating at noon on six days of each month . . . The fasting observance is related to several liturgical practices observed on the six fasting days: they recite their precept codes, recite scriptures and increase their hours of meditation on those days. [Rev. Heng Sure, Ph.D. On Fasting From a Buddhist’s Perspective].

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