Importance of fasting in religion and for health
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Fasting seems to be a practice as old as religion itself, a testament to the spiritual discipline observed in the various Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic traditions. It is a time when believers embark on a journey of self-denial, spiritual introspection and renewal. For Muslims around the World, Ramadan is the holy month dedicated to fasting, prayer and reflection, a mandatory precept for every healthy believer, that calls on faithful to abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise until sunset. The intent is to encourage greater “drawing closer” to GOD (ALLAH in Arabic) and capture the essence of humility. Similarly, Jews, for example, observe fasting during the Passover (Pesach, the season to commemorate their liberation from Egyptian slavery) they abstain from leavened bread and participate in rituals that strengthen their faith and community ties. Christians also traditionally engage in fasting, and among the most important periods is Lent (the 40 days before Passover), a period of fasting, penance and prayer, thus helping the body and mind reflect more deeply on Christ’s sacrifice and the redemption of Souls.

in history

Throughout human history, fasting has been an intrinsic practice in multiple cultures and religious traditions, finding mention in both the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), the Qur’an, and the ascetic practices of Greek culture. This form of food abstinence, which varies from partial to total deprivation, reflects not only a necessity in the absence of food but also a deliberate choice with profound spiritual, health, religious, or political implications. As the poet Rumi wisely observed, “Fasting is the first principle of medicine,” emphasizing how fasting can be seen not only as an act of spiritual purification but also as a fundamental practice of physical well-being.

Embracing Fasting Across Faiths

The practice of fasting, with its multifaceted presence in all Abrahamic faiths, is a tradition as ancient as it is essential. This section delves into the philosophical, historical, biblical and religious foundations of fasting, tracing its roots to centuries of devout practices. By examining the Sacred Texts and teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we uncover the fundamental. From the fasting of Yom Kippur in Judaism, a solemn atonement observed with a 25-hour period of fasting and prayer, to Christianity’s Lent, a 40-day period of fasting, prayer and penance before Passover, and Islam’s Ramadan, a month of fasting from dawn to dusk to draw closer to GOD, fasting becomes a bridge to the divine.

These practices are not simply rituals, but encapsulate deep philosophical and theological meaning, emphasizing self-discipline, reflection, and the physical manifestation of faith. The Sacred Texts of these traditions offer insights into the purposes and methods of fasting, highlighting it as a means of purification, a test of self-control and a way to reach a deeper state of spiritual awareness. Quotes from the Bible, Quran and Talmud, among others, reveal the multifaceted nature of fasting, showing it as a personal journey toward spiritual growth and as a communal experience that promotes unity and empathy among believers.

By exploring these ancient texts and practices, we not only pay homage to the enduring legacy of fasting within the Abrahamic traditions, but also appreciate the diverse expressions of this profound spiritual discipline.

Some relevant quotes

  Bible (Old Testament) Bible (Gospels) Quran Talmud hadith
Quotation 1 “Moses stayed there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”
(Exodus 34:28)
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. (Matthew 6:16)” “O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous. (2:183)” “Whoever fasts for the death of a righteous man is forgiven for all his sins. (Moed Katan 28b)” “Every action of the son of Adam is for him except fasting; it is for Me, and I will reward it. (Sahih Al-Bukhari 1904)”
Quotation 2 “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least. […] When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”
(Jonah 3:5-10)
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. (Matthew 9:14-16)” “The month of Ramadan [is that] in which was revealed the Quran, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. (2:185)” “When the Ark of the Covenant was traveling, fasting led to the redemption of Israel. (Ta’anit 11a)” “Whoever fasts one day for the sake of Allah, Allah will keep his face away from the Hellfire for seventy years. (Sahih Muslim 1153)”

fasting that fortifies the body and the spirit

Fasting can thus be considered a multifaceted precept, fostering resilience in both physical form and spiritual essence. This practice seems to introduce a “sabbatical day,” a deliberate pause amidst the incessant pace and overconsumption that characterize our contemporary age. It is a time when we are able to put “pause” to the incessant overeating, allowing ourselves a moment of detachment, rest, and thus introspection and detachment from the incessant daily demands of existence. This self-imposed interlude promotes the harmonization of body and spirit, catalyzing a profound transformation that goes beyond simply abstaining from eating and drinking.

The journey into fasting resurfaces a sense of inner peace, a wholeness that might escape in the regular rhythm of life. This inner tranquility and sense of wholeness reflect the powerful dual nature of fasting: physical practice that purifies the body, and spiritual exercise that purifies the soul.

Within the Abrahamic faiths

A rich mosaic of devotions is revealed in the Abrahamic faiths, each colored by unique interpretations and practices but linked by a common transcendental thread.

In Judaism, fasting transcends far beyond Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year dedicated to atonement and reflection. This practice permeates multiple significant occasions, testifying to its importance and versatility within the tradition (e.g., Tisha B’Av [Zechariah 7:5], Tzom Gedaliah [Jeremiah 41:2], Ta’anit Esther [Esther 4:16], the 17th of Tammuz [Exodus 32:19], and the 10th of Tevet [2 Kings 25:1-4]). These moments of dietary abstinence emphasize introspection, the communal search for forgiveness, and the desire for spiritual purification, rooted deeply in Jewish history and sacred texts.

In parallel, Christianity offers a transformative vision of fasting, particularly during Lent, a period of penance, self-denial, and spiritual preparation for Easter. Here, voluntary sacrifice and meditation on Christ’s sacrifices invite the faithful to intimate reflection for a renewal of faith and a deepening of empathy (biblical examples include Matthew 4:2, Acts 13:3, Luke 2:37, Acts 14:23, and Mark 9:29). These practices demonstrate how Christian fasting serves as a bridge to a deeper understanding of Gospel principles and closeness to GOD.

Ramadan aims to strengthen piety, self-discipline and compassion, highlighting a time of spiritual renewal, patience and gratitude through intensified prayer and recitation of the Qur’an. This practice emphasizes the unity of the Muslim community and its dedication to the faith.

This comparison of fasting practices highlights not only their peculiarities but also their common ability to enrich individuals spiritually, strengthening connection with the divine and promoting ethical living and communion. From this perspective, fasting is revealed as a key element in personal and collective spiritual evolution, a pillar supporting the quest for purification, wisdom and intimacy with GOD.

Conclusion

Although I am not a medical professional and therefore not qualified to dispense health advice, I believe that the insights I share at ASH can be considered the legacy I am leaving to my children. For every father is obligated to pass on the wisdom he believes in, especially when, as in my case, these beliefs come from years of practicing religion, philosophy, spirituality, as well as long days and nights of fasting. Therefore, I feel compelled to share my reflections on the personal and potentially health-related benefits of fasting.

Fasting has been a journey of physical purification and spiritual enlightenment for me. The discipline of abstaining from food and drink for extended periods not only offered me a sense of physical detoxification, but also facilitated deep introspection and spiritual growth. It was in this space of deprivation that I found clarity, a greater sense of gratitude, and a deeper connection with the divine. The idea of moving to longer periods of fasting stems from a desire to further explore these benefits, pushing the boundaries of my physical and spiritual resilience.

From a scientific perspective (see NOTES below), the practice of fasting is increasingly recognized for its potential health benefits, including reducing cancer cell growth and promoting overall detoxification of the body. Research suggests that fasting can trigger autophagy, a process in which the body eliminates damaged cells, potentially reducing the risk of chronic disease. Although these findings offer promising insights into the physiological benefits of fasting, it is critical to approach this practice with caution, especially when considering longer periods of fasting.

The decision to fast, especially for health reasons, should be guided by personal judgment and, ideally, medical advice. Faith plays an important role in this decision-making process, providing not only the spiritual basis for fasting, but also the strength and conviction to undertake it responsibly. Reflecting on my own experiences with fasting and its impact on my health and spirituality, I am reminded of the importance of balance, mindfulness and the pursuit of well-being in all its forms.

By sharing these reflections, I hope not only to honor the legacy I wish to leave to my children, but also to encourage a thoughtful and informed approach to fasting. Whether for health, spiritual growth, or both, fasting is a deeply personal practice that, if managed wisely, can contribute to a richer and more fulfilling life experience. I think it is a great loss that traditions thousands of years old, such as Christianity, are no longer able to promote it….

NOTES:

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