Religious Fasting is an accompanying feature of nearly every known form of religion; its motives and modes of practice varying, of course, according to race. climate. and civilization. The origin of the practice is obscure; some authorities suggest that it arose from the custom of providing food for the dead, others that it was a preparation for the receiving of sacramental food and others that it is the subjection of the lower nature in order to exalt the higher for the seeing of visions.
Whatever the motive, partial or complete abstinence from food at stated periods was practiced at a very early date by Parsees, Hindus, Egyptians, Assyrians. Greeks, and Romans. It was a prominent and inseparable feature of the Jewish ritual.
The solemn national fast on the tenth day of the seventh month (the Day of Atonement), the penalty for the non-observance of which was death, was the only public fast ordained in the Books of Moses (Leviticus 16), but the practice of private and occasional public fasts, at periods of national calamity, is frequently recorded.
During the captivity the fasts of the 4th, 5th, 7th, and 10th months were instituted to commemorate certain incidents in the downfall of the nation. The number of special fasts mentioned in the New Testament and practiced by the Pharisees and the disciples of Saint John the Baptist, although insisted upon by the Pharisees. were really voluntary, and were probably never practiced by the sect of the Sadducees and others.
Undoubtedly Jesus observed the Day of Atonement. He began his ministry with a 40 days' fast in the wilderness. He taught the need and value of fasting, but disregarded the rules of the Pharisees.
The Apostles and their followers practiced and taught fasting. Roman Catholics over 21 are obliged to abstain from flesh meat on a ll Fridays in Lent. Moreover on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, the vigil of the Immaculate Conception (7 December) and Christmas Eve those under the age of 65 are bound to fast. This fast limits them to one full meal, to be taken after midday; 50 grams of solid food are permitted before that, however, and in the afternoon or evening a collation of 300 grams. If the second or fourth of these dates falls on a Sunday, the fast is transferred to the previous Saturday.
New Roman Catholic laws (1965) define the eucharistic fast as abstention from all solids for one hour before communion. As regards liquids in this connection, water and non-alcoholic beverages may be taken at any time up to the moment of reception; alcohol is forbidden within three hours before that moment. In the Greek Church the practice is followed with much greater severity. and the fast days cover about three-quarters of the year. In the Anglican Church fasting is regard ed only as a useful exercise, praiseworthy, but never obligatory, and not in itself a means of grace; the Prayer Book, however, enumerates the 40 days of Lent, all the Fridays in the year with some exceptions, Ember days, Rogation days, and the eves or vigils of certain festivals. In Scotland the sacramental fast days so long observed have almost entirely fallen into disuse.
The Muslims, as an offshoot of the Jewish and Christian communities, adopted the practice of fasting with many others; they regard it as an efficacious means of averting the wrath of Allah in national calamities. and of mitigating the penalties of sin. The month of Ramadan, in which Mohammed brought the Koran from Heaven, is strictly observed as a complete fast for all the faithful, eating, drinking, and smoking being forbidden from sunrise to sunset, and voluntary fasts are common.
Fasting has frequently been resorted to as a means of securing political ends. Thus, in the earlier days of the Feminist movement, 'suffragettes' fasted in the hope of furthering their political goals. In these and many other cases, forcible feeding has been attempted, but in others the 'hunger striker' has died.
Total abstinence is the term used when water also is withheld. It has been proved by experiments that, whereas the human body cannot survive total abstinence for longer than eight days, the free administration of water makes it possible to sustain life for 30 or 40 days or even longer.
Emaciation and a lowering of body temperature are invariable accompaniments of starvation, the wasting occurring first in the fatty tissues and later in the muscles. The wasting process takes place less rapidly when the body is kept warm and exertion is limited to a minimum. The insistent craving for food diminishes after the first few days and is succeeded by torpor.