By Elizabeth Tenety
Many of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims (1.4 million in America) Wednesday began the month-long observance of Ramadan, which requires adult Muslims to refrain from food, drink and sexual activity from dawn until sunset. Muslims in America will be fasting to develop discipline and to repent for their sins for approximately 16 hours of the day, a considerable sacrifice in the country that invented fast-food.
Although in America fasting is perhaps best associated with glucose-tests and Maple Syrup Diets, abstinence from food has a long and varied history in the world’s religions.
Catholics fast during Lent on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and refrain from eating meat on Fridays during the 40 days as in memory of the Jesus’ physical sacrifice. Many also give up a favorite food item for the Lenten season. Orthodox Christians also participate in a number of demanding fasts intended to keep them spiritually vigilant. (Updated Latter-day Saints also observe a 24 hour fast one day a month to deepen their faith and teach them self-control.
In Judaism, Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement” and Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the commencement of the Diaspora, are the most prominent fasting days. During both day-long fasts, Jews refrain from consuming food and water; some go so far as to not brush their teeth lest they drink some water in the process.
In Buddhism, fasting is central to the journey to Enlightenment: It was only through his life-threatening fast that the Buddha realized that “desire does not end by force.” Out of this realization emerged the concept of moderation, a central principle in Buddhism. Today, Buddhists fasting practice varies widely, but many practitioners incorporate religious values into their food philosophy, including an emphasis on vegetarianism.
Hinduism also includes elements of fasting into its spiritual discipline, but the practice varies by culture as well. Some Hindus fast on the feast days of their favored deity, or on particular days of astrological importance. There is a wide spectrum of fasting behaviors: some who fast deny themselves food entirely, others focus on eating a vegetarian diet for the days of the fast.
Have you ever undertaken a spiritual fast? Did you gain anything other than a smaller waistline? What have you learned through fasting?