There are no outward differences between starving and fasting; both seem contrary to elemental human nature and both, eventually, become life-threatening. The dissimilarities, then, are largely within the personal motivation of each and the degree to which the abstention is either voluntary or impelled by outward circumstance.
Despite man’s agronomic ingenuity, no interval of recorded human history has been free of starvation somewhere on the globe. Consciously chosen fasting, on the other hand, has probably preoccupied humans only as long as people believed in the redemptive capacities of self-denial.
Voluntary fasting was certainly not a sane choice in those primitive hunter-gatherer societies where hunger loomed as a periodic threat. Aboriginal societies on the margins of survival showed little tolerance for fasting since the full energies of each adult were needed for group survival. As a voluntary act, then, fasting assumes ritual importance only when there is a reasonable abundance of food and when credible choices may then be made. A chronically hungry man will rarely think of fasting voluntarily. When the stomach is full, it is easy to talk of fasting.
It was Moses huddled on Mount Sinai’s summit who first abstained from eating. Only later does Leviticus [16: 29] speak of an enduring obligation for all Israelites. “And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you.”
The Bible mentions the act of fasting 74 times – often as an act of repentance but also as a means by which secular attractions are purged; other times, it becomes an ascetic act of humility, a renunciation of immediate pleasures so that ultimate enlightenment may be achieved. In the post-Biblical era, fasting, as hunger strikes, has also become a vehicle for social protest. Voluntary starvation, then, serves many purposes. There are fundamental differences, however, distinguishing a hunger strike [undertaken to change something outside of oneself] and a penitential fast [undertaken to change something within oneself]. Over the millennia, fasting has been employed for diverse purposes – some base or frivolous, some banal or profane, some thoughtful and lofty. In recent times, even weight loss for cosmetic purposes has prompted fasting.
Philosophers have recognized the following categories of voluntary fasting:
Purificatory Fasting: Since eating, for most humans, may be considered to be a pleasurable act of self-indulgence, fasting may then be a way of tempering base spirits, of suppressing dissolute thoughts, thus allowing loftier perceptions and spiritual impressions, sometimes called visions.
Penitential Fasting: As an act of remorse for specific sins, David acknowledged his evil ways before Nathan, and then fasted when the health of his newborn son, by the wife of Uriah, was in great jeopardy (2 Samuel: 12:23).
Meritorious Fasting: Fasting may be employed as a means of achieving a higher rank in life (i.e., the ritual fast preceding knighthood or priesthood). Amongst the Crow Indians, each male youth must undergo a total fasting in the wilderness before his entrance into manhood is validated.
Disciplinary Fasting: This differs from penitential fasting by two characteristics: First, it presumes that all humans are fallible; and secondly, it sets aside a specific time of year, each year, as an interval for atonement through self-denial.
By definition, then, it is an annual act in response to an unerringly corrupt, voluptuary world. Moslems are enjoined by the Koran to accept neither food nor fluid from sunrise to sundown on each of the thirty days of the month of Ramadan. Early Christians were instructed to fast each Friday but this obligation has been gradually modified over the centuries. In 1917, the Codex Juris Canonici required only abstention from animal flesh leading to the current custom of eating fish on Fridays.
When did fasting, as a pathway to some higher goal, arise? When did a human decide that abstaining from food might gratify, or at least appease, his Creator? Did fasting come about, perhaps, in conjunction with or an offshoot of the primitive ritual of sacrificing living creatures or prepared food upon an altar? Was it a way of reinforcing the altar sacrifice by saying, “The food that I now sacrifice in Your honor was taken – not from some plentiful source – but from my mouth, my daily meal. And as I sacrifice this lamb upon Your altar, so do I now sacrifice a part of myself by fasting”?
And yet, not all Scriptural commentaries viewed fasting to be invariably commendable. In a voice that is both prophetic and curiously modern, Isaiah asks, “Wherefore have we fasted?” A true fasting, says Isaiah, “Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out, to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” [Isaiah 58:3 – 7]
STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D., firstname.lastname@example.org , is dean of medicine emeritus, Brown University.