In societies that have predominantly been shaped by Christian ideology and customs, the most well-known period of fasting is Lent which lasts 40 days and is soon about to end on Easter Sunday. However, fasting is also a key element in other cultures or religions; here are some of them.
When people fast for religious reasons, their goal is usually to deepen their spirituality or repent their sins by abstaining from food or other worldly things. It is, therefore, no surprise that all major religions include some type of fast in their customs.
In Christianity, Lent is the period which runs from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. It is one of the most important periods of the year for Christians and can be compared to advent, as it is also a period leading up to an important event. However, while advent is a period of joyful anticipation, Lent is a more thoughtful period leading up to the resurrection of Christ at Easter.
Traditionally, Lent was a strict period of fasting where Christians would give up certain foods such as meat, fish, or fat. This is why, on Shrove Tuesday, the day preceding Ash Wednesday, people would use up or remove these prohibited foods from their houses. From this custom, we get what is now known as pancake day, as these forbidden foods could easily be made into a batter and used up that way.
Today, people might only give up one food or item that is considered to be a luxury. They will perhaps eat less chocolate or use public transport instead of their car. The act of giving up something for Lent reflects Jesus’ sacrifice when he fasted for 40 days in the desert before being crucified.
No matter how Christians choose to practice Lent, it is always a period of introspection, reflection, and repentance during which many Christians choose to pray more.
In Islam, Ramadan is a month-long period of fasting during which Muslims won’t eat or drink anything between dawn and sunset. Ramadan is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The latter is a lunar calendar, which means that the exact dates change every year. In 2023 Ramadan runs from 22 March to 20 April.
Ramadan is also a period of reflection and represents one of the five pillars of Islam. The other four are: declaration of faith, prayer, almsgiving, and pilgrimage. These five elements constitute the foundation of Islam and are accepted and observed as best as possible by all Muslims.
Because people won’t eat during the day, they will usually have a meal, known as suhoor, before dawn and another, known as iftar, after sunset. These meals are often shared within
communities and accompanied by prayers at a mosque. Although fasting is one pillar of Islam, not all Muslims have to follow it. Children, the elderly, pregnant people, or anyone who is otherwise not considered to be healthy enough does not have to fast.
Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. At the end of the month, people come together to celebrate the end of the fast.
Yom Kippur, meaning Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It falls in the month of Tishrei (September or October) and takes place on 24 September in 2023. On this day, it is believed that God decides each individual’s faith. In light of this, people primarily focus on spirituality, putting aside most physical needs for a day. While fasting is the most common custom, there are four other elements people are encouraged to abstain from on Yom Kippur: namely, bathing and shaving, wearing leather, using oils and lotions, and having sex.
The fast last a 25 hours, and everyone above the age of 13 are required to take part, but there are again exceptions for people in ill health. It is a communal experience whose focus lies on self-improvement and prayer. It is common to wear white as a symbol for purity, and people are not allowed to work on the day.
Before the start of the fast, families usually have a communal meal known as se’udah mafseket. Other rituals, such as reciting prayers in a synagogue and asking people for forgiveness, are also a key part of Yom Kippur.
Fasting in Hinduism
In Hinduism, fasting is not tied to a specific period of time but rather depends on an individual’s community, beliefs, and their living environment. It is also not a requirement but is considered to be a moral and spiritual act, seeking to purify body and mind.
The things people give up during a fast can vary considerably in Hinduism. For instance, some people might only fast for one meal a day while others choose to switch to a vegetarian diet, thus abstaining from meat.
Although the schedule is not as set as in other religions, Ekadashi is a popular fast that is observed on two days of the month. Ekadashi lasts from sunset to sunset and is regarded as a day of cleansing. However, certain foods, such as milk or fruit, can still be eaten. Depending on what god(dess) one chooses to worship, certain days of the week might be reserved for fasting. For instance, people worshipping Hanuman will fast on Tuesday, while devotees of Shani will fast on Saturdays.