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The practice of fasting evokes many of the worst associations with religion: asceticism, self denial, and fear of the body and its pleasures. Moreover, because most fasts in the Jewish tradition are associated with the destruction of the Temple (Yom Kippur being the most prominent exception), many liberal Jews see them as irrelevant or obsolete. Yet fasting has transformative potential, if we approach the practice from functional, rather than mythic, terms.
From Personal Rite to Communal Remembrance
Initially, this perspective was clearly the mainstream view in the Jewish tradition. The Bible generally regards fasting as a practice that works on the heart, usually as an individual expression of grief, prayer, or meditation. Yom Kippur is the most important of these spiritual fasts.
But fasting also appears as a mourning rite (II Samuel 1:12, 12:16-23), as part of revelation or prophecy (Exodus 34:28, I Samuel 28:20), as preparation for an important event (Judges 20:26, I Samuel 14:24), and as part of petitionary prayer (I Samuel 7:5-6, II Samuel 12) or repentance (Jonah 3:5, Jeremiah 36:9). There is also evidence of a little-discussed discipline of women voluntarily fasting (Numbers 30:14 and the apocryphal Judith 8:6), and many later examples of fasting as a preparation for visions (Daniel 10:2-3, and several apocryphal books). And there are instances of fasting as, essentially, magic (Judges 20:26, Joel 1:14, Jonah 3:5-10). In all these contexts, fasting is regarded for what it does, not what it signifies or observes.
Later, however, the effects of fasts became secondary to their historical and social significance. In the “Zechariah fasts” that were later made part of Jewish law, that significance is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
As Eliezer Diamond has shown in his book Holy Men and Hunger Artists, talmudic rabbis often took up fasting as an ongoing discipline, but as Diamond also shows, mourning the destruction of the Temple was almost always provided as a rationale. Perhaps the Temple was but a pretext for an ascetic practice the rabbis wanted to take on; there is certainly evidence for that view, and fasting remains to this day a common practice among the pious.
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