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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
The observance of religious fasts established itself in the world at a very early period, and is found to have prevailed in most of the nations of antiquity. In such a religion as Moses was commissioned by the creator of the world to offer to the chosen people, it was not likely that an observance which, such as fasts, seems to have had its origin in false and heathen conceptions, should hold a very prominent position, or be invested with much importance. There is but one fast enjoined by the great Hebrew lawgiver. And this injunction we are disposed to place among those things which Moses allowed rather than originated, bore with rather than approved, in consideration of the force of established custom, and from a wise fear of defeating his own good ends by attempting too much. The manner in which this observance is spoken of in Scripture (; ) seems to imply that it was no new institution that the lawgiver was establishing, but merely an old and well known practice, to which he gave a modified sanction. Had it been otherwise, had the law been a new one, details would have been both needed and given, as is customary with Moses in his injunctions. Instead of that, the children of Israel are required in general terms to 'afflict their souls.' But this language is not only vague, it is figurative, and could have no definite meaning unless to persons with whom afflicting the soul was in general use. There seems, however, no reason to doubt that 'to afflict the soul,' bore with it the meaning of fasting. To a mere English reader the phrase seems to comprise all kinds of voluntary mortifications, but 'soul' in Hebrew not seldom denotes the 'appetite' (). Accordingly the words regard immediately abstinence from food, and most probably (so far as they go) nothing more.
The sole fast required by Moses was on the great day of annual atonement. This observance seems always to have retained some prominence as 'the fast' (). But what the observance of the enjoined duty involved we are nowhere expressly informed. Other general fasts, however, were in course of ages introduced, which were celebrated at fixed times every successive year. In the reign of Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar besieged and captured Jerusalem, which calamity led to the establishment of a fast on the seventeenth day of the fourth month (Thammuz, July), (; ). In the last passage other fasts are enumerated, namely, 'the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth.' That of the fifth month (Ab, August) was held on the ninth day, in mournful commemoration of the burning of the city by 'Nebuzaradan, a servant of the king of Babylon,' who 'burnt the house of the Lord, and the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man's house' (, sq.;;; ). The fast of the seventh month (Tishri, October) was established to bewail the murder of Gedaliah at Mizpah (, sq.; ). That of the tenth month (Tebeth, January) was held on the tenth day to commemorate the commencement of the siege of Jerusalem on the part of Nebuchadnezzar (; ).
On particular and signal occasions extraordinary fasts were appointed (;;;; comp.; ). In , a fast is enjoined with a view to turn away the wrath of God as displayed in the terrible consequences of the invasion of the land of Judea by an army of devastating locusts. The notion also prevailed that a special fast might have the effect of averting the divine displeasure and securing the divine cooperation in any great undertaking (;;;;;;;; ). Local fasts were at a later period sometimes held in order to avert calamity or procure a favor from heaven; and the Sanhedrim ordered general fasts when the nation was threatened with any great evil, such as drought or famine.
There were also private fasts, though the Mosaic law did not require them. They were held in connection with individual or family incidents, and agreed in aim and tendency with fasts of a general and public nature. Examples may be found in;;;; . After the exile private fasts became very frequent, awaiting the call of no special occasion, but entering as a regular part of the current religions worship. The parable of the Pharisee and Publican (; comp. ) shows how much the Pharisees were given to voluntary and private fasts—'I fast twice in the week.' The first was on the fifth day of the week, on which Moses ascended to the top of Mount Sinai; the second was on the second day, on which he came down. The Essenes and the Therapeutae also were much given to such observances. Fasts were considered as a useful exercise in preparing the mind for special religious impressions. Thus , sq., 'In those days I Daniel was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth. Then I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold a certain man,' etc. (see also; ). From , 'Howbeit this kind (of demons) goeth not out but by prayer and fasting,' it would appear that the practice under consideration was considered in the days of Christ to act in certain special cases as an exorcism. Fasting was accompanied by the ordinary signs of grief among the Israelites, as may be seen in , 'Then they fasted that day and put on sackcloth, and cast ashes upon their heads and rent their clothes.' The fast ordinarily lasted from evening to evening, but was not observed on the sabbath or on festival days. The abstinence was either partial or total. In the case of the latter food was entirely foregone, but this ordinarily took place only in fasts of short duration; and abstinence from food in eastern climes is more easy and less detrimental (if not in some cases positively useful) than keeping from food would be with us in these cold, damp, northern regions (). In the case of partial abstinence the time was longer, the denial in degree less. When Daniel () was 'mourning three full weeks,' he ate no 'pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth.' There does not appear to have been any fixed and recognized periods during which these fasts endured. From one day to forty days fasts were observed. The latter period appears to have been regarded with feelings of peculiar sanctity, owing doubtless to certain events in Jewish history. Thus Moses 'was with the Lord on Mount Sinai forty days and forty nights, he did neither eat bread nor drink water' (). So Elijah () 'arose and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.' The same was the number of days that our Lord fasted in the desert in connection with his temptation (;; ). We have already seen how qualified the sanction was which Moses gave to the observance of fasting as a religious duty. In the same spirit which actuated him, the prophets bore testimony against the lamentable abuses to which the practice was turned in the lapse of time and with the increase of social corruption (, sq.;; ). Continuing the same species of influence and perfecting that spirituality in religion which Moses began, our Lord rebuked the Pharisees sternly for their outward and hypocritical pretences in the fasts which they observed (, sq.), and actually abstained from appointing any fast whatever as a part of his own religion (). From the passage referred to this at least is clear, that Jesus ascribed to fasts no essential worth, nor required any such observance from his followers. Whether and how far he allowed fasting as a means of religious improvement, is a question which our space does not permit us to discuss. That the early Christians observed the ordinary fasts which the public practice of their day sanctioned, is clear from more than one passage in the New Testament Scriptures (;; ); but in this they probably did nothing more than yield obedience, as in general they thought themselves bound to do, to the law of their fathers so long as the Mosaic institutions remained entire. And though the great body of the Christian Church held themselves free from all ritual and ceremonial observances when God in his providence had brought Judaism to a termination in the rasure of the holy city and the closing of the temple, yet the practice of fasting thus originated might have easily and unobservedly been transmitted from year to year and from age to age, and that the rather because so large a portion of the disciples being Jews (to say nothing of the influence of the Ebionites in the primitive church), thousands must have been accustomed to fasting from the earliest days of their existence, either in their own practice or the practice of their fathers, relatives, and associates.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Fasts'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/f/fasts.html.