Fasting in Hinduism and Judaism

Here is an appropriate thought about fasting for post-Yom Kippur.; My Sukkah is already up.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed a strict religious fast during his trip to the United States. In keeping with the habits of a lifetime, Modi restricted himself to a “liquid diet” throughout the nine day Navratri festival. He only drank  lemonade with some honey and a cup of tea every day. Some Hindus restrict their diet to fruit and vegetables while spurning meat, eggs, onions and garlic. Others, like Modi, a strict vegetarian, do not eat solid food at all. Mr. Modi described the fast as “a source of strength, power and inspiration.”

Fasting in Hinduism indicates the denial of the physical needs of the body for the sake of spiritual gains. According to the scriptures, fasting helps create an attunement with the Absolute by establishing a harmonious relationship between the body and the soul. This is thought to be imperative for the well being of a human being as it nourishes both his/her physical and spiritual demands. In Hinduism, “When the stomach is full, the intellect begins to sleep. Wisdom becomes mute and the parts of the body restrain from acts of righteousness.”

modi fasting

Fasting in Judaism in Biblical times, was instituted as a sign of mourning (I Sam. xxxi. 13; II Sam. i. 12), or when danger threatened (II Sam. xii. 16; comp. I Kings xxi. 27). Esther fasted before meeting the King. During the Second Temple period, daily or biweekly fastings were practiced by many for reasons of asceticism.  The Talmud views fasting as an appeal to God in times of trouble and this is it codified in Maimonides.

Many other fasts, in memory of Biblical history were added in the course of time, a full list of which is given at the end of Megillat Ta’anit. These were not regarded as obligatory anymore. There is a list given in Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 580, 2, as follows. Here are some of the lesser known fasts.

First of Nisan: the sons of Aaron were destroyed in the Tabernacle.; Tenth of Nisan: Miriam the prophetess died; the well that followed the Israelites in the wilderness disappeared; Twenty-sixth of Nisan: Joshua the son of Nun died.

Tenth of Iyyar: Eli the high priest and his two sons died, and the Ark was captured by the Philistines. Twenty-ninth of Iyyar: Samuel the prophet died.Twenty-fifth of Sivan: R. Simeon son of Gamaliel, R. Ishmael son of Elisha, and R. Ḥanina the superior (segan) of the priests were executed..First of Ab: Aaron the high priest died. Eighteenth of Ab: the western light was extinguished in the time of Ahaz.  Sixth (seventh) of Marḥeshvan: Nebuchadnezzar blinded King Zedekiah after he had slaughtered the latter’s children in his presence.Twenty-third of Shevaṭ: the Israelites gathered to war with the tribe of Benjamin (Judges xx.).

Notice how much Second Temple devotion was tied to reliving the Bible as an event and empathizing with each and every story. The historical element continues in later centuries, for example Polish Jews fasted on the twentieth of Sivan on account of the atrocities committed in 1648 by the Cossacks. These are all historic and not like the concern with auspicious times and spiritual focus of the Hindu fasts.

Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Purnima (full moon) and Ekadasi (the 11th day of the fortnight). Ekadasi fasting is common for all the Hindus. Ekadasi means 11th day. It comes twice a month: 11th day from the new moon and 11th day from the full moon. Another famous fasting is Sankata Hara Chathurthy i.e. fourth day after the full moon. Hindus fast themselves till moon rise. They eat after seeing the crescent moon.

With some Ekadashi, a full fast is required, for others  only once at midday. Another common kind of fast is to forego taking cereals, legumes, grains and/or both, when only fruits are eaten. Hindu fasting has no strict rules. But most of them are from dawn to dusk. They don’t eat any cooked food in the morning. They have milk and fruits in the day time. Nowadays coffee and tea have replaced milk which has no religious sanction. Some people don’t take anything other than water.

Certain days of the week is also marked for fasting, depending on individual choices and on one’s god and goddess. Hindus all over India observe fasts on festivals  Generally speaking, Hindu fasting means skipping the big meal of the day and sticking to light food during night.

Andal, the famous Tamil Vaishnavite woman saint, says in her poem Thiruppavai: “Girls avoid butter and milk on fast days; girls don’t put make ups on those days; they don’t decorate their hair with flowers and they avoid hairdo, they do avoid gossips, but think only about god. In short, fasting is a step towards god.

Yet, Judaism used to have an extensive fasting practice which is currently only done on a few occasions and even then it is reduced to triteness by big meals before and after, along with greetings of an easy fast that rob the fasting of any embodied or aspirational element.   Fasting was the penance of choice and translation of teshuva in Ashkenaz for a millennium.

In preparation for the High Holidays I reread the section from Rabbi Moshe Ibn Makir’s Sedar Hayom  (late 16th century and source of our Kabbalat Shabbat) and Rabbi Efraim Zalman Margoliot’s Matteh Efrayim (early 19th century), in these we see spiritual fasting (see as base Sh. Ar., OḤ, 581:2).

There was a widespread custom to fast all ten days of repentance, and Rabbi Yosel Karo’s custom to fast for the festival of Rosh Hashanah itself.  Even more interesting was the widespread acceptance that those seeking to turn to God in the month Elul should fast as many days as possible.

But what used to be similar to the Hindu approach was the discussion of how does one go about fasting for all of Elul. Ibn Makir writes that some fast, others fast by eating only one meal a day, or by eating lightly. The goal is spiritual preparation and focus on God.

In addition, between the 16th and 20th centuries, traditional piety also encouraged one to fast an additional six more days, the first Monday and Thursday, and the following Monday after Passover and Sukkot.  Also men fasted  ShOVaVIM TaT (initial letters of eight consecutive weekly Pentateuch portions starting with Shemot which are eight Thursdays of the winter months of an intercalated year).

And the day before the new moon each month was Yom Kippur Katan, on which many communities fasted and recited a special liturgy. The anniversary of the death of one’s father or mother was also a fast day, for non-Hasidim.

A typical rabbi following the required fasts, including the circle around Rav Kook or many Hasidic courts, would have fasted between 14- 60 extra fast days a year.   And for many ordinary people, the goal was to eat sparsely on these many fast days.  It was sliding scale similar to Hindu practice.

There were even more austere customs of fasting every Monday and Thursday in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, of the burning of the Torah. Some pious Jews fasted every Friday, so as to partake of the Sabbath meal with a hearty appetite (ib. 249, 3, Mishnah Berurah says at least to avoid meat and wine).

Today, most Jews only fast one day a year, and most Orthodox Jews begrudgingly fast five days a year and reject the Shulchan Arukh. Even when fasting they seem to follow the routine of comedian Louis C.K by complaining of their hunger and that they are starving.  As he says: “Some people say I’m starving. That’s offensive. Don’t say that… Because some people are [really] starving and they don’t say it.”

For Hindus, fasting is a major part of their spirituality. Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasa, meaning the attainment of close mental proximity with the Lord. For them, certain food types make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on certain days man decides to save time and conserve his energy by eating either simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes alert and pure. The mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord. Since it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to with joy.

By eating a purer quality of food and regulating food consumption, one can ensure a pure heart, long life, cheerful spirit, strength, health, happiness and delight. Good and pure food promotes a peaceful—not agitated—mind, which is needed to see the Truth as the Truth.

Bahye Ibn Pakuda and many kabbalists advocate a turn from this world of physical pleasure to be able to fulfill the duties of the heart, knowledge of the Truth and closeness to God. One could describe their practices as Yogic.

So current Jewish practice and Hindu practice as typified by Modi have little in common. There was more commonality between the 12th and 19th centuries.

But it seems there is a new convergence. Last week there was an ad in an Indian newspaper for a restaurant in India that will serve a gourmand feast that fulfills all the rules and regulations of those who fast from legumes, grains, and potatoes (as well as meat, fish, and eggs) on certain days. The advertisement boasted how the devout “who are fasting can undertake a spiritual gourmet journey.” This way the faithful “do not feel complete abstinence.” Is there any greater convergence with contemporary Orthodox Judaism?

8 responses to “Fasting in Hinduism and Judaism

  1. Do you think originally we were more an eastern religion and now that we are more western religion prayer and fasting do not reasonate with the Average Orthodox Jews . This is why some halachic authorities redefine halachic categories of choleh to permit more people to not fast yet maintain ״ The Halachic system by keeping the law on the books ?

  2. It would be interesting to track the decline of fasting, in a few religious traditions, against the decline of general poverty in each religious population. Prof. Sperber has demonstrated linkage between wealth and halachic tolerance for customs like “stam yeynam.” Perhaps an inverse effect is at play here.

  3. Also note modern ability to buy kosher lepesach beigels and siyum on demand in hotels during 9 days. Perhaps side effect of Yiddishe mameh syndrome

  4. The Catholic Church went through a similar trend in the 20th century as well. I wonder how much that correlates with the spurning of little fasts and fasting as a spiritual practice in the orthodox world.

  5. gabrielwasserman

    There is a whole book about the history of the minor fast-days in §580, an excellent book by Shulamit Elizur:

  6. Most Jews fast only one day a year?

    That may be true generally, but it is not so of most Orthodox Jews. Everyone in the Orthodox community that I know (with the exception of the infirm and the elderly) fasts at least on Yom Kippur and Tisha be-Av, and almost everyone also fasts on the daylight fast days (minor fasts) — including women and young girls over 12.

    A number of Chasidim also fast on the two cycles of B”H”B after Sukkot and Pesach, although this is less common these days.

    Just “for the record”….

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