Nearly a third of the 562,000 Americans who will die from various types of cancer in 2010 will die in large part because of their own behavior. Smoking, overeating, excessive drinking and physical inactivity will do them in. The same self-indulgences also bear on those who will die from heart disease. The lack of self-restraint evident in much of modern life leads first to pleasure-seeking, then increasingly to self-induced suffering. We Americans spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books and gym memberships but lack the discipline to control ourselves and our children. Thirty percent or more of the children in 30 states are either overweight or obese.
In our consumer-driven culture, we have largely lost the spiritual value of self-restraint that is important in the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim traditions. In 21st-century America, self-control may be the single biggest factor influencing life expectancy. Most of those who exercise self-control will have a good chance of living into their 90s. Excessive pleasure-seeking and lack of self-restraint, however, will cut short the lives of millions of others. Most religions have taught that self-restraint is a virtue. Fasting and ritual dietary restrictions are widespread spiritual examples.
Eat It Up
The idea that people, even thin people, should restrict their culinary pleasures sounds outrageous to our 21st-century ears. Dieting is hard enough. Why should we add fasting? Isn’t being happy the most important thing? And isn’t eating one of the most accessible pleasures? Why should religions restrict such pleasures? Why, for example, should Christians fast during Lent? Or why should the Torah decree a day of total denial of food and drink for every Jewish adult (Lv 16:29, 23:27)? For 24 hours Jews over age 12 and in good health are supposed to purify their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything at all.
What people do not eat may be even more important than what they do eat. All animals eat, but only humans choose not to eat some foods that are both nutritious and tasty. Some people do not eat meat for religious/ethical reasons. During Lent, Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. As a general prohibition all year long, Hindus do not eat beef; Jews and Muslims do not eat pork. And on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—Jews do not eat or drink anything at all for 24 hours. Every year for the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink and marital relations. The Koran says: “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may [learn] self-restraint” (2:183). What do the religious practices of abstinence and fasting teach us? What spiritual benefits occur when we fast?
You Can Do It!
Fasting produces many different outcomes. Most importantly, fasting teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world’s problem of hunger and to feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But not until one feels hunger in one’s own body is there a real impact: empathy is much stronger than pity. Empathy should lead us to action. Fasting has moral value if compassion toward others has been extended in the process. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor” (Is 58:6-7).
Many people think they cannot fast because fasting is too difficult. But actually the discomfort of such hunger pangs is relatively minor. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise and a toothache are all more severe. What makes fasting difficult for many is that food is all around, within easy reach; all they have to do is take a bite. The key to fasting, though, is using one’s willpower—again and again—not to eat. In so doing, we practice self-control and celebrate mastery over ourselves. We need continually to prove that we can do it.
Another outcome of fasting is improved physical health. Of course, one 24-hour fast will have no more effect than one day of exercise. Only prolonged, regular fasting promotes physical health. The annual fast on Yom Kippur can awaken a person, however, to the importance of “how much and how often we eat.” Research has shown that when animals are somewhat underfed, receiving a balanced diet of less than the typical quantity for maximum physical health, their life spans increase markedly. Considering all the additives placed in food these days, a reduced food intake has to be healthful. More important, since our society has problems with overabundance, fasting provides a lesson in the virtue of self-denial.
Health problems caused by overeating, like diabetes, are growing rapidly in affluent countries. In the United States, 16 million people have diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes can lead to blindness, kidney disease, heart disease, nerve damage, amputations and sometimes death. The prevalence of the disease is related to high rates of obesity and to a sedentary lifestyle. More than half the adults in Los Angeles are overweight; 60 percent do not get regular exercise. One-fifth of those who are obese will develop diabetes. In Los Angeles County among those 40 and older, 16 percent of Latinos, 13 percent of African-Americans, 8 percent of Asian-Americans and 8 percent of whites have diabetes.
Going without any food, or even water, for a full day challenges us to think about the benefits of the spiritual teaching that less is more. Living in a consumer society, we are constantly bombarded by advertising that tells us we must have this or that to be healthy, happy, popular or wise. By fasting we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for 24 hours, how much more our needs for all the nonessentials. Judaism does not advocate asceticism as an end in itself. In fact it is against Jewish law to deny ourselves normal pleasures. Yet we must focus on overcoming our dependencies.
Good for the Soul
Though we occasionally hear people echo values from the past (that suffering can help one grow, or that an existence free of pain would lack certain qualities of greatness), many today think that the primary goal in life is to be happy always and free of all discomfort. The concept of fasting as penance helps us understand that our suffering can be beneficial. This is an important Christian consideration in Lent, as well.
Although fasting may serve as a penance and alleviate some personal guilt, it is much better to perform acts of righteousness and compassion than it is to fast. This is why, for Jews, contributing to charity is an important part of Yom Kippur. The same is true for Muslims during Ramadan and Christians during Lent, when almsgiving is emphasized. Fasting that does not increase compassion is ignored by God.
Fasting is good for the soul and the spirit. For most people, especially those who have not fasted regularly before, hunger pains are a distraction. People who are not by nature spiritual/emotional may find that a one-day fast is insufficient to help induce an altered state of consciousness. Those who have fasted regularly on Yom Kippur might like to try a two-day or three-day fast (liquids permitted).
During a fast it is best to go about daily activities and devote the late evening or early morning to meditation and prayer. For Jews, eating a good meal prior to Yom Kippur Eve is a mitzvah (religious duty), because Judaism, like Islam, opposes excessive asceticism. Some Christians feast the night before Ash Wednesday, called “Fat Tuesday.”
Fasting on Yom Kippur is a personal offering to the God of Israel from each member of the family of Israel. For over 100 generations Jews have fasted on this day. A personal act of fasting is part of the Jewish people’s covenant with God. The principal reason to fast is to fulfill a mitzvah, though the outcome of the fast can be one of many forms of self-fulfillment. I believe most religions, each in its own way, use food restrictions to teach experientially that self-restraint and self-discipline lead to self-fulfillment. Self-indulgence never does.
Finally, fasting should be combined with prayer and the study of Torah (the five books of Moses specifically, or scriptural texts in general). Indeed, the more one studies, the less one needs to fast. A medieval text states, “Better to eat a little and study twice as much, for the study of Torah is superior to fasting.”