The span of the Jewish calendar is punctuated with times of intense joy and mourning. Fast days, during which we abstain from eating or drinking, give definition and practice to times of commemoration in a way that brings us, as individuals and communities, into a time of spiritual reformation.
There are multiple reasons for which someone might decide to fast. Many fast days in Judaism, such as Yom Kippur and the Ninth of Av, focus on the remembrance of tragic, historical events. On the fasts that commemorate a specific time or event, the physical act of denying your physical needs adds a tangible aspect to the emotional climate of the occasion.
Fasting has also been practiced as a means of drawing closer to God and expressing a desire for his compassion, forgiveness, and guidance. In Interfaith Conversations, Arnold Bienstock writes, “Fasting arouses the compassion of God to forgive the penitent. Statutory communal fasts in Judaism reflect the desire for divine forgiveness.”
Whether it is held for personal or historical reasons, all fasts seem to revolve around the concept of repentance and reformation:
In later books of the Bible, the prophetic tradition develops the idea that, in addition to propitiating divine wrath, fasting serves to transform the individual spiritually. Isaiah 58 interprets the genuine fast as the denial that awakens the ethical sensitivity of the Jew. For the prophetic voice, ethical perfection is the ultimate demand of the religious life. Ritual behavior is meaningful only if it is marked by the inner transformation of the character of the penitent. The prophetic voice condemns ritual expression that is not marked by spiritual transformation.” (Arnold Bienstock, Interfaith Conversations)
The practice and purpose of fasting are historically all inclusive. Even the residents of Ninevah were granted compassion because of their fasting and repentance. Communal fasts, like those in Jonah and Esther, are usually held to petition to God when there is a specific concern involving the entire community. When Esther was notified of the threat to her community, her first action was to ask that the entire community fast with her:
Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:15-16)
When entire communities partake in a fast, they are drawn closer together as each member rallies for their united cause.
Fasting is a key part of spiritual life for Messianic Judaism. However, there are limits and exceptions. In all matters of Jewish practice, health holds priority. For this reason, anyone who is ill, or may become ill from fasting, is not expected to participate in fast days. This reflects the sentiment expressed by Yeshua in his willingness to heal on the Sabbath:
Yeshua often used Hosea 6:6 to teach that compassion for human beings, specifically the alleviation of human suffering, takes precedence over ceremonial and ritual concerns. (D. Thomas Lancaster, From Sabbath to Sabbath)
Fasting is a beautiful and traditional expression of the greatest desires of our faith. Through it we petition God, strengthen our communities, and elevate ourselves toward new spiritual heights. It is an opportunity, non-discriminatory in nature, of which we would all be remiss not to take advantage.