“Cereal?” I ask, monosyllabic in the early morning. Andrew shakes his head. “Yom Kippur.” Oh. He is fasting. He goes about it so quietly that the Day of Atonement always sneaks up on me, the shiksa. I used to fast, I think a little defensively. I was so scrupulous, for a time there, that I was distressed when I realized I had sprinkled bacon bits on my cafeteria salad during Lent. “Doubt there’s any meat in those things,” a friend said dryly. So I focused harder on what I had chosen to Give Up: caffeine, that year, which meant not only coffee but soda and even chocolate. The trifecta.
My fasting was selective, as you can see, and a bit of a game. “It’s not Friday on the West Coast yet,” we would say as we ordered a pepperoni pizza near midnight on a Thursday. Comparing our individual sacrifices, we would gauge their difficulty and redemptive potential. I brought mine up every chance I got: “Oh, no, I can’t, it has caffeine. . . . ” That scripture passage about not going about in sackcloth and ashes, not fasting with somber mien and grimaces, had been lost on me. By God, I would make it known that I was Giving Up something. I loved showing off my ashes, too—I was so proud of my smudged forehead, so eager to see others with the same smear and feel that glow of shared virtue.
Then I emerged from the game, realizing it had done nothing “for” me (as though that were the point). Nor could my growling stomach benefit the almighty. So why was I bothering? To feel good afterward, I answered myself, trying to be honest, though I could easily have riffed about being in control of one’s desires and honoring something higher than one’s appetite, one’s impulsive self-gratification. But why should we have to abstain to be spiritual? I countered. Surely there are less silly ways to prove that one’s desires are smaller than one’s god.
A sentence I would never dare utter to my Jewish husband, my Muslim friends, or those still devoutly Catholic.
For them, as for Buddhists, Greek Orthodox Christians, Hindus, Taoists, and Jains, fasting is not silly at all. It is an act of humility, a promise of devotion, a test of discipline. As someone who cannot bear even to skip lunch, I admire their will power. “But you can have Jell-O, right?” I ask Andrew. “No Jell-O? What about hot cocoa? I could add some whipped cream for sustenance….” I prefer a faith that celebrates pleasure, savoring the world’s goodness. The scriptural passage I would cite is Isaiah 58, in which God sees Israel fasting to obtain his help and, cranky, points out that they are oppressing their own people, withholding workers’ wages, and acting in violence toward one another. Abstain from injustice, God urges, not from food.
Glad of a rationale, I do nothing. And I cannot tell if I miss making the effort or just miss the idea of being someone who would make the effort. Denying oneself can be salutary. It is fun, now and again, to stay up all night. Nothing makes sex more enjoyable than a period of abstinence. Reunions with friends who live far away have a sweetness to them. But go hungry? When treats are jammed into the cupboard?
One needs quite a good reason.
Jesus fasted before he began public ministry. Other Biblical figures fasted in repentance, to find the strength to confess their sins, to ask for healing, to grieve, to seek guidance or help. Often God did not grant their express wishes. But they may have felt their faith to be stronger after making the sacrifice. Andrew says that fasting helps focus his mind on the Day of Atonement, each hunger pang a reminder to examine his conscience, think through the past year, resolve to be different in the coming year.
The practice of fasting is ancient, threading through very different world views. I began this exercise to focus on its absurdity but find I cannot. Fasting has been accorded such power, and it has taken so many forms, there must be something to it. Gandhi fasted to make a political statement, as did Cesar Chavez, as did the countless activists and prisoners who went on hunger strikes. And while their fasts bordered on self-destruction, others are designed to strengthen the body. Hippocrates had his patients fast when they were ill. Even the notion of fasting as medicinal does not bring me round, though. “Feed a cold, starve a fever” rang in my ears as a kid, making me nervous every time my mom shook the thermometer. Nor can I face one of those intermittent fasts people do to lose weight and keep their body young, responsive to threat, resilient. I imagine this working the way whacking a rosebush can restore its health, fill it out, let it flower exuberantly. The universe does have a certain affection for austerity measures. I do not.
People also fast as a detox, resting the beleaguered GI system and ridding it of toxins. Some say fasting clears out the debris of dead cells and helps our bodies renew and repair themselves. Studies of those who do the Daniel fast (Biblically inspired but updated to exclude sugar, white flour, preservatives and additives, flavorings, caffeine, and alcohol) show that they have lowered their cholesterol. Other studies suggest fasting can reduce inflammation and blood pressure, regulate blood sugar levels, and boost cognitive function by reducing oxidative stress in the brain. A 2021 study showed fasting capable of reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
As so often is the case, a practice dictated by religion proves healthy for other reasons. Quieting the mind, confessing and apologizing, tithing, revering what is greater than yourself, expressing gratitude—all are now the stuff of secular self-help. Soon we will all be illuminating vellum scriptures with calligraphy pens.
Fasting for religious reasons is probably extra healthy, though, because people do it calmly and selflessly, not tapping their fingers waiting for a benefit. The word “fast” means more than speed. It also tells us something is holding tightly, and that sense grows into “steadfast,” with connotations of stability, groundedness, fixedness. The very qualities we ask faith to infuse in our lives. What I like best about religious fasting (as I watch from the sidelines, munching on Doritos) is the reciprocity it adds. There is such greed in those who worship a Santa Claus god. Always importuning, they turn whiny, caught up in what they want. Fasting shifts the emphasis to humility, self-sacrifice, gratitude.
Granted, if one fasts with smug piety, that, too, can distort and magnify the self. Religious practices are, like technology, morally neutral. What matters is how and why they are used. When a mystic fasts, it is a sacred ritual, setting the body aside in order to deepen the mind and carve out more space for the soul. When I fast, the practice turns into a transactional flirtation with whoever seems to be deciding my fate.
Perhaps my past scarred me. All I remember of childhood’s pre-Communion fasts is fainting (the church had no air-conditioning). My later Lenten fasts were performative. But on high school retreats, we went for long walks in the countryside before breakfast, and I loved that tingling sense of lightness and clarity. My mind was washed clean by sleep, my guts were hollow, and my mood was as fresh as the dawn, no worries or imagined slights yet clouding my emotions. That sort of fast, I maybe could have continued. At least until lunch.
Watching Andrew, I can see that fasting, when voluntary and purposeful, empties you in the best possible way. It is a deliberate act done for a higher reason, not simply to live forever, launch a stupid diet, or prep for some dreadful surgery. You move through the world a little less burdened by your appetites and habitual self-appeasement. You have reminded yourself that though you are mortal and flawed and desperate for a cheeseburger, you do possess will power.
Do I? Could I summon enough resolve to ignore Camembert, champagne, and dark chocolate?
If I ever do, it will not be a rigidly scrupulous and loudly advertised project. Andrew might have snuck a cup of coffee; I know he showered, which I later read was traditionally forbidden. I did not bring this up. I am done playing games. What matters is not what you do but what you intend.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.