Since March marks the month of the Baha’i Fast, as well as the beginning of Lent, millions of devout believers around the world are now or soon will be fasting.
Almost all religions include fasting as a part of their spiritual practice. Many have exemptions for children, pregnant women, the elderly, people who are gravely ill, etc. Fasting is not intended to endanger anyone’s life or health—it’s intended to be a meaningful and even joyful experience.
Baha’is between the ages of 15 and 70 abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours, for 19 days this month, if they are able. The Baha’i teachings say:
Fasting is of two kinds, material and spiritual. The material fasting is abstaining from food or drink, that is, from the appetites of the body. But spiritual fasting is this, that man abstain from selfish passions … – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, p. 305.
That same theme—fasting as a symbol of abstention from selfish desires—runs through many different Faiths.
Roman Catholics fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstain from meat on all Fridays during Lent. For centuries, Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on all Fridays, but since the mid-1960s, abstaining from meat on Fridays outside of Lent has been a matter of local discretion. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, two small meals and one regular meal are allowed; meat is forbidden. For the optional Friday fast, some people substitute a different penance or special prayer instead of fasting. From a Catholic perspective, fasting teaches control of fleshly desires, penance for sins, and solidarity with the poor. The Lenten fast prepares the soul for a great feast by practicing austerity. The Good Friday fast commemorates the day Christ suffered.
In the Eastern Orthodox church, there are several fast periods, including Lent, Apostles’ Fast, the Nativity Fast, and several one-day fasts. Every Wednesday and Friday is considered a fast day, except those that fall during designated “fast-free weeks.” In general, meat, dairy products, and eggs are prohibited on fast days. Fish is prohibited on some fast days and allowed on others. In Eastern Orthodox terms, fasting strengthens resistance to gluttony and helps open a person to God’s grace.
Buddhists also practice periods of fasting, usually on full-moon days and other holidays. Depending on the Buddhist tradition, fasting usually means abstaining from solid food, with some liquids permitted.
Hindu fasting is commonly practiced on New Moon days and during certain festivals. Fasting may involve 24 hours of complete abstinence from any food or drink, but more often believers abstain from solid foods, with an occasional drink of milk or water. In Hindu practice, fasting enhances concentration during meditation or worship and also purifies the body.
In Judaism, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the best-known fast day. The Jewish calendar has six other fast days as well, including Tisha B’Av, the solemn day of the destruction of the Jewish Temple. On each of those two days, eating and drinking are forbidden for a 25-hour period, from sundown on one day to nightfall of the next. On the other Jewish fast days, eating and drinking are forbidden only from sunrise to sundown, in other words during approximately 12 daylight hours, like the Baha’i Fast. For Jews, fasting is for atonement or special requests to God.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, commemorates the period when the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad. Various Muslim customs recommend days and periods of fasting in addition to Ramadan. During Ramadan the faithful abstain from food, drink, and other indulgences from before the break of dawn until after sunset.
For Protestant Christians, fasting varies at the discretion of churches, organizations, communities, or individuals. The type of fasting is also at the discretion of those who choose to fast. Some people abstain from food or drink entirely, others drink only water or juice, eat only certain foods, skip certain meals, or abstain from temptations, edible or not. Evangelical fasts have become increasingly popular in recent years, with people fasting for spiritual nourishment, solidarity with impoverished people, a counterbalance to modern consumer culture, or to help them make a special request of God.
Some Christians fast for personal spiritual development, or for social justice. Episcopalians, Lutherans, and many other Protestant churches have called for prayer and fasting, often to help members feel a connection to those who are hungry or suffering. One example: the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) encourages “40 Days of Giving” during Lent.
Even people who do not consider themselves religious may choose to fast for health reasons, or to draw attention to world hunger, poverty, war or injustice. In the case of the “40 bags in 40 days” campaign, people seek to detach themselves from material possessions by donating items they no longer need that may serve other people. This also opens up their personal space and lightens their emotional load.
Other people strive to give up bad habits this month, such as smoking, gossiping, overeating, etc.
The Baha’i Fast, which the Baha’i writings call “an outer token of the spiritual fast …”, relate the abstention from food and drink to “taking on the characteristics of the spirit:”
… this material fast is an outer token of the spiritual fast; it is a symbol of self-restraint, the withholding of oneself from all appetites of the self, taking on the characteristics of the spirit, being carried away by the breathings of heaven and catching fire from the love of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 70.
Whatever your reason, I wish you happy fasting!