From Monday morning through Wednesday evening this week, all that entered my mouth was water.
Mom, Dad (and Hillary Feder), before you reach for the phone or get in the car to come save me, hear me out, I haven’t gone off the deep end. I promise.
For various reasons, many historical figures have fasted since biblical times.
On Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, Jews fast for 25 hours (without even water!) in order to fulfill a Torah-mandated Mitzvah (commandment) to “afflict” themselves in honor of the holiday, which is intended as a day for Jews to fully atone for their sins. According to Rabbi Mendy Hecht, they take afflict to mean, “de-emphasizing the body’s needs in five areas: bathing; using creams, oils, perfumes or other skin accessories; wearing leather shoes; sexual relations; and eating and drinking.” Hecht explains that in order to more fully focus on God and spirituality, Jews must put their “bodily cravings on the back burner” and rely on God in an expression of pure faith, that he will “obliterate hunger, starvation, need and blight from mankind. On Yom Kippur, … we divorce ourselves from our needs for physical maintenance and rely on G-d.”
In a similar manner of faith and selflessness, Jesus also fasted in order to be alone and focus on God with no worldly interruption. For 40 days in the desert Jesus’ fast marked the time before the start of his public ministry which also “corresponded as a type of Moses’ fasting [for] 40 days on Mt. Sinai before receiving the Law (Ex. 34:27f),” according to W. Frank Walton. He continues, “Jesus taught that fasting was not done to impress or prompt anyone else, but it was a matter of personal resolve and individual liberty before God (Matt. 6:16-18).”
Another man famous for fasting is Gandhi. In an effort to achieve Satyagraha, or nonviolent revolution, Gandhi fasted as a means of personal resolve to evoke moral conviction of his oppressor (in his case, British government), famously saying, “And through our pain we will make them see their injustice.” In 1932, Gandhi vowed to fast “until death” as a method to nonviolently protest the British government’s treatment of the “untouchables,” those considered to be in the lowest Indian caste. And, after 6 days of fasting, the government negotiated a pact to improve the status of these people. Though Gandhi cites numerous reasons to fast, Charles R. DiSalvo explains one main reason in his essay on Gandhi’s efforts and success with nonviolent revolution. “The historical Gandhi believed that, ‘suffering is not valued for its own sake, but is held to promote non-attachment from the insistent claims of the body, to emphasize the spirit as superior to the material and physical.'”
But, I know what you’re thinking. I am not comparing myself to Moses, Jesus or Gandhi. In fact, on Wednesday I woke up feeling like garbage, so I ate a carrot. (Ok, two carrots.)
I could continue with many interesting and enlightening examples of fasts throughout history. What I have learned from these examples, though, is that while there are many reasons to fast, there are a few themes shared by each. The ideas of freedom from distraction, spirituality, and a heightened sense of awareness are always present.
In fact, these days you have to be pretty self determined to do a fast since NO ONE agrees on the topic (or at least from what I saw on the Internet.) WebMD advises against it saying, “there is no evidence that fasting detoxifies your body, or that your body even needs to be detoxified.” And, “Your body needs a variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from food to stay healthy. Not getting enough of these nutrients during fasting diets can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, constipation, dehydration, gallstones and cold intolerance. It is possible to die if you fast too long.” So that’s that. But, if you click one page down on your google search, you can read this, “‘Fasting is, without any doubt, the most effective biological method of treatment… it is the ‘operation without surgery’…it is a cure involving exudation, reattunement, redirection, loosening up and purified relaxation,’ said Otto Buchinger, Sr., M.D., Germany’s great self-described ‘fasting therapist.'” Benjamin Franklin said, “The best of all medicines is resting and fasting,” and, Dr. Mark DeMeao, the assistant professor of medicine and associate director of nutrition at Loyola University Medical Center said, “I don’t know of any positive effects of fasting. I don’t recommend it.”
Sooo, Benjamin Franklin, or Mark DeMeao?