Fasting in the Hebrew Bible by Peter Altmann

Why do people fast in the Hebrew Bible?

Securing enough food was a regular challenge in ancient times, so fasting—voluntarily going without food (or drink)—was a very striking practice. Therefore, rather than a means toward healthy living as in some modern diets, fasting in the Hebrew Bible is a concrete response indicating that something is wrong. As the opposite of joy, which can literally mean the enjoyment of food and drink (cf. Deut 14:22-27), sorrow was the basic tenor of a fast (cf. Zech 7:1-3; Zech 8:18-19).

At its most basic, people fast as an expression of mourning, such as at the death of King Saul (1Sam 31:13) or a spouse (Jdt 8:4-6). Sorrow saps the normal desire to eat.

Fasting could also be an attempt to enlist God’s help, for example, when someone close is sick (a friend: Ps 35:13). Sometimes this links to penance, as with David’s fast for his sick child (2Sam 12) or the Ninevites in response to Jonah’s message (Jonah 3). In this satire even the animals fast and cry out to God in order to avoid punishment.

Moses’s supernatural fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 9) is given several meanings. In Deut 9:18-19 Moses reminds the Israelites that he went without food and drink for forty days, which led to God listening to Moses.

However, in Deut 9:9, Moses’s first forty-day fasting appears more as preparation to receive the law from God. In other texts as well, people fast as an act of purification or preparation before seeking divine guidance (Judg 20:26) or as a part of a ritual seeking divine favor. In Esth 4, Mordecai first, then the Jewish community, and finally Queen Esther fast in reaction to the decree for their destruction. Here the initial fasting connects to mourning (Esth 4:3), but the queen calls for a three-day fast from food and water by the Jews of Susa to enlist God’s favor. In 1Sam 7:6, after the prophet Samuel directs the Israelites to serve God alone, they perform a ritual with water, fast, and confess their sin against God, all in order to seek God’s help in defeating the Philistines.

Overlapping with modern hunger strikes, Daniel and his associates (Dan 1) reject King Nebuchadnezzar’s royal fare, demonstrating their continued allegiance to Israel’s God, even though they have undergone exile to the foreign land of Babylon.

While fasting could also function as a communal physical reminder of a traumatic event as it did for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Zech 7:1-10), the only regular event including fasting was on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), found in Lev 16; Lev 23; and Num 29; Num 30. These texts do not use the typical term for fasting, but instead speak more generally of “humiliating oneself.”

Isaiah 58’s discussion of the practice of fasting is the longest in the Hebrew Bible, focusing on misuse. It explains why the audience’s fasts have not led to healing (Isa 58:3), following a common prophetic critique: righteous action must accompany ritual practice. This text links the specific cultic practice of fasting with the just act of sharing bread with the hungry (Isa 58:7). Denying oneself food while remaining involved in unjust acts will not result in favor (Isa 58:3-4, 6). Instead, the person who satisfies the famished (Isa 58:10) will become like a watered garden (Isa 58:11).

Peter Altmann, "Fasting in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 7 Oct 2022]. Online:



Peter Altmann
postdoctoral researcher in Hebrew Bible, University of Zurich

Peter Altmann is a postdoctoral researcher in Hebrew Bible at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He also teaches courses in Bible for Fuller Seminary. His publications include Festive Meals in Ancient Israel: Deuteronomy’s Identity Politics in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context (BZAW 424; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011) and a coedited volume with Janling Fu, Feasting in the Archaeology and Texts of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Reconciliation between God and a person, often brought about by sacrifice or reparation.

Annual day of fasting, prayer and repentance. The last of the ten days of penitence that begin with the Jewish New Year.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The expression of remorse for wrongdoing; the sacrament of reconciliation.

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Deut 14:22-27

Regulations concerning Tithes
22Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field.23In the presence of the Lord your God, ... View more

Zech 7:1-3

Hypocritical Fasting Condemned
1In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev ... View more

Zech 8:18-19

Joyful Fasting
18The word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying:19Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and th ... View more

1Sam 31:13

13Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.

Jdt 8:4-6

4Judith remained as a widow for three years and four months5at home where she set up a tent for herself on the roof of her house. She put sackcloth around her w ... View more

Ps 35:13

13But as for me, when they were sick,
I wore sackcloth;
I afflicted myself with fasting.
I prayed with head bowed on my bosom,

2Sam 12

1and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.2The rich man had ve ... View more

Jonah 3

Conversion of Nineveh
1The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying,2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I ... View more

Exod 34:28

28He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten c ... View more

Deut 9

The Consequences of Rebelling against God
1Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan today, to go in and dispossess nations larger and mightier than you ... View more

Deut 9:18-19

18Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin you had committed, pr ... View more

Deut 9:9

9When I went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and fo ... View more

Judg 20:26

26Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went back to Bethel and wept, sitting there before the Lord; they fasted that day until evening. Then they offered bu ... View more

Esth 4

Esther Agrees to Help the Jews
1When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the cit ... View more

Esth 4:3

3In every province, wherever the king's command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most o ... View more

1Sam 7:6

6So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel jud ... View more

Dan 1

Four Young Israelites at the Babylonian Court
1In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and b ... View more

Zech 7:1-10

Hypocritical Fasting Condemned
1In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev ... View more

Lev 16

The Day of Atonement
1The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.2The Lord said to Moses:
Te ... View more

Lev 23

Appointed Festivals
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the Lord that you shal ... View more

Num 29

Offerings at the Festival of Trumpets
1On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. It is a ... View more

Num 30

Vows Made by Women
1Then Moses said to the heads of the tribes of the Israelites: This is what the Lord has commanded.2When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or sw ... View more

Isa 58:3

3“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your wor ... View more

Isa 58:7

7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself fro ... View more

Isa 58:10

10if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Isa 58:11

11The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spri ... View more

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