Not Eating Abroad: Global Fasting Traditions
Jun 12, 2023

Not Eating Abroad: Global Fasting Traditions

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Two major world religions are marking their traditions with fasting this month. Muslims worldwide are observing the month-long Ramadan and Orthodox Christians are honoring Saint Mary with 16 days of fasting.

Since I’m in Ethiopia right now (80% Orthodox Christian and 20% Muslim), that means I’m fasting too. In fact, most local restaurants are only serving a “fasting” menu for the next several weeks: no meat, eggs, fat or dairy. Basically, I’m now a vegan.

The Skinny on Fasting

Although I may not be eating a lot, I’m thinking about food a lot. Or rather, thinking a lot about why we’re fasting and not eating food. “Fasting” is defined as the act of willingly abstaining from food (some or all) for a defined period of time.

Sever Fasting

Absolute fasting means no food or liquid at all — usually for just 24 hours. Sever fasting is usually accompanied by other forms of abstinence, like forgoing sex, no smoking or refraining from handling money.

Intermittent Fasting

Most forms of fasting are less extreme. Intermittent fasting curtails food during certain hours of the day, such as sunrise to sunset, or eliminating certain types of foods.

Global Fasting Traditions

Here’re a quick rundown on worldwide fasting traditions – all of which correspond with the rituals and practices of our major religions.

Islam: Fasting is the third of the Five Pillars of Islam and considered one of the most important acts of Islam worship. Muslims believe that by fasting one is drawn closer to God by abstaining from bodily pleasures. Fasting is also seen as an outward sign of a person’s faith and devotion to God.

Ramadan, the most notable time for fasting for Muslims, is a 1-month period (during the month of August), when fasting is observed from dawn till dusk. During this time, Muslims are prohibited from eating, drinking (including water), and engaging in sexual activity.

Muslims believe that fasting is more than just denial of food and drink – it is about building a stronger character by abstaining from falsehoods in speech and action, arguing, and fighting. In addition, Ramadan is a month of giving charity and strengthening the brotherhood of Islam through the sharing of meals by breaking the fast together.

While fasting in the month of Ramadan is considered obligatory, Islam also promotes voluntary fasting days, including:

  • The 13th, 14th, and 15th days of every lunar month
  • Each Monday and Thursday of a week
  • Six days in the month of Shawwal (the month following Ramadan)
  • Every other day, also known as the fast of the prophet David

Christianity: Several Christian denominations observe fasting rituals. For instance, to commemorate Christ’s fast during his temptation in the desert, both the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church observe the 40-day fast during the period of Lent. During the Lent season, Catholics choose individually what they wish to forgo. Most people choose to abstain from eating meat or sweets, drinking alcohol, or smoking cigarettes.

In the Orthodox tradition fasting is more prescribed. On weekdays during the first week of Great Lent, devout observers only eat 2 meals within the first 5-day period. For these 2 meals, only “dry eating” (raw vegetables, fruit and nuts) is permitted. Nursing mothers and those who are ill are excused from this fasting ritual.

The Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox Christians, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church see fasting as an important spiritual discipline closely tied to the Orthodox theology that binds one’s body and soul. In this tradition, fasting is not intended to make believers suffer, but instead to guard against gluttony and impure actions and thoughts. Fasting is accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving.

In the Orthodox tradition there are 4 fasting seasons: Great Lent (40 days), Nativity Fast (40 days), Apostles’ Fast (varies) and Dormition Fast (2 weeks). Fasting during these times includes abstention from:

  • animal products, including dairy
  • oil, specifically olive oil and / or cooking oil
  • red wine, interpreted to mean all alcoholic beverages
  • sexual activity

As noted above, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church subscribes to the partial-fast regimen outlined above. In fact, one of my local guides and I added up all the fasting holidays in Ethiopia and it turns out that Ethiopians fast at least one-third of their lives.

Buddhism: Following in Buddha’s footsteps, many Buddhist nuns and monks abstain from eating after the noon meal. This is part of an overall disciplined approach to eating that is thought to aid meditation and foster healthy living. Lay Buddhists sometimes observe this fasting tradition of no eating after noon just 1 day a week.

Judaism: Traditionally observant Jews fast up to 6 days of the year. The purpose of Jewish fasting is atonement of sins, commemorative mourning, and as an expression of gratitude to God for providing salvation.

Fasting for Jews means completely abstaining from food and drink, including water (even brushing the teeth is forbidden on the major fast days of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av). Fasting lasts from sunset to dusk the following day.

  • Yom Kippur, considered the most important day of the Jewish year, promotes fasting as a means of repentance and is expected of every Jewish man or woman (unless seriously ill). Restrictions on activities, such as lighting a fire and wearing leather shoes, accompany this fast.
  • Tisha B’Av, the second major day of fasting, is a day for Jews to remember the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, such as when the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago and the Holocaust.

In addition to these 2 major fast days, there are 4 public fast days (The Fast of Gedaliah, 10th of Tevet, 17th of Tammuz, The Fast of Esther) and minor fast days. Jews may also participate in personal fast days as a form of repentance. Mondays and Thursdays are considered especially auspicious days for fasting.

Fasting for Life

So there you have it – Fasting 101. Me, I’ll be busy sampling the “Fasting Menu” at the restaurants in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa over the next few weeks.

I’ll be sure and let you know which is better – the “fasting pizza” or “fasting pasta” or the tried and true “fasting injera.” Who knows? Maybe I’ll even come gain a little enlightenment of my own.

Erin Michelson is a social entrepreneur and world traveler. A self-styled Adventure Philanthropist, Erin is embarking on a 2-year global giving adventure called Erin Goes Global. Starting in Fiji on New Year’s Day 2011, Erin Michelson will travel to more than 70 counties on 7 continents during 2011-2012. Along the way, Erin will be volunteering with global non-profit organizations, including building wells in Uganda and tutoring young girls in Bangladeshi boat villages. She’s donated $25,000 and is holding monthly polls to see which worthy nonprofits receive the grants!