Communication with God, otherwise known as prayer, in Judaism is primarily through speech, but there are other acts of prayer in Judaism that involve actions and not words. One of the forms of this non-verbal prayer in Judaism is fasting – the self-denial of food and drink, either for the daytime (from dawn until complete sunset) or for a full Jewish holy day (about 25 hours).
Fasting is one of the starkest expressions of Jewish adherence to tradition. The practice of fasting on certain days is sufficiently widespread in Israel that mainstream newspapers often contain advice on how to fast easily the day before a fast takes place.
So Why Do Jews Fast?
A major reason for fasting is mourning for a national disaster – specifically the mourning of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the Romans in 70 AD. There are fully four fast days set aside in the Jewish calendar for historical mourning, each commemorating a part of this event – the beginning of the siege (10th of Teveth), the breaching of the city walls (17th of Tamuz), the destruction of the Temple (9th of Av) and the murder of the Jewish district governor under the Babylonian Empire, which ended all hope for Jewish revival under the Babylonians (3rd of Tishrei).
The second, and no less important reason Jews fast is as an act of prayer. Traditionally, unique Jewish individuals and sometimes whole communities fasted as a prayer to God to stop a future or present danger such as a plague, a drought or the threat of war and massacre. Perhaps the most famous of these ‘public fasts’ is mentioned in the Biblical book of Esther, where the Jews of Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire, fasted for three days. The fast was meant as a prayer to protect Persian Queen Esther (who was Jewish) when she approached the Persian King to protect the Jews from destruction.
The most important expression of fasting as prayer is on the Day of Atonement (10th of Tishrei). This is the only fast day mandated by the Torah, and it is meant as a prayer to God to forgive the Jews for various violations of religious law. Jews all over the world gather together in synagogues to pray on this day. InIsrael especially, a silence covers the country, as practically no Jew works or travels on this day. Thus does fasting become a uniquely collective spiritual experience, where an entire people reach a higher plane of consciousness.
Salutations for Fast Days
To Jews who are fasting, it is customary to say one of the following:
“Tzom Kal” or “Have an Easy Fast”
“Tzom Mo’il” or “Have a Meaningful Fast”