On the Power of Fasting
by Basmat Hazan Arnoff
Fasting is one of those rare intimate experiences that the whole community takes on together. In Jewish tradition there are three major types of fasts.
One, and the most important, is to raise one’s spiritual level. This is thought of as purification, since we are not dealing with our physical needs on holy days like Yom Kippur, but instead focus only on our spiritual needs. This type of fasting has something in common with the cleansing and juice fasting diets that are popular these days, which many do to not only detoxify their bodies, but to also break bad habits and behaviors.
Another purpose of fasting is to mourn. We are instructed on Tish’a B’av to fast as a way to acknowledge the destruction of the temples.
The last purpose of fasting, perhaps the most fascinating of them all, is the one described in Mishna and Talmud in tractate TA’ANIT. Here we learn about fasts done during years of drought (which were seen as decrees from g-d), when individuals or communities would abstain from eating in order to try to bring rain.
I find it so fascinating that humans felt like the very personal act of not eating for three days (Monday, Thursday and then Monday) could have cosmic powers. Yes, this may seem crazy from a contemporary perspective, but I believe that by comparing the urge to fast for rain with the urge to fast for political change that we can better understand both.
A hunger strike is a method of non-violent resistance or pressure in which participants fast as an act of political protest, or to provoke feelings of guilt in others, usually with the objective to achieve a specific goal, such as a policy change. Most hunger strikers are powerless politically and see this as their only tool to try to create change or ask for justice.
When a person or a community took on a fast for rain it had a somewhat a similar dynamic. They would have seen g-d as responsible for the existing order in the world and believed that g-d would take notice of the fasting people; the extreme condition fasting puts one in would have called g-d’s attention better than prayer. As we see in some of the stories in the TA’ANIT, as well as in hunger strikes over the years, this can work.