What is the true meaning of fasting?



Question: “What is the true original Hebrew meaning of fasting?  Does it only refer to abstinence from food?”



Bible Answers

The English word “fasts” is normally considered “abstain from food” While most of the 69 occurrences of fast, fasting, and fasted in the Bible refer to mostly abstaining from food, humbly depriving ourselves of the very basic necessity of life, if we progress back to the ancient Hebrew, we find that a fast can refer to abstaining from other items of desire beside food.


The ancient Hebrew word for our modern word “fast” is the three picture character צ֔וֹם that is transliterated as Tsum or Tsom.  The first character istzadi”, meaning righteousness, transformation.  The second character is “vav”, meaning to fasten, hook, or join together, and the third is “mem”, meaning massive, power, sustained life.  


These Hebrew characters would indicate a definition of fasting as being – “A transforming righteousness that firmly secures us to the one with the power to give and sustain life”. There is nothing in this definition that indicates that fasting is the giving up of only food and actually comes closer to describing the word prayer.  This should not be surprising as the Bible often connects the words fasting and prayer. Both are ways we petition God to intervene when we are powerless.


This is presented not to prove that fasting does not means abstinence from food as the Bible clearly shows that it does but that the original definition designates that fasting can indicate abstinence in other ways besides food.


An alternative view of fasting from God.


Isaiah 58

The people were angry and ask God why fasting was not working.
Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it? (3).


God answers.
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice be heard on high (4).


God states what isn’t a fast.
Is this the fast I have chosen, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord (5)?  We see that even humility is not sufficient to satisfy God’s definition of fasting.


God states what a fast is – to abstain from desired things that are wrong and do what is right.

Is not this the fast I have chosen: to loose the chains of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor with shelter. When you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (6-7)?


The benefit of correct fasting.

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘here I am. If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually … (8-11).


Fasting in Isaiah 58 seems to indicate that we empty ourselves before God, abstain from food and those things that are wrong in our life and come to the aid of those who need our help.  God wants us to be workers and ambassadors that abstain from wrong and promote His righteousness – that is what disciples do.


A second example of Godly fasting would be Zechariah 7:4-5, 8-10. Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’


While fasting is normally a drawing closer to God by abstaining from food for a period of time, clearly fasting also encompasses a drawing closer to God by abstaining from those areas and actions that are not pleasing to God and turning to righteousness that produces purity and character of heart.



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