You are welcome to download our free printable package for activities to help young children recognize fasting foods:
– Fasting food worksheet
– Fasting food game
– Bonus: Printable fasting guideline chart for adults
What is Orthodox fasting?
According to the Orthodox Church tradition, physical fasting, i.e. refraining from certain kinds of food for a certain period of time, is a necessary tool in the believer’s effort to limit sin – as far as possible and with the grace of God. Consciously diminishing the pleasure one derives from food helps control gluttony, which in turn helps control the other passions (=repeated bad habits), the ones not related to food.
The Orthodox Church teaches that fasting was instituted by God Himself. It dates back to the beginning of humanity, when God gave the commandment of fasting to Adam and Eve, asking them not to eat the forbidden fruit. They chose to disobey Him, and thus were excluded from Paradise. If the believer wants to regain Paradise, s/he must fix their broken state, the one introduced by Adam and Eve, by demonstrating obedience to all of God’s commandments; so s/he should also respect and abide by the commandment of fasting.
In the Old Testament, we see Moses fast on Mount Sinai for 40 days in order for him to be worthy of meeting God and receiving from Him the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28). In the New Testament, we see Jesus Christ fasting for 40 days in the desert immediately after His baptism (Luke 4:2 & Matt. 4:2). The Lord, even though He Himself is without sin, decided to fast voluntarily in order to reveal that it is through fasting and prayer that we can overcome our sins (Mark 9:29). Furthermore, the Holy Apostles knew, by the Lord Himself and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, that fasting is an inviolable command of God, and therefore they officially established the apostolic rule of fasting.
Naturally, beyond physical fasting, there is also spiritual fasting, which is even more important. Spiritual fasting means to abstain from non-food-related passions: The believer should be careful about what s/he sees (e.g. violent or sexually explicit images and shows), what s/he says (e.g. lying, blaming, condemning fellow human beings), and what s/he hears (e.g. exaggerated music, gossip, accusations). Therefore, in order to fully enjoy the benefits of fasting, the believer should combine both physical and spiritual abstinence, together with prayer and struggle for the acquisition of virtues.
But why should the believer follow the Church’s rules when fasting? Why do we have to fast on certain days, and from specific foods? Why can’t we gain the same spiritual benefits by following our own fasting regimen, deciding for ourselves when and how we would like to fast?
By choosing not to go our own way, but instead follow the official Church fasting rules, we exercise the basic principle of obedience. We make a conscious effort to follow someone else’s will and not our own, which, as mentioned, is the main path to our salvation according to the Orthodox faith. For the same reason, it is important for the believer to have a spiritual father (a priest, always the same one, to whom one goes for confession and who advises the believer on religious matters), who, in the case of fasting, will advise and bless him/her if there is a need to deviate from the official Church fast.
Orthodox Church Fasting Rules
As mentioned, on a personal level, an Orthodox Christian should always consult their own spiritual father concerning the application of the Church’s fasting rules in their case. Additionally, fasting traditions may vary slightly from region to region. Here, we are describing the generally accepted understanding of fasting in the Greek Orthodox tradition.
The Greek Orthodox Church levels of fasting can be roughly grouped as follows:
Uncooked raw vegan foods (raw vegetables, fruit, nuts), possibly with some bread or similar. It is the strictest form of Orthodox fasting, usually reserved for days such as Holy Friday or practiced by monastics.
Vegan diet with no oil or alcohol. We abstain from all animal-derived foods (meat, dairy, eggs, and fish); the only exception is non-backbone seafood (shrimp, calamari, octopus, squid), which we can eat. We also abstain from any type of oil and all kinds of alcohol.
Fast including oil and alcohol
No meat, dairy, eggs, backbone fish, like above. Additionally, we can consume oil and alcohol. By Church rules, this fast is officially followed only on specific fasting days, but, in practice, it is the most common type of fast followed among believers.
We can eat all of the foods in the previous plan (vegan foods, non-backbone fish, oil and alcohol), plus backbone fish. This fast is followed on specific fasting periods and on some feast days.
Fish-eating plus dairy and eggs
We can eat all of the foods eaten in the previous plan (vegan foods, all seafood and fish, oil, alcohol), plus dairy and eggs. This fast is followed on Cheesefare week.
Orthodox Church Fasting Periods
This is not a comprehensive list of fasting dates, but rather a general reminder of the most important fasting guidelines. For daily fasting instructions, you can consult the GOArch Online Chapel.
Wednesdays and Fridays
According to Orthodox tradition, we fast every Wednesday and Friday of the year; every Wednesday because we remember the betrayal of Judas and the arrest of our Lord, and every Friday because we remember the Holy Crucifixion. Officially, these days are strict fasting days. But, when this is considered too hard, it is not uncommon for many Orthodox Christians to follow the fast including oil and alcohol. This should always be done in agreement with and with the blessing of one’s spiritual father.
Nativity Fast (November 15 to December 24)
November 15 to December 17, all days except Wednesday and Friday: Fish-eating. On Wednesdays and Fridays, fasting like the rest of the year.
December 18 – December 24: Strict fast or fast including oil and alcohol, as agreed upon with one’s spiritual father, for the whole week.
Great Lent and Holy Week (7 weeks before Pascha)
It is the longest and strictest Orthodox fasting period. Deviations from this plan should be agreed upon and blessed by one’s spiritual father. Great Lent starts on Clean Monday and ends on Easter Sunday. Officially, we should follow a strict fast all weekdays and fast including oil and alcohol on Saturdays and Sundays: Saturdays because we commemorate God resting after the Creation and Christ resting in the tomb; Sundays because we commemorate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Note: This also holds true for all Saturdays and Sundays during the year, which means we never do a strict fast on a Saturday or Sunday. The only exception is Holy Saturday, which is a strict fasting day.)
– Feast of the Annunciation (March 25): Fish-eating, even if it is on a Wednesday or Friday.
– Palm Sunday: Fish-eating.
– Feast of the 40 Martyrs (March 9): Fast including oil and alcohol, for those generally following a strict fast.
– Synaxis of Archangel Gabriel (March 26): Fast including oil and alcohol, for those generally following a strict fast.
This fast begins on the second Monday after Pentecost (the day after All Saints’ Sunday) and continues until the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29. It resembles the Nativity Fast, which means fish-eating, except Wednesdays and Fridays, when we fast like the rest of the year.
– June 28: Strict fast, unless it is a Saturday or Sunday, in which case fast including oil and alcohol.
– June 24 (Nativity of St. John the Baptist): Fish-eating, even if it is a Wednesday or Friday.
– June 29 (Feast of Saints Peter and Paul): No fasting, unless it is a Wednesday or Friday, in which case fish-eating.
Dormition Fast (August 1-15)
Same rules as Great Lent.
Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6): Fish-eating, even if it is on a Wednesday or Friday.
During the year, and in addition to Wednesdays and Fridays, there are a few daily fasts, which don’t fall inside the longer fasting periods. On these days, we follow a strict fast, unless these dates fall on a Saturday or Sunday, in which case we follow a fast including oil and alcohol.
– February 5 – in preparation for the great Despotic Feast of Theophany and for receiving the blessed water.
– September 14, Elevation of the Cross.
– August 29, Beheading of St. John the Baptist.
Non-Fasting days and periods
Apart from fasting periods, the Orthodox Church has also determined absolute non-fasting periods in which we don’t fast, even on Wednesdays and Fridays. These are:
– Twelvetide, December 26 to January 6: We eat everything every day, with the exception of January 5 (strict fast, see above).
– Easter week, from Pascha Sunday to Thomas Sunday: We eat everything every day.
– Pentecost week, from Pentecost Sunday to All Saint’ Sunday: We eat everything every day.
– Mid-Pentecost Wednesday: Fish-eating.
– Leavetaking (Apodosis) of Pascha (falls on a Wednesday): Fish-eating.
– Two weeks within the Triodion period:
* Week 1: We eat everything every day.
* Week 3 (Cheesefare): Everyday, fish-eating plus dairy and eggs.
People who, on Wednesdays and Fridays, always follow a strict fast, break this fast on specific feast days as follows:
– Fast including oil and alcohol on feast days celebrating a Saint whose celebration always calls for Divine Liturgy to be performed.
– Fast including oil and alcohol on feasts devoted to Christ, the Theotokos or John the Baptist.