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The Orthodox are required to fast from "wine" and "olive oil" most Wednesdays and Fridays, for Lent, the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Nativity, and other fasts.

Nearly all Orthodox define "wine" as any alcoholic beverage. There are probably not any whom define "wine" as only wine and continue to drink beer and spirits on a fast day.

A majority of Orthodox define "olive oil" as simply olive oil; in other words, canola oil, vegetable oil, and any other vegan oil that is not olive oil is permitted for the majority of Orthodox members. There are some (a small minority) whom abstain from all the oils, and even some whom eat everything "dry" (xerophagia), such as pasta without tomato sauce.

As a matter of consistency, it would appear to me that if one were to define olive oil as only olive oil, then one would also define wine as only wine. It is true that the taste of olive oil is relatively superior to canola oil; however, it is hard to imagine that if canola oil existed in the first century that the Church would have permitted it.

Here are my questions:

What was the original purpose of the inclusion of wine in the items of fasting? I have read that people didn't drink water much back then, because it was very contaminated, instead opting for low-alcoholic beer or wine because it was much less contaminated. This could potentially lead one to the conclusion that "wine" was included as to encourage fasting from water, rather than intoxicating substances. Or, that piece of history could be a red herring, and the fast from "wine" simply does mean a fast from intoxicating substances. For example, in Canons 51 and 53 of the Apostolic Cannons, wine is juxtaposed with marital relations, which the Orthodox also abstain from on fast days, implying that the fast from wine is a fast from the pleasurable effects of intoxicating substances; however, exercising, smoking, reading, laughing, and all other pleasurable activities except sex and food are permitted on fast days.

(As an aside, how did Christians consume water during fast days if it was only available to them in low-alcoholic beer/wine?)

What was the original purpose of the inclusion of olive oil in the items of fasting? I have read that in the first century, olive oil was the only oil available, and the people tended to use it on all foods to substantially improve taste, and even used it on the skin, which was thought to make one look better. If this was the case than it is difficult for me to understand why canola oil is permitted in the majority of the Church. Perhaps there is some other component to olive oil that I am missing, or perhaps my assumption that canola oil is tolerated in the majority of the Church is incorrect?

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2 Answers 2

Wine and oil are both blessings from God: "wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine," as it says in Ps. 104:15. We forego these with other pleasures on the strictest fasting days.

With respect to wine, you are misinformed. In most Orthodox churches we abstain from all alcoholic beverages on strict fasting days. (The Russians seem to make an exception for beer. For people whose normal drink is vodka, I suppose beer is like water.)

Opinions vary regarding why we fast from olive oil. Some say it has to do with the fact that olive oil was once stored in animal skins, which made it an animal product. Others think it is connected to ancient classifications of foods that are no longer widely understood. For most of us, we are just faithfully following the current fasting rules without questioning why. My priest says it only applies to olive oil, and I believe that is the current consensus. But as with most things in Orthodoxy there is disagreement.

These fasting rules originated in a monastic context. With the collapse of the Byzantine cathedral rite after 1204, the monastic typikon came to govern Orthodox worship in non-monastic churches. The fasting rules of the typikon were also adopted, to a large extent, by the laity. But the laity are not monks, and the rules have never been applied strictly to the laity in their totality. (If they were, we would not eat at all during the first three days of Lent.)

It is also important to remember that we are to avoid being pharisaical. Being overly legalistic is just as bad as being too lax. For reasons of health, many Orthodox loosen the fasting rules, in consultation with their pastors. Most of us, when dining with non-Orthodox family and friends, will eat what is set before us, other than meat. (The rules are intended for our discipline, not for the inconvenience of others.) In some diaspora jurisdictions these days, fasting is barely practiced at all.

Even in Lent, the fast is eased slightly on weekends. We are permitted wine and oil on Saturdays and Sundays in all fasting seasons. For most of Advent and the Apostles' Fast we are permitted wine and oil on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well.

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"With respect to wine, you are misinformed. In most Orthodox churches we abstain from all alcoholic beverages on strict fasting days. " I am not quite understanding how this is different from what OP claimed. Doesn't his second sentence mean the same thing as what you said? –  Ryan Aug 23 '14 at 15:32

Arimathean offered a great explanation. I'll just add one other thought given by my priest in Colorado. As with many practices in the Orthodox church, there is also a practical explanation (like incense covering the stench of the people in addition to representing our prayers going up to heaven, or the gold fans blowing away the flies from the Communion also representing the Cherubim). Since there are many more services during Lent, more wine is needed and more oil is needed to keep the lamps lit. Only olive oil is used in the hanging lamps. Bringing the oil you would have used for yourselves to the Church was a sacrificial gift.

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