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April 11, 2009

Q & A: Fasting Rules Regarding "No Wine And Oil" Days

Question: John, out of curiosity, do you abstain from all alcohol during Great Lent or just wine?

Answer: This is always a difficult question to give an objective answer to because the Typikon does not give details regarding "No Wine or Oil" days.

First, you should keep in mind that during Great Lent wine and oil are prohibited only on weekdays, while on weekends they are permitted (except on Holy Saturday) as well as on March 25 which is a Major Feast of the Church.

Putting the rule in the context of the Roman Empire in which it was formulated, pretty much the only alcohol available at the time was wine. Beer was only brewed in the outer areas of the Roman Empire where wine was difficult to obtain. For the Romans beer was considered a barbarian drink. Tacitus, who first wrote about the ancient Germans or Teutons, put it like this: "To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine". Furthermore, Eusebius of Ceasaria, Jerome, Theodoret and Cyril of Alexandria spoke of beer as the cloudy manufactured water of the Egyptians and looked down on it. But as the Psalms say: "Wine gladdens the heart of man". Jesus also turned water into wine in the Gospel of John for a wedding feast. Thus wine was the alcoholic drink par excellence in the Roman Empire and was associated mainly with merry-making. This being the case, wine during a fasting period would be inappropriate just as all kinds of merry-making were inappropriate during Great Lent.

I know that among many Slavs beer is permitted on fasting days and I am also aware that there are miracles associated with beer in the life of the Celtic Saint Brigit, but I would not go so far as to suggest that this justifies beer drinking on weekdays during Great Lent. All I can say is that in my opinion all alcohol should be abstained from on weekdays during Great Lent and saved for moderate use during the weekend, but if I was put in an awkward position in a social setting I may have only one beer on a weekday (though I would try to prevent myself from being in such a setting during Great Lent anyway).

But this brings up another interesting question regarding the use of oils on weekdays of Great Lent. Again in the context of the Roman Empire olive oil was the main oil used for consumption. Today most Greeks who fast would abstain from olive oil, but replace it with another vegetable oil. In Slavic nations they abstain from all oils based on the fact that the Typikon doesn't say "only olive oil" but "oil". I would agree with this Slavic tradition. Weekdays in Great Lent are a time for xerophagia or "dry foods". On these days we should not embellish our foods to make them taste better than they do, such as frying foods or using margarine or putting dressing on a salad (except maybe some spices). This is exactly why olives themselves are permitted on non-oil days, while olive oil isn't; and peanuts themselves are permitted on non-oil days while peanut oil is forbidden: you can't fry anything in olives or peanuts. It is not the essence of the vegetable/fruit itself -- it is what you can do with it to make other foods taste better and how they affect the passions.