When Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah Meet

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow


This fall, the Muslim and Jewish sacred months of Ramadan and Tishrei (holy month of the High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot) will converge. Families that have both Muslim and Jewish members might draw on the spiritual focus of these intertwined sacred seasons to renew the Spirit in their own lives and to bring their communities of origin closer together.

Both Ramadan and Tishrei are lunar months that begin with the new moon. Since Jews decided long ago to accept astronomers’ calculations of that moment of the new moon arriving, while the Muslim community requires a physical sighting of the barely visible moon, the dates are sometimes a day or so different: This year, Tishrei will begin with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 22; Ramadan, probably the evening of September 23.

The confluence of these months comes in rare bunches: Three years in a row the sacred months line up, and then not for another 30 years. That is because the two sacred calendars dance in a complex rhythm with each other. Muslims adhere to a purely lunar calendar, so that Ramadan “moves” across the solar year through all the different seasons. Jews prefer to celebrate the solar year as well as the lunar one. They fit the moon into the sun by adding an entire thirteenth lunar month seven times in every nineteen years.

Muslims observe Ramadan, the month of the revelation of the Koran, by fasting from sunrise to sunset everyday, having an iftar (break-fast) meal after sunset, and turning their attention to God and to works of compassion for the poor. Close to the end comes Lailat al Qadr (27 Ramadan, October 20), the Night of Power. It marks the night in which God first revealed the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Some Muslims spend that whole night in prayer or in reciting the Koran. And Lailat al Qadr is considered a good time to ask for forgiveness.

As Ramadan ends and the next month begins, there is the Break-fast Festival, Eid al-Fitr. In Morocco, for 1,000 years the Jewish community has brought the Muslim community the first food for Eid Al-Fitr. That tradition might be enriched in America by bringing members of the two communities together to share a celebration feast. (Conversely, Moroccan Muslims brought Jews the first bread for the night after the last day of Pesach. This “ninth day” became an add-on festival called Maimouna, “Prosperity.”)

Meanwhile, in their High Holiday observances, Jews are also turning their minds and hearts to God, to repentance (teshuvah, “turning”) and to forgiveness–both seeking and granting it. Since Tishrei is considered the seventh month, counting from the spring, this “Shabbat” month recapitulates an entire lifecycle in miniature: Rosh Hashanah, the birthtime of the moon and traditionally the anniversary of the creation of the human race, a time in which Jews feel “reborn”; then an encounter of each newborn person with the awesome Other, through the 26-hour fast of Yom Kippur–an expression of deep reconnection with God; then the harvest of a full life in the full moon of Sukkot; and on to Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, the hidden renewal-time of seeding the future, praying for an on-time start to the revivifying rainy season, and both finishing and beginning the reading of the Torah (portions of which are read each Sabbath.

Jewish-Muslim families could certainly join each other in the spiritual focus of the month. Together they might read some crucial passages of Torah and Koran:

For instance, from the Koran they might read Sura 2: 127-128, as Abraham and Ishmael together build the sacred Kaaba in Mecca and pray that God teach their descendants how to surrender to The One. They might discuss how they feel this prayer resounding in them and in their lives.

And perhaps they might read Genesis 25: 7-11, where Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham who become the forebears of the two traditions, come together to bury him and then to live together at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. How do they imagine the conversation of these two brothers at their father’ grave? What message would they hand down to their descendants?

Together the families might listen to the Rosh Hashanah shofar, an echo of the ram’s horn that in both traditions caught the ram in a thicket and thus made possible its substitution for the offering of Abraham’s son to God.

Together they might fast from sunrise to sunset throughout the month, and for the full 26-hour fast of Yom Kippur, joining each evening with each other and occasionally with guests to break the fast and share the sense of their journey through the month.

Perhaps, in a generation where there is a great deal of tension between the two communities, they could become a focus point of connection by inviting a dozen friends of both traditions to eat with them. Such an evening could be a time when everyone present could tell the others the story of an important turning point in their own lives and of their spiritual journeys. (For a guide to making such gatherings a time of healing, see the book I co-authored with world-renowned Benedictine nun Joan Chittister and the Sufi Muslim scholar/teacher Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti (Neil Douglas-Klotz), The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and the website www.tentofabraham.org.)

Together they could build a fragile, leafy, leaky sukkah (wooden hut built to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot), sleep under it at least one night, and learn from its openness to reconnect with the earth that shelters all humanity.

Together they could weave the threads of connection that might reach out beyond their own family to begin to heal the separations that haunt the families of Abraham.


About Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, the author of Godwrestling, Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, and co-author of The Tent of Abraham.