Ramadan, Tishri coincidence prompts students' joint celebrations to promote interfaith tolerance

Muslim, Jewish holy days overlap

September 22, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

.. For Sam Chester, a Jewish student at the Johns Hopkins University, the holiest time of his spiritual year begins tonight at sundown.

His Muslim classmate, Nadia Khan, will also start observing the most important season of her faith this weekend.

Because Judaism and Islam both rely on a lunar calendar, approximately every three decades the month of Ramadan coincides with the Jewish month of Tishri, which includes the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

For Muslim and Jewish groups on college campuses and elsewhere across the nation, the overlap offers an opportunity this year to learn about each other's faith practices and similarities, particularly important given the tensions from Iran to Lebanon to the Vatican.

Ramadan and the Jewish holy days are times of introspection and reflection, said Rabbi Arthur Waskow.

"That sense of direct connection to God and therefore turning in reflection to ask what God is asking of us is really at the center of both Ramadan and the month of Tishri," said Waskow, who leads Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

The timing of the holy periods for Jews and Muslims relates to the way the two religions have adapted their use of the lunar calendar. The Jewish version includes a "leap month" approximately every three years, enabling its holidays to generally stay within the same season each year.

The month of Ramadan and the Jewish holy days usually converge for three consecutive years, then diverge again for about 30 years, Waskow said.

Rosh Hashana begins at sundown tonight, but the specific starting time of Ramadan is not certain because it requires astronomers' sighting of the new moon. It is expected to begin tomorrow.

The Muslim and Jewish student groups at Hopkins will hold a "Ramadinner" on Monday, breaking the fast after sundown together. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, student groups are planning a joint Ramadan-Yom Kippur event after both communities have completed a fast, said Rabbi Jason Klein, director of UMBC Hillel.

Historically, the intersections of the holy days have not always been celebratory. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur and the 10th day of Ramadan. The war is known to Jews as the Yom Kippur War, and many Muslims call it the Ramadan War, Waskow said.

The roots of fasting during Ramadan lie in Yom Kippur, said Gordon D. Newby, a professor of Islamic and Jewish studies at Emory University. "This level of fasting in Islam has at least some glance toward the fasting practice in Judaism," he said.

The first fast during Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, the fast of Ashura, was most likely very similar to the 24-hour fast for Yom Kippur, Newby said. "Ashura" which means "ten," is borrowed from the Jewish Arabic of the time, he said. Yom Kippur is the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishri.

Both religions follow a "total abstinence fast," abstaining from food and drink. But those who worship are urged to avoid physical harm to themselves by restricting their fasts to limited periods of time and excusing pregnant or nursing women, diabetics and children, Newby said.

Generally, Ramadan and 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are "an occasion for contemplation, for spiritual growth," Newby said.

"It's a solemn time in both Islam and Judaism, but it's not necessarily a mournful time," he said. "It's a time to get closer to God."

Community is also an important element of both celebrations, Newby and Waskow said - the idea that everyone is experiencing the sacrifice and self-examination together.

Muslims often gather with family and friends to break the daily fast after sundown for a meal called an Iftar.

Some groups are using this opportunity to share a meal together and build relationships and understanding.

Members of the Maryland Muslim Council and the Baltimore Jewish Council will hold an Iftar during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, at the end of the month of Tishri. During the harvest festival, Jews pray for the prosperity of all people, Waskow said.

At Hopkins, the Jewish Students Association and the Muslim Students Association have held joint Iftars for years, school officials said.

"This year we're trying to make it more than just a meal. It's an opportunity to host another community," said Chester, the Hopkins sophomore and the education chairman for Jewish Student Association.

In addition to short presentations and prayers before the kosher Chinese meal, the two student groups plan to put "Fast Facts" and "Food for Thought" sheets on tables and to integrate the seating at the tables.

"A lot of our learning is going to take place at the dinner table," said Khan of Havre de Grace, who is responsible for external community relations for Hopkins' Muslim Students Association.

Afterward, students will share memories of their holidays, said University Chaplain Sharon M. K. Kugler, who oversees all of Hopkins' religious student groups and activities.

"I think the more opportunities we have to share stories and figure out what are some of our common threads and what are some of the things that make us unique the better," she said.

For the college students, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, also coincides with the beginning of the school year. Chester sai

he hopes his classmates will "leave with more than a full stomach and good friends."

Political conflict in the Middle East "is very much in the back of a lot of people's minds," the Minneapolis native said. But he and other students see this activity as "getting past that." The interfaith Iftar has more significance this year, Chester said, because Jewish students will be observing the fast of Gedaliah that day.

The minor holiday, which calls for a fast during daylight hours, marks the anniversary of the assassination of a governor in Israel and Babylonian exile.

"The two religions end up being similar in ways people don't realize," Khan said.


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