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A Rare Coming-Together of the Jewish and Muslim Holy Seasons

Because the religious traditions follow two ancient timetables, Rosh Hashana and Ramadan infrequently coincide. This year, they do.

September 23, 2006|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Joining 1.28 billion Muslims and 14.9 million Jews around the world, Southern California adherents of the two faith traditions are observing their respective holy seasons starting today.

It's the first full day of Rosh Hashana -- the Jewish New Year -- and also the beginning of the month of Ramadan.

Rosh Hashana, the start of the 10 High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, began at sundown Friday. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, prayer and charity, started today.

But a decade ago, Rosh Hashana was observed in September and the start of Ramadan fell in January. How can this be?

The fluctuations stem from the calendars used by each religious tradition. And when Jewish and Islamic calendars are lined up against the Western, or Gregorian calendar, things can seem complicated.

Today is 1 Tishri, the first day of Jewish Year 5767.

During two days of Rosh Hashana, Jews commemorate God's creation of humanity: Adam and Eve. This is a time for introspection and prayer and services at synagogues. It is also time to be with family and friends. Among the traditional food items served at this time is apple with honey -- symbolizing a wish for a sweet new year.

The Jewish calendar consists of 12 lunar months, alternating between 29 and 30 days. But the calendar isn't purely lunar.

It is "lunisolar," adjusting for the solar cycle by adding an extra month, sometimes called a "leap month," periodically during a 19-year cycle.

The extra month, called Adar II, is added in the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle.

The calendar started on what tradition sets as the day of Creation, calculated in the second and third centuries BC.

Rosh Hashana starts in September or October in the Gregorian calendar. All Jewish holy days begin at sundown the previous day.

Sheila Linderman, a member of Temple Judea, which has campuses in Tarzana and West Hills, has spent Elul -- the last month of the old year -- to prepare herself for the High Holy Days.

In addition to scheduling family and synagogue events for her family, which includes three teenagers, she has made a mental note of people of whom she will ask forgiveness.

Elul is a penitential time to prepare for the time of reflection, prayer and repentance at the beginning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. These 10 days are known as the Days of Awe.

Linderman's West Hills home will see family and friends enjoying favorite foods too.

"My husband and I spend more and more time at our synagogue" during the High Holy Days, she said. "Even our kids like going to the synagogue."

The High Holy Days make her feel "connected" to God, her community and "issues," she said. "We love it."

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By the Islamic calendar, this is the year 1427.

Ramadan, the month during which the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, falls in the ninth month. It is a month of prayer, reading the Koran, self-discipline and doing good deeds.

The 12-month Islamic calendar begins on what the Gregorian calendar records as AD 622, the year of the hegira, when Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina. The calendar is based on a lunar year of 354 days, about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. Thus, Ramadan has no established connection to the seasons of the 365-day solar calendar.

Over the course of many years, Ramadan may come in spring, summer, autumn and winter.

The Islamic calendar runs in cycles of 30 years, of which the second, fifth, seventh, 10th, 13th, 16th, 18th, 21st, 24th and 29th are leap years.

Common years have 354 days, leap years 355, the extra day being added to the last month, known as Dhu al-Hijjah. Except for that case, the 12 months, beginning with Muharram, have alternately 30 and 29 days.

During Ramadan, Muslims are commanded to abstain from food, drink, sex, smoking and other sensual pleasures from the moment -- as a saying goes -- that there is sufficient light "to distinguish white from black threads" until the sun has completely set. For every day that the fast is neglected or cannot be performed because of illness, pregnancy or menstruation, the observant Muslim is obligated to compensate by fasting some other day or by feeding the poor.

Adherents break the daily fast with light refreshment, such as dates -- the fruit Muhammad ate -- and some water before proceeding to the evening prayer. After the evening prayer, they can enjoy dinner with family and friends.

The month of Ramadan is the most demanding of the Islamic year, especially when it falls in the hot season when days are long.

"It is hard," said Costa Mesa physician Nazli Ahmed. "We don't drink, we don't eat, we just pray."

But compared with Muslims elsewhere who must observe the dawn-to-dusk fast while walking to and from work in hot weather, Muslims in North America have it easy, she said.

"It's so comfortable here. We have air conditioning," said Ahmed, who has been in family practice for 26 years.

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