This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Sabbath under Siege*

In 1953 the United Nations was deliberating over a plan to replace the standard Gregorian calendar with a more rational and efficient one. The new calendar promised to be far more economical and generally beneficial than its awkward predecessor.

No doubt our present civil calendar is not particularly elegant. The lengths of the months fluctuate erratically from twenty-eight to thirty-one days with variations for leap years. From year to year a given date will fall on different days of the week, creating difficulties for long-term scheduling.

The calendar that was submitted to the United Nations by the representative from India overcame most of these objections. It was to consist of four three-month quarters in which the first two months had thirty days and the last thirty-one (totaling ninety-one days per quarter), adding up to 364 days. An alternative proposal, with thirteen months of twenty-eight days apiece (the thirteenth month would be named “Sol”), produced a similar total. Since 364 is evenly divisible by seven, dates would occur on the same weekday every year. In order to bring it into alignment with the astronomical solar cycle of 365 ¼ days, an extra null or blank day (“Worldsday”) would be appended to each year. That day lay outside the weekday count. When the discrepancy warranted an additional day (the leap years of our current calendar), a second null day would be inserted in mid-year. All very neat and compelling.

My first reaction to learning about this proposal was to wonder about its possible connection to another development that was taking place at around that same time—namely the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran. The calendar advocated in many of those ancient Hebrew documents was identical to the U.N.’s twelve-month proposal. In fact, scholars had been aware of that system previously from the ancient Pseudepigraphical books of Enoch and Jubilees, but their presence in the newly discovered Qumran library brought them renewed public attention. Important scholarly studies of the Qumran calendar were published in the early 1950s, so it seemed reasonable to presume that the advocates of the new calendar had been inspired by reading about the Hebrew scrolls.

The Qumran calendar did not indicate how it compensated for the 1¼ day by which it lagged behind the solar year. Initially it was hoped that the solution would turn up when more texts were published, but this never happened; and scholars are left to speculate how—if at all—the ancient sectarians handled the problem.

At any rate, it turned out that I was very wrong in positing a link existing between the scrolls and the 1953 calendar proposal. The movement that inspired that proposal had already been around for quite a long time, based on a system devised in 1834 by the Italian Marco Mastrofini. Its most ardent advocate was an American named Elisabeth Achelis who founded The World Calendar Association (TWCA) to agitate for its adoption.

TWCA was successful in bringing their proposal before the League of Nations, and it came very close to being adopted. The cultural climate at that time was characterized by its veneration of science and economic efficiency. Religion and tradition, on the other hand, were dismissed as vestiges of primitive superstition that would soon wither away with the impending triumph of Enlightenment.

This was not good news for the Jewish community. Although Jews have long since learned to accommodate themselves to following a calendar that was out of step with that of the majority society, integration into the general economy—particularly with the emergence of the five-day work week—was only feasible because the Christian (and Muslim) weeks were the same as theirs. Traditional Jews believe that the designation of sabbaths follows a sequence that goes back without deviation to the origin of the world when the Almighty ceased from his work on the seventh day of creation. The insertion of one or two eight-day weeks every civil year would quickly place the Jewish sabbath out of sync with the rest of the world, preventing them from participation in most types of employment.

In 1923 the League of Nations established a “Special Committee of Enquiry into the Reform of the Calendar” that was mandated to examine the proposals dispassionately—though in reality that committee was heavily stacked with men who were committed to revising the calendar with little or no consultation with the nations whom they ostensibly represented. Their most prominent backers were wealthy American financial interests, notably the photography magnate George Eastman. Contravening their original pledge to give a hearing to Jewish views, the committee never included a Jewish delegate, though three Christian denominations were represented (whose main concern was the contentious issue of stabilizing the date of Easter).

The battle to defeat the reform proposal was taken up at once by Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire—in a time when the Empire was still near its peak. In what he appreciated as a rare instance of Jewish solidarity, his campaign drew immediate support from across the British and American Jewish spectrum, from the liberal to the ultra-orthodox—thereby refuting his adversaries’ claim that the opposition was confined to a handful of archaic religious fundamentalists.

When a calendar reform proposal was surreptitiously placed before the American Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1928, a Jewish congressman insisted that stakeholders be given an opportunity to express their views. In this connection the eminent leader of Reform Judaism Dr. Stephen Wise declared, “Even if there were only 1,000 Jews left in the whole world to whom the Saturday Sabbath is sacred, I would go through fire and water to safeguard their religious liberty."

Rabbi Hertz continued to lobby effectively, garnering allies among British parliamentarians, Christian clergy (especially, but not exclusively, the Seventh-Day Adventists) and several European communities. He doggedly solicited petitions and letters of support for his cause. Although he was able to demonstrate conclusively that in most countries there was virtually no public support for—or even interest in—calendar reform, the committee sessions in Geneva continued to favour the plan, insisting that “the discomforts of a religious minority should not stand in the way of the economic advantages of a majority.”

The big showdown took place in League of Nations' Hall in Geneva in the presence of 111 delegates representing forty-two nations who assembled on October 12, 1931. When the dust settled, the conference was forced to concede that there was little popular enthusiasm for a new calendar, and considerable opposition to it. In October 1931 the conference concluded that “the present is not a favourable time, taking into account the state of opinion, for proceeding with a modification of the Gregorian calendar.”

In the wake of World War II, Achelis and the TWCA were quick to bring the matter up for deliberation by the United Nations. This time, however, the American U.N. delegate nipped it in the bud with a categorical declaration that the change would offend the religious principles of many Americans, and “it would be inappropriate for the United Nations, which represents many different religious and social beliefs throughout the world, to sponsor any revision of the existing calendar that would conflict with the principles of important religious faiths.” He also advised that no further study of the subject should be undertaken. Without this support, Achelis dissolved her World Calendar Association.

Rabbi Hertz likened his achievement to the triumphs related in the biblical book of Judges, of which it was said “And the land had rest forty years.”

Well, far more than forty years have elapsed since the last skirmish, but there is no guarantee that the issue will not be put on the table again as part of the current barrage of legal challenges to traditional religious practices and institutions. Today’s defenders of Jewish tradition have much to learn from the strategies and attitudes that were employed so effectively in the previous rounds of the struggle.

This article and many others are now included in the book

The Times of Our Life
The Times of Our Life: Some Brief Histories of Jewish Time

published by

Alberta Judaic Library
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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 21, 2018, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Achelis, Elisabeth. “The Fundamentals of the World Calendar.” Social Science 26, no. 1 (1951): 24–32.
    • The World Calendar: Addresses and Occasional Papers Chronologically Arranged on the Progress of Calendar Reform Since 1930. Ann Arbor: Gryphon Books, 1971.
    • Bushell, W. F. “Calendar Reform.” The Mathematical Gazette 45, no. 352 (1961): 117–24.
    • Davies, Christie, Eugene Trivizas, and Roy Wolfe. “The Failure of Calendar Reform (1992–1931): Religious Minorities, Businessmen, Scientists, and Bureaucrats.” Journal of Historical Sociology 12, no. 3 (n.d.): 251–70.
    • Elior, Rachel. The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism. Translated by David Louvish. Oxford and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004.
    • Hertz, Joseph Herman. Changing the Calendar: Consequent Dangers and Confusions. London: Oxford University Press and H. Milford, 1931.
    • The Battle for the Sabbath at Geneva. Oxford: Oxford University Press and H. Milford, 1932.
    • Hoenig, Sidney B. “A Jewish Reaction to Calendar Reform.” Tradition 7, no. 1 (1964): 5–26.
    • Jaubert, Annie. “Le Calendrier des Jubilés et de la Secte de Qumrân: Ses Origines Bibliques.” Vetus Testamentum 3, no. 3 (July 1953): 250–64.
    • Kennelly, Arthur E. “Proposed Reforms of the Gregorian Calendar.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 75, no. 1 (1935): 71–110.
    • League of Nations, ed. The League of Nations and the Reform of the Calendar. Geneva: Information Section, Secretariat of the League of Nations, 1928.
    • Ogle, Vanessa. The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 2015.
    • Stern, Sacha. Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, Second Century BCE-Tenth Century CE. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
    • Talmon, Shemaryahu. “Calendar Reckoning of the Sect from the Judaean Desert.” Edited by Chaim Rabin and Yad. Scripta Hierosolymitana 4: Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1958): 162–99.
    • Taylor, Derek. Chief Rabbi Hertz: The Wars of the Lord. London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2014.
    • Watkins, Harold. Time Counts: The Story of the Calendar. London: N. Spearman, 1954.