This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Days of Rest and Prayer*

Some delicate legal questions have been raised by the current struggle of Ontario's Jewish community to achieve an official status for Jewish schools. At the same time, Ottawa's Muslims are campaigning for acknowledgment of their holidays in the public school schedule.

As Jews we can readily appreciate how the "civil" or "secular" calendar that regulates our society is in reality a Christian one, and therefore creates conflicts with members of other religious communities. At any rate, the problems involved in the celebration of Muslim holidays are not fully comparable with those confronting traditionally observant Jews. In spite of some interesting similarities between the two religious calendars, there are also some fundamental differences between the festivals of the two faiths.

For Jews, the most striking parallels between the Jewish and Muslim calendars are in the ways they define their months and years: In both systems the months are determined by the phases of the moon, and hence the Jewish and Muslim New Moons normally occur on the same day. For both religions, twelve such months make up a year.

At this point we encounter the first of the important differences between the two systems. The Jewish calendar is periodically (as happened this year) adjusted through the addition of an extra month in order to keep it from lagging behind the solar year. In the Muslim tradition no such adjustment is introduced, and therefore their calendar annually falls eleven days behind the solar cycle.

This is not a mere technical matter, but derives from some essential differences in the characters of the respective religions.

We often take it for granted that Jewish festivals are closely associated with stages in the agricultural year. This is however not true about Muslim holidays. Although the Torah sees its "typical" community as consisting of farmers and peasants, living in harmony with the soil and the seasons, the Qur'an was addressing a society of merchants whose daily lives were removed from the cycles of nature.

This basic difference can be discerned in some other spheres as well. For example, the central occasion in the Muslim religious year is the holy month of Ramadan, during which the faithful are obliged to fast throughout the daylight hours. Though this type of fast makes exacting demands on physical labourers, especially when it falls during periods of intensive agricultural activity, it is less of a hardship for people whose work is carried out in shops and offices, or whose timetables are not determined by the seasons of nature.

This premise might account for the fact that the Islamic calendar contains a comparatively small number of holidays, and that none of them require resting from work. Once again, the "typical" Muslim is not perceived to be involved in physical work, and therefore does not require religiously sanctioned days of rest.

Ironically, it is likely that that original society of merchants for whom Muhammad designed his religion might have been composed largely of Jews, who were prominent in the first Muslim community of Al-Madinah.

The weekly Muslim holy day falls on Friday, which is designated in Arabic as "Yawm al-Jum`a," the Day of Assembly, and is not defined as a day of rest. Saturday continues to be referred to in Arabic as the "Sabbat" though it is not observed as such by Muslims. Yawm al-Jum`a is a day of public worship in the mosque, accompanied by sermons and other spiritual solemnities, but it is not unreasonable for an observant Muslim to leave the mosque after services and head directly to work or school.

At the root of this difference in approach might lie a deeper theological issue. Remember that our Shabbat commemorates how God ceased from work and rested from the six days of creation. Now, the picture of a God who had to relax from his exertions is one that was unacceptable to the straightforward Muslim conception of divine omnipotence. As it states in the Qur'an: "In six days We created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, and weariness did not affect us."

Hence, for the Qur'an the institution of a day of rest was not considered a suitable way of celebrating the creation.

This theological difficulty was of course well known to the Jewish commentators. One ear

ly midrash explains that God had the biblical passages speak loosely of God's resting on Shabbat only in order to encourage humans to try to emulate the Creator by relaxing once a week.

Jews living in Muslim countries were sensitive to the implications of these issues, and echoes of the controversy can be discerned in Jewish commentaries that were composed in Muslim lands. Thus, Rabbi Saadia Ga'on's important translation of the Bible into Arabic (10th century) was probably responding to Muslim criticisms when he carefully rendered all the offending references in the Creation account as if they said "God allowed the world to rest"--but the Almighty did not require such relaxation.

Of course, little if any of this has direct bearing on how Jewish or Muslim holidays should be treated under Canadian law. Hopefully though, it has enriched our understanding of some unappreciated dimensions of our religious calendar.

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[1] First Publication: Jewish Free Press, March 30, 1995, p. 8.


  • H. Lazarus-Yafeh, "Some Halakhic Differences between Judaism and Islam," Tarbiz 51:2 (1982), 207-26.