Muslims Question Their Calendar – Could it Have Happened to Us?

Both Jews and Muslims follow a lunar calendar for counting months. Once upon a time, Jews did not calculate the calendar, except to double check their astronomical observations. The new months was instead declared by the Great Tribunal in Jerusalem, after they cross examined witnesses who had seen the tiniest sliver of the new moon. This system was gradually abolished when it became increasingly difficult for the Great Tribunal to meet and to convey its declarations to the entire Jewish diaspora. Instead, during the early centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Great Tribunal increasingly relied on astronomical calculations, culminating in the leader Hillel II sanctifying all future months (at least until the year 6000 since Creation) in advance, enabling us to use a fixed calendar ever since (For a brief primer on the Jewish calendar, click here).

Muslims, on the other hand, continue the practice of establishing the new moon — and the new month — every month, a practice which … might sometimes potentially cause some chaos. Apparently, with the end of the most recent Ramadan, that is exactly what happened, as the Jerusalem Post reports (see below). Had we Jews not moved to a fixed, precalculated calendar, could that have happened to us, too?

First, the Jerusalem Post’s report (from Sep. 5th, 2011; hat tip: R’ Nachum Amsel):

DID MUSLIMS MISCALL END OF RAMADAN FAST?
The Muslim world is in turmoil over the possibility that it may have misread the skies and mistaken Saturn for the moon when it declared Ramadan and its daily fasting over last week, causing the devout to starting feast a day early.

Sighting of the new moon crescent has always been difficult and a special Hilal panel, or moon-sighting committee, receives testimonies from veteran Muslim moon gazers that in fact the lunar month is over. Religious authorities in Saudi Arabia declared Ramadan ended last Monday August 29 and the three-day Id al-Fitr festivities could begin.

Many nations follow the rulings from Saudi Arabia, but not all of the Muslim world accepted this year’s decision. In Indonesia, there was such doubt that the astronomers and Muslim bodies extended the Ramadan fast for another day and didn’t celebrate the Id until sundown Tuesday.

Saudi and Egyptian astronomers, too, questioned the veracity of the moon sighting and issued a statement saying there was no way it could have been sighted last Monday because it had eclipsed before sunset. If they saw anything, it was the planet Saturn and not the moon, the astronomers said.

In Saudi Arabia, conservative religious scholars were so galled that their veracity had been questioned they threatened to take legal action for creating the uncertainty, the Saudi-based Arab News reported.

Loai Ghazawi, specialist in Islamic law at Hebron University in the West Bank, said he was skeptical of the astronomers’ claims about the lunar miscall. But, he said, if it were true, then Muslims would be required to fast an additional day.

Oh my, oh my. At least they do eat after nightfall and even have breakfast before dawn. If this were to happen to us, we might have to fast two days for Yom Kippur — without early breakfast or late dinner in between.

So what might have happened if the Great Tribunal would have been suspected of messing up the declaration of the new month, relying on mistaken sightings wrongly purporting to be the new moon? Well, we don’t need to speculate, as it once did happen, as reported in the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh haShana 24b-25a. The Mishna ad loc. reports the following occurrence:

מעשה שבאו שנים ואמרו ראינוהו שחרית במזרח וערבית במערב א”ר יוחנן בן נורי עדי שקר הם כשבאו ליבנה קיבלן רבן גמליאל

ועוד באו שנים ואמרו ראינוהו בזמנו ובליל עיבורו לא נראה וקיבלן ר”ג

אמר רבי דוסא בן הורכינס עדי שקר הן היאך מעידים על האשה שילדה ולמחר כריסה בין שיניה אמר לו רבי יהושע רואה אני את דבריך שלח לו ר”ג גוזרני עליך שתבא אצלי במקלך ובמעותיך ביוה”כ שחל להיות בחשבונך

הלך ומצאו ר”ע מיצר אמר לו יש לי ללמוד שכל מה שעשה ר”ג עשוי שנאמר (ויקרא כג) אלה מועדי ה’ מקראי קדש אשר תקראו אתם בין בזמנן בין שלא בזמנן אין לי מועדות אלא אלו בא לו אצל ר’ דוסא בן הורכינס אמר לו אם באין אנו לדון אחר בית דינו של ר”ג צריכין אנו לדון אחר כל בית דין ובית דין שעמד מימות משה ועד עכשיו שנאמר (שמות כד) ויעל משה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל ולמה לא נתפרשו שמותן של זקנים אלא ללמד שכל שלשה ושלשה שעמדו בית דין על ישראל הרי הוא כבית דינו של משה

נטל מקלו ומעותיו בידו והלך ליבנה אצל ר”ג ביום שחל יוה”כ להיות בחשבונו עמד ר”ג ונשקו על ראשו אמר לו בוא בשלום רבי ותלמידי רבי בחכמה ותלמידי שקבלת את דברי:

On one occasion two witnesses came and said, we saw it in the morning in the east and in the evening in the west. R’ Jo’hanan ben Nuri thereupon said, they are false witnesses. When, however, they came to Javneh, Rabban Gamliel accepted them.On another occasion two witnesses came and said, we saw it at its proper time, but on the night which should have been new moon it was not seen, and Rabban Gamliel accepted their evidence [and declared the new month].Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said: they are false witnesses. How can men testify that a woman has born a child when on the next day we see her belly still swollen? Said R. Yehoshua’ to him: I see [the force of] your argument. Thereupon Rabban Gamliel sent to him to say, I enjoin upon you to appear before me with your staff and your money on the day which according to your reckoning should be Yom Kippur.

R. ‘Akiva went [to R. Joshua] and found him in great distress. He said to him: I can bring proof [from Scripture] that whatever Rabban Gamliel has done is valid, because it says (Vayiqra/Leviticus 23:4), These are the appointed seasons of the lord, holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their appointed seasons, [which teaches that] whether they are proclaimed at their proper time or not at their proper time, I have no appointed seasons save these. He [R. Yehoshua’] then went to R. Dosa ben Harkinas, who said to him: If we call in question [the decisions of] the beth din of Rabban Gamliel, we must call in question the decisions of every beth din which has existed since the days of Moshe up to the present time. For it says (Shemot/Exodus 24:9), Then went up Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel. Why were not the names of the elders mentioned? To show that every group of three which has acted as a beth din over Israel is on a level with the beth din of Moses.

He [R. Yehoshua’] thereupon took his staff and his money and went to Javneh to Rabban Gamliel on the day on which the day of atonement fell according to his reckoning. Rabban Gamliel rose and kissed him on his head and said to him: Come in peace, my teacher and my disciple — my teacher in wisdom and my disciple because you have accepted my decision.

So Rabbi Yehoshua’ had no choice, but agreeing to Rabban Gamliel’s ruling which in R’ Yehoshua’s opinion had been erroneous, was not easy. It seems that the Mishna’s account, however, is too brief; none of the arguments mentioned sufficed to put R’ Yehoshua’s conscience at ease. So what finally convinced him to accept the tribunal’s declaration?

The Talmud immediately thereafter cites the following more elaborate account of R’ Yehoshua’s interchange with R’ ‘Aqiva:

דתניא הלך ר”ע ומצאו לרבי יהושע כשהוא מיצר אמר לו [רבי] מפני מה אתה מיצר אמר לו עקיבא ראוי לו שיפול למטה י”ב חדש ואל יגזור עליו גזירה זו א”ל רבי תרשיני לומר לפניך דבר אחד שלמדתני אמר לו אמור אמר לו הרי הוא אומר (ויקרא כג) אתם (ויקרא כג) אתם (ויקרא כג) אתם ג’ פעמים אתם אפילו שוגגין אתם אפילו מזידין אתם אפילו מוטעין בלשון הזה אמר לו עקיבא נחמתני נחמתני:

[It] has been taught [in a Beraita]: ‘R. Aqiwa went and found R. Yehoshua’ while he was in great distress. He said to him, Master, why are you in distress? He replied: Aqiwa, it were better for a man to be on a sick-bed for twelve months than that such an injunction should be laid on him. He said to him, [Master,] will you allow me to tell you something which you yourself have taught me? He said to him, Speak. He then said to him: The text says, ‘you’, ‘you’, ‘you’, three times [in Vayiqra 23], to indicate that ‘you’ [may fix the festivals] even if you err inadvertently, ‘you’, even if you err deliberately, ‘you’, even if you are
misled
. He replied to him in these words: ‘Akiba, you have comforted me, you have comforted
me’.

R’ Nachum Amsel is not convinced. Though the halakha is crystal clear, he feels that had our calendar still been adjusted monthly by a central body, strong disagreements could potentially ensue. Who am I to disagree, but that is a matter of politics, not of halakha. The halakha is crystal clear: regarding the calendar, it’s rulings are valid even when incorrect, such was — and one day once again will be, במהרה בימינו — the power of the Great Tribunal.

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2 Responses to Muslims Question Their Calendar – Could it Have Happened to Us?

  1. Eric Kotkin says:

    There is a major difference: in Judaism there is one recognized central body established in Chumash itself: the Sanhedrin. No such legal system was ever established within the Quran so while yes this court in Saudi Arabia is highly regarded, in principle any Muslim could start his own court and have its rulings be just as binding. So no, this could not happen in Judaism.

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