Wednesday evening September 12th marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, or Rosh haShana. It's the start of a ten-day period of reflection, repentance and celebration that climaxes on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. This year, the Jewish High Holidays coincide with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of daylong fasts that mark the giving of the Qur'an to Mohammed.
While the two religions differ in important ways, these two Abrahamic faiths do share significant common themes of repentance and renewal.
On Rosh haShana, the holiday which commemorates God's creation of the world and the beginning of the Jewish New Year, no sound evokes the sense of joy and high seriousness like the shofar, a ram's horn trumpet the ancient Hebrews once use to herald a king's arrival. At Rosh haShana, the shofar's blast is used to announce the presence of "The King of Kings" — God.
According to Rabbi Yitzhak Rosenbaum of the National Jewish Outreach Program, Judaism holds that God judges all people on Rosh haShanah for their actions during the previous year and decrees their fate for the year to come. As such, says Rosenbaum, the shofar's blast calls Jews to reflect and repent, to search their hearts, and to take an unblinking look at their behavior.
"The shofar demands that you ask of yourself 'How have you treated your fellow person? Your neighbor? How have you treated your children? How have you treated your teachers, your employers and your employees?'" Rosenbaum says.
It also asks Jews to reflect on how well they have followed God's commandments that relate to Him, Rosenbaum says, "whether it's in terms of prayer, of religious actions, of observing the holidays. Have I accomplished the goals God has set out for me and that I have set out for myself?"
Judaism says that it is only by taking full responsibility for one's actions, and re-dedicating oneself to a moral life, that one can truly begin a new year.
The central Jewish concept of divine cleansing and renewal is also found in Islam. During Ramadan, for example, which begins this week, Muslims follow a ritual of repentance and spiritual purification in order to inspire God's mercy. Rabbi Rosenbaum calls it "a beautiful idea."
The hopefulness of this message is an occasion for festive meals in both Judaism and Islam. Apples dipped in honey "for a sweet year" are a traditional Rosh haShana treat, and Muslims enjoy special pastries and other sweets when ending their Ramadan fasts.
This year, Alison Alpert, a traditional Jew with many Muslim friends, is choosing to merge these and other rituals. "There is something wonderful about different religions learning each other's traditions, because there's a tremendous amount of overlap," she says.
This Rosh haShana Alpert plans to be with her family and a friend from India. "And she usually brings some Indian sweet because it's near the end of the Indian new year of Diwali. So we get to have a little Diwali with our Ramadan and Rosh haShana!"
While food plays a role in the observances, abstaining from food and other physical pleasures is the focus on Yom Kippur. In Judaism as in Islam, fasting is intended to teach believers about self-control, and the authority of the spirit over the body.
In both religions, the entire community fasts and prays together. This underscores a core belief in both faiths that everyone is equal before God. Indeed, every year at Yom Kippur, Rachael Erlichman, an Orthodox Jew, is reminded that the Jewish high holidays commemorate the birth of the entire world, and that redemption is possible for everyone.
"Everyone is the same, everyone is equal. If you are poor or rich, we all come as a servant of God. There is no one better or worse." She adds that in synagogue "we are all praying to the same God and we are all praying for the same thing. And what we wish for ourselves we wish on other people, everyone in the world, that this should be a good year for everyone."
A hint of the peace and harmony implied by both Jewish and Muslim observances could once be found in a tradition shared by Muslims and Jews in Morocco. For hundreds of years, Jews would bring their Muslim friends the "first bread" with which to break their final Ramadan fast. In turn, Muslims would bring their Jewish neighbors their first taste of leavened bread when the Passover festival had ended.