Can you imagine Shabbos starting on Tuesday night? Such a scenario is by no means impossible! For close to a century, a fierce battle has been raging around this very point! Time after time, the world has come close to shifting Shabbos from its rightful place among the days of the week.
Perhaps the first person to think of standing the world on its head was a man from Maryland calling himself Hirossa Ap-Iccim (a pseudonym), who sent the following gripe to the Gentleman’s Magazine of London in July 5505/1745: “’Tis self-evident that our divisions of quantities are irregular, troublesome in practice, and repugnant to the nature of things.” Among his complaints was “how preposterously do the days of the week vary in different months of the same year, and again in the same months of different years!”
His complaint was an old problem that has flummoxed calendar makers for centuries. Try as we might, it is impossible to squeeze our calendar into smooth synchronization with the heavenly bodies. Our years are not the same length of time it takes the world to circle the sun, our months are not the same time it takes the moon to go round the earth, days do not fit into months and weeks, and months do not fit into years.
This creates an inconvenience. Divide the 365 days of the secular year by seven and you get 52 weeks and one remaining day. This extra day, two extra days during a leap year, pushes the calendar a day or two forward every year. Although this is good for calendar manufacturers, it is extremely inconvenient for the business, judicial, and tax worlds. Wouldn’t it be easier if every year started on the same day of the week and had exactly the same months as the year before, with each date invariably falling on the same day of the week?
One of the first people to do something about Hirossa Ap-Iccim’s complaint was the Italian abbot, Marco Mastrofini. In 5594/1834, he published his Amplissimi Frutti da Raccogliersi sul Calandario Gregoriano Perpetuo (Reseach Conclusions Toward a Perpetual Gregorian Calendar) that offers a creative solution to getting rid of the “superfl uous” 365th day of the year. His idea was that each year should consist of 364 days always beginning on Sunday, January 1. As for the inconvenient 365th day, it would be declared “nonexistent.” The last Saturday of the year would be followed by an “extra calendrical” day, i.e., a day that does not exist on the calendar, and this nonexistent day would be followed by Sunday, the first day of the next year. Every year, this “fixed,” unchanging year would wipe one or two days off the calendar.
WHAT ABOUT SHABBOS?
Of course, the problem with this wonderful solution is what would happen to Shabbos. Regarding shemiras Shabbos, the nonexistent day would have to be taken into account. Therefore, if Mastrofini’s plan was put into action, the whole world would start keeping a new year on a Sunday, which for shomer Shabbos Jews would already be Monday. Throughout that new year, instead of falling on Saturday, Shabbos would fall on Sunday, and the year after that, Shabbos would fall on Monday!
Worse still, after every leap year, Shabbos would be pushed two days forward! This nightmare is not an academic theory but a realistic goal that has been actively pursued at national and international levels for decades by a cadre of influential people who are convinced that the world will eventually see reason and abandon the clumsy calendar used at present.
Jews may first have encountered this sort of problem during the early years of the Roman Empire when the Romans had a nine-day week that ended not with a day of rest but with a market day. Centuries later, Napoleon made the first historical attempt to destroy Shabbos when he introduced the French Revolutionary Calendar in 5553/1793. This calendar had 30-day months comprised of three ten-day weeks. At the end of every ten-day week, the populace was expected to attend services at an atheistic Temple of Reason.
Because of its clumsiness, Napoleon abandoned this system in 5665/1805. A second attempt to undermine the traditional seven-day week was in 5689/1929, when Stalin introduced a system of six five-day weeks per month. A major purpose of the scheme was to make Shabbos and Sundays totally out of sync and contribute to the destruction of religion, chas veshalom.
The second purpose of his calendar was to increase production. Weekends as we know them no longer existed. Instead, the workforce was divided into five sectors that were given “work cards” of yellow, pink, red, purple, or green. Every day, one of the five sectors would have a day of rest while the other four sectors continued slaving. This was known as the nepreryvka (perpetual) system.
As can be imagined, Stalin’s system made Shabbos observance harder than ever. The Russians hated this system so much that it was abolished in 5691/1931 and replaced by a new system, under which the entire workforce took off every sixth day. However, there was such popular demand for a seven-day week that Stalin reinstated the regular calendar in 5700/1940.
The third attempt to create a new week, which has never been relinquished by its supporters, began in 5683/1923, shortly after the formation of the League of Nations, when the United States initiated a special committee to eliminate the peculiarities and inconveniences of the Gregorian calendar. The only people barring this goal, both then and now, are religious and traditional Jews anxious to guard Shabbos, and people who place religious significance on Fridays or Sundays.
In 5685/1925, a Jewish delegation approached the special committee to protest the creation of a new calendar, saying it would disrupt the lives of shomer Shabbos Jews. The driving force behind this delegation was Rav Yosef Tzvi Hertz, chief rabbi of the British Empire. Delegation member Rav Yeshaya Feurst of Vienna who came as representative of Agudas Yisroel suggested an alternative method of achieving “fixed” years: to have years 364 days long, as the committee recommended, but to achieve this not by knocking days off the calendar but by having a “leap week” every five or six years to fill in the missing days.
During a summit meeting in 5689/1929, the League of Nations selected two out of 157 contenders for the new calendar. The core concept of both choices was that every year should be identical. If a person was born on Sunday, August 5th, his birthday would be on Sunday every day of his life.
The first suggestion hoped to achieve this by having thirteen months a year, while the second system adopted Mastrofini’s concept of ignoring one or two days a year. This is exactly what the Jews had dreaded. When the League of Nations dropped the whole idea in 5691/1931, Jews the world over heaved a collective sigh of relief.
THE WORLD CALENDAR ASSOCIATION
However, the battle had only just begun. Elisabeth Achelis of Brooklyn, New York, was a wealthy, unmarried heiress searching for a cause to which to devote her life. In 5689/1929 she heard of the controversy and, deciding to make this her life’s work, helped create the International World Calendar Association, which regularly published a Journal of Calendar Reform, distributing it gratis to over 20,000 public institutions.
As a result of her activities, Chile proposed a draft to the League of Nations to adopt her “World Calendar” in 5697/1937. This was endorsed by fourteen nations and opposed by six, while ten other nations sat on the fence to see what would happen. Baruch Hashem, nothing came of this, perhaps because the League was more worried about the imminent outbreak of a European war.
After the war, Achelis worked through the newly created United Nations and made two more attempts to push through her calendar in 5706/1946 and 5716/1953. By March 21, 5715/1955, when calendar reforms had appeared before the League and United Nations a total of eight times, the Department of State made the following statement that the matter should be dropped for good:
“The representative of the United States of America to the United Nations presents his compliments to the secretary-general of the United Nations and has the honor to refer to the secretary-general’s note SOA 146/2/01, dated October 7, 1954, concerning World Calendar Reform.
“The United States government does not favor any action by the United Nations to revise the present calendar. This government cannot in any way promote a change of this nature, which would intimately affect every inhabitant of this country, unless such a reform were favored by a substantial majority of the citizens of the United States acting through their representatives in the Congress of the United States. There is no evidence of such support in the United States for calendar reform.
“Large numbers of United States citizens oppose the plan for calendar reform that is now before the Economic and Social Council. Their opposition is based on religious grounds, since the introduction of a ‘blank day’ at the end of each year would disrupt the seven-day sabbatical cycle.
“Moreover, this government holds that 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.
“This government, furthermore, recommends that no further study of the subject should be undertaken …”
Because the United States is the single most important member state of the United Nations, the calendar battle has remained almost stalemated ever since, despite the potential support of the notion among the majority of the world’s nations. Aside from one other attempt in 5723/1963, the fight is over. Perhaps the United Nations is concerned that raising the issue in times of rising Islamic fanaticism might spark off an international jihad.
However, the World Calendar Association is determined to never give up the eighty-four-year battle to change the calendar, and we should thank Hashem for the miracle of its persistent failure.
(Sources: World Calendar Association, Hanisyonos Leshinui Haluach Hashavui Veshemiras Shabbos by Professor Eli Martzbach, Bar-Ilan University)