The appearance of the new moon tonight will mark the start of holiday celebrations for southern New Jersey's Jews and Muslims.

The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashana, starts at sunset tonight. It is the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, which culminate with the fast of Yom Kippur. Area Muslims will most likely celebrate Eid-il-Fitr beginning Friday morning, a three-day feast to mark the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan.

Both the Jewish and Islamic calendars are lunar, based on the cycles of the moon. But there are two differences in the way the calendars work.

The lunar year is 11 days shorter than the solar year. The Jewish calendar adds a leap month seven times every 19 years to keep in sync with the solar year. So Rosh Hashana always occurs in the early fall. But the Muslim calendar makes no such adjustment, and the holidays fall back 11 days every year.

Muslims rely on seeing the new moon before declaring a sacred season. So while the new moon happens Wednesday before sundown, the moon will not be visible after dark until Thursday evening, signalling the start of the Eid-il-Fitr celebration on Friday. Jews rely on astronomical tables for when the new moon will appear and start the holiday season.

It is customary for Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and other pleasures during daylight hours for the entire month of Ramadan. According to tradition, Allah (God) began revealing the the Quran to the prophet Muhammad during Ramadan, and Muslims also take time during the month to study the scripture as well as to donate to charity.

Eid-il-Fitr is a celebration of the end of the fast. After morning prayers, families or communities get together to enjoy their first daylight meal in a month and to exchange small gifts.

The Jewish Rosh Hashana celebration is a bit more somber, as Jews spend a large part of the day in synagogue as they begin repenting for their sins. The shofar, or ram's horn, is blown as a wake-up call to come back to the right path. In the afternoon, communities go to a body of water - usually the beach in southern New Jersey - to symbolically cast their sins into the sea. At a festive meal, it is a custom to eat apples dipped in honey as a symbol for a sweet year.

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