The world very nearly adopted a calendar with 13 months of 28 daysAdd to your saved storiesSave
In the aftermath of World War I, delegates from dozens of countries met at a League of Nations conference in Geneva hoping to create a universal calendar that would unite the world. It was my great-great-grandfather’s job to stop them.
Our calendar may seem like a fixed system, but calendrical disputes have been raging since, well, the beginning of time. Our modern calendar began in 45 BC, when Julius Cesar added leap days to the Roman calendar to create the Julian calendar, which was modified roughly 1,500 years later by Pope Gregory XIII to create the Gregorian calendar as we know it today.
Consensus around the Gregorian calendar took nearly half a millennium to build, and it was short-lived. Right after some of the final holdouts joined — including Russia, Greece and China — the League of Nations announced plans for a total overhaul.
In 1923, the league created the Special Committee of Enquiry Into the Reform of the Calendar and started accepting proposals. The goal was a perfect standardized system of timekeeping, and the committee quickly zeroed in on a plan called the International Fixed Calendar (IFC).
The IFC comprised 13 months of 28 days. The benefit of the new calendar was uniformity. Each month would start on a Sunday and end on a Saturday, so you’d never have to ask, for example, what day of the week the 26th was; it would always be a Thursday. A one-day “world holiday” between the final Saturday of the year and Sunday, Jan. 1, would bring the total number of days to 365.
A secular world holiday must have seemed appealing in the early days of the first international diplomatic body, created following the “war to end all wars.” But not everyone was sold on the idea that a new calendar would unify people on a single consistent system.
Jewish people, especially, had one major concern: The Jewish day of rest — the Sabbath — falls on every seventh day. With an added blank day inserted each December, the Jewish seven-day cycle (believed to be dictated by God) would no longer align with the days of the week. The Sabbath — a day on which work is prohibited for Jews — would land on a different day of the week (and not necessarily on a weekend) each year.
The thought of the Sabbath falling on Wednesdays had the Jewish world up in arms. “On the morrow of all this [postwar] woe and disillusion, and on the brink of such threatened upheaval, the League of Nations could still think it worth while to embark on a quixotic enterprise like calendar tinkering,” lamented Chief Rabbi of England Joseph Hertz in his 1931 paper “The Battle for the Sabbath at Geneva.” Just when nearly the whole world had “at long last acknowledged allegiance to one calendar, the League decided to start a new era of confusion for humanity.”
The IFC, however, was wildly popular among some businessmen, including Kodak founder George Eastman. Profit comparisons were difficult across months ranging from 28 to 31 days (or even across the same month in two different years, containing a different number of weekends) and obscured trends that might otherwise be apparent.
In a pro-reform 1927 magazine article in the Outlook titled “Shall we scrap the calendar?,” the editors maintained that months are changeable because they aren’t tied to any astronomical constants. “A ‘month’ does not mean anything,” they wrote. “A day means something. A year means something. But a month?”
By 1928, Eastman had already implemented the IFC internally at Kodak and was spending his own money to persuade the rest of the world to follow suit. Soon 140 American companies joined him, maintaining a 13-month calendar for their businesses and wagering that calendar reform would continue to gain traction.
‘The argument used by all tyrants’
My great-great-grandfather, Arthur I. LeVine, was a Sabbath-observant Jew who immigrated to the United States on his own at age 16. Penniless, he learned the printing trade in New York and started his own legal printing press that eventually served as the main printer for the country’s most prestigious law firm at the time, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which notoriously didn’t have a Jewish partner until 1958.
According to family lore, Arthur capitalized the “v” in LeVine, Frenchifying his overtly Jewish name to gain access to non-Jewish business. But as the son of a British rabbi, he maintained his proud Jewish identity.
“He knew everybody,” said my grandmother, Eleanor Lowenthal, “and he was president of everything you could think of,” including his synagogue, Boys Town Jerusalem, Beth David Hospital (founded by Jews at a time when many teaching hospitals barred Jews from becoming doctors) and other Jewish organizations.
As the new calendar proposal picked up momentum in spring of 1931, Jewish leaders scrambled. On June 9, Rabbi Hertz and other clergy shared their concerns with the Calendar Committee, but their religious critiques were dismissed as “exaggerated,” and the committee moved full-steam toward the October conference, where the IFC would be put to a vote. Fearing his concerns would be overlooked again, he invited Arthur to Geneva.
The fourth General League of Nations Conference on Communication and Transit began on Oct. 12, 1931. Hundreds of calendar proposals had been submitted, but only one was really under consideration: the International Fixed Calendar. And the attitude among government delegates at the conference seemed to be that the IFC was all but a done deal.
On the opening day, Hertz was among the first to speak. He noted that thousands of Jewish congregations across continents — not just a few “reactionary Orthodox rabbis,” he said — had protested making the Sabbath a movable day. The argument that religious difficulties incurred by minorities were of their own making was “the argument used by all tyrants in the past to justify their bloodiest religious persecutions,” he said.
But the calendar reform advocates considered this the problem of a select few, so Arthur took a different tack. He started by explaining that he was testifying to demonstrate that the opposition was “rooted in the laity, not just the clergy.”
His argument was practical rather than religious, outlining logistical disadvantages of the new scheme: Every insurance premium, he pointed out, every monthly or quarterly rate, every contract worldwide that included dates from the Gregorian calendar would have to be renegotiated. Bonds coming due at certain times would be thrown into confusion. The litigation would be never-ending. Not to mention, “the number 13, a prime number which could not be divided without fractions, would occur millions of times a year in everyday life.” In short, the IFC would be nothing but a headache.
His testimony was concise but seemed to help shift the sentiment at the conference. Some continued to resist: The Czechoslovakian delegate stated that no Jews in his country objected to the IFC. But after Hertz pulled him aside between sessions and showed him proof of protests in 126 Jewish communities across Slovakia, he corrected himself on the record at the next session.
As the conference wore on, religion became a sticking point for others as well. Seventh Day Adventists also raised concerns about the Sabbath, while various delegates debated which fixed date should be assigned to Easter: Finland wanted it late in the spring; Norway preferred April 20 to avoid conflict with the cod fishing season; and Ireland refused to participate without a unanimous agreement from the ecclesiastical authorities.
With the floodgates opened, the conference devolved, and by the time the Colombian delegate pointed to correspondence from the Holy See calling calendar reform “dangerous,” the IFC appeared doomed.
Proponents of the IFC continued to push the calendar at additional meetings over the years, but the momentum died out. An attempt to create something that would work for everyone had turned into something that pleased just about no one.
After the conference, my great-great-grandfather returned stateside. Nearly 100 years later, I found a copy of Exodus on my grandmother’s shelf. Inside was an inscription from Rabbi Hertz: “To Arthur LeVine, a fellow fighter in the Battle for the Sabbath.”
Shoshana Akabas is a New York-based writer and nonprofit director.