It is a little known but surprising fact that our universal minhag of counting years from the Creation is a relative newcomer on the block. Up until the times of the Geonim, Jews generally clocked the years by other means.
The Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah Chap. 1) and the Sifri (Parshas Beha’aloscha) discuss this subject in detail: “From where do you know that people count from the leaving of Egypt?” they inquire. “Because it says, ‘In the third month after leaving, etc.’ (Shemos 19:1). I only know of that [early] time. Afterward, from where do we know? The verse says, ‘In the fortieth year after leaving, etc.’ (Bamidbar 33:38). I do not know except on a temporary basis. For [future] generations, from where [do we know]? The verse says, ‘And behold, in the 480th year after leaving Egypt’ (I Melachim 6:1).”
The Yerushalmi and Sifri then discuss how Klal Yisroel moved over to new systems:
“After the Mikdash was built, they began counting from its construction, as it says, ‘And behold, at the end of twenty years that Shlomo had built the House, etc.’ (II Divrei Hayamim 8:1). When they no longer merited to count from its building, they counted from its destruction, as it says, ‘In the twenty-fifth year of our exile on Rosh Hashanah, etc.’ (Yechezkel 40:1). When they no longer merited to count based on themselves, they counted based on the non-Jewish kingdoms, as it says, ‘In the second year of Daryavesh (Chagai 1:1), ‘In the third year of Koresh’ (Daniel 10:1), etc.”
Actually, to be permitted to start counting years from these eras is quite a chiddush, since regarding Jewish months, the Torah explicitly states, “This month shall be for you the head of months” (Shemos 1:1), and the Ramban explains that it is forbidden to count the months from any month except Nissan. Why is the Torah particular only about the month of yetzias Mitzrayim and not the year?
Be that as it may, the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) teaches the conclusion of the above Chazal, “There are four Rosh Hashanahs; the first of Nissan is Rosh Hashanah of kings, etc.” And Rashi explains, “They were accustomed to count the times of their documents according to the years of the king, from the year that the king arose. As it says in Gittin (80a), ‘Because of peace of the kingdom.’”
“Peace of the kingdom” means that in order to remain on good terms with their overlords, the Jews, like their non- Jewish neighbors, honored the kingdom by dating certain documents according to the accession of the latest monarch.
THE SELEUCID COUNT
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 10a) mentions a more universal, widespread dating system that was known as minyan Yevanim (the Seleucid Count): “Said Rav Nachman, ‘In the Diaspora we do not count, except only for the Seleucid Count.’
As important as the ground-zero event that launched the Seleucid Count must have been, it is not absolutely clear what it was. Even the Gemara’s description of this earthshaking event is cryptic: “It was taught in a braisa – R’ Yosi said, ‘They ruled in Eilam for six years and then their kingdom spread throughout the whole world.’”
This count was widely used by Jews up until the time of Geonim. Thus, in his famous letter, Rav Sherira Gaon writes that he is discussing the generations until the year 1298 “according to the Seleucid Count that we are accustomed to.”
So when did Jews begin counting from the Creation? They could well have been doing so all the time, as we find the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 9b) stating, “It was taught, ‘4,231 years after the creation of the world, if a person says to you, “Buy a field worth a thousand dinar for one dinar,” do not buy!’” Thus the question isn’t when Jews began using the Creation count, but when it became so universal.
The process didn’t occur overnight. The Rambam’s time was apparently still a period of transition and thus, in Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh (chap. 11), he mentions three variant systems when describing his current year: “This year, which is 4,938 from the creation, which is 1,489 according to the [seleucid] count of docuents, which is 1,109 after the second churban.”
Other authors of his time also clung to the Seleucid and Creation counts simultaneously. Gradually, the Seleucid system died off, although it was still being used by some Middle Eastern kehillos until the recent past.
THE NON-JEWISH COUNT
What was the non-Jewish world doing all this time? This seemingly irrelevant question leads to halachic ramifications as we shall see later.
Different nations used different systems, generally counting the years from the accession of their latest kings. In Ye OldeEngland, the Regal System, as it was known, was used for dating Acts of Parliament right up until 5723/1963.
There were other methods besides. For example, the ancient Greek historian, Timaios, recorded years according to the Olympiads that had been held every four years since 2985/776 BCE; other historians started year zero with the foundation ofRome, presumed to have happened during 3008/753 BCE.
Since there was no universal, international yardstick, it was sometimes a headache for historians of those times to chronicle events in a way that would be intelligible to an international audience. To make them all happy, a historian would be forced to list a number of pivotal events hoping that whoever was unaware of one system would know the other. For example, one historian desperately trying to pinpoint the year 3377/384 BCE for his audience writes:
“At the conclusion of the year, in Athens Diotrephes was archon, and in Rome the consuls elected were Lucius Valerius and Aulus Mallius, and the Elians celebrated the ninety- ninth Olympiad, that in which Dicon of Syracuse won the footrace.”
To synchronize dates in those days, a person needed to be a walking encyclopedia of international history and sport. The idea of making a universal starting point at year zero (actually not year zero, because year zero is counted as year one) with BCE on one side and CE on the other, was a two-step process. During the sixth century, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus was ordered to calculate Easter for the next few years and he wrote them starting from 1 CE. How he came to the conclusion that Yeishu was born in that particular year is a mystery that has never been solved. He didn’t explain and no one has been able to second-guess him. This lack of clarity may have halachic significance, as will be seen later. Later, during the eighth century, an English historian-monk known as the Venerable Bede hit on the happy idea of counting back from Dionysius Exiguus’ year zero, and gave us the BCE years. The system was now complete.
However, it took a long time for the system to catch on, largely since although scholars could not agree in which year Yeishu had been born, everyone generally agreed that Dionysius Exiguus had got it wrong. But, as the centuries rolled on, the idea spread throughout Europe due to its sheer convenience. As Domenicus Petavius suggested in his book, Opum De Doctrina Temporum in 5387/1627, it was a good idea to use it as a universal timeline for all, even if it represented “not the actual event but an agreed- upon point from which all real events could be dated.”
Now this rambling story has halachic ramifications regarding the famous question: Why are we permitted to count years according the Common Era system? Does the Torah not command us, Ubechukoseichem lo seileichu, “You shall not walk in their statutes,” which prohibits us from observing non-Jewish customs connected with idolatry? What can be more idolatrous than marking years according to the birth of someone worshipped as an avodah zarah?
In his responsa, Rav Ovadia Yosef, says, among other things, that this presents no problem to us, as the non- Jews got it completely wrong and the Common Era is not even close to the alleged zero date. He proves this from uncensored editions of the Gemara in Sanhedrin (107b), which attest that Yeishu was originally a talmid of R’ Yehoshua ben Perachiah until R’ Yehoshua rejected him after discovering that he had an impure mind.
Now, who were R’ Yehoshua ben Perachya’s talmidim? Yehuda ben Tabai and Shimon ben Shetach, whose talmidim were Shemaya and Avtalyon, followed by their talmidim in turn, Hillel and Shamai. Since Hillel was a nasi one century before the Churban, and the Churban occurred in 3829/69 CE (as can be derived from Avodah Zarah 9b), Yeishu must have lived long before the Common Era. In fact, the Sefer Ha’Eshkol writes that he was crucified 135 years before the Churban.
However, what about the opinion of the Seder Hadoros, who suggests that there were two Yeishus, one in the time of R’ Yehoshua ben Perachya and another later? Does this mean that the Common Era is not inaccurate after all? Not at all! As Rav Ovadia Yosef points out (and as discussed earlier), this makes no difference, as scholars admit that the Common Era “zero point” is purely arbitary, even if Yeishu did live around that time.
So it turns out that the Common Era system may be kosher after all. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, is there anything that can compare to our Creation system, under which every letter and every check testifies to our steadfast emunah in Hashem’s creating hand?
(Sources include: Eisenstein J.D., Otzar Yisrael. Pardes Publishing House:New York, 1951)