Calendar – It’s First Year

Garden_of_Eden)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 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.


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)

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