Calendar – when does it start

It happens thousands of times a  year. Young couples stand beneath  the chupa, the mesader kiddushin is  handed a kesuva and intones, “On date  such and such of the year 5767 since  the creation of the world according to  our count.” According to our count? If  5767 years have passed why mention  that that they are “according to our  count?” How many ways are there to  count 5767 years? Surely 5767 years  since creation signifies that Rosh  Hashana 5767 marked the passing of  5,767 years. Are there two ways of  looking at this simple fact? Strangely,  the answer is yes! 

Things are never as easy as they  look. The simple rule that we count  the years from creation is complicated  by the inconvenience that the creation  spanned over two years giving us two  candidates for “zero hour.” Which year  do we choose? Concerning this there  are two major opinions.

Every Rosh Hashana we announce,  Hayom haras olam – today is the birth  of the world! This statement itself is  surprising because Hashem began the  creation not on Rosh Hashana, but  five days earlier on the 25th of Elul.

Apparently haras olam refers not to  the beginning of the process, but to its  pinnacle – the creation of manThis prompts the question of when  to start clocking the years. On the  one hand, you might argue that the  calendar should begin during the first  year of creation because that is when  everything got started. The trouble with  that approach is that the first year lasted  only five days and was totally missing  its first eleven months. How can we  clock time from the first of Tishrei that  never existed? On the other hand, to  start the calendar on the second year  also seems less than perfect because it  was, after all, the second year. In brief,  we are left with two problematical  options – to consider a non-year as the  first year, or to consider the second year  as the first year.

There is a second question that also  hinges on these two options. What is  the first month from which we estimate  all future months? It is well known that  because every month has an average  length of 29 days, 12 hours, and 793  parts, all you have to do to work out the  beginning of any future or past month is  figure out how many months separate it  from creation and multiply that number  by the average month-length.

Take the 60,000th month since  creation. To know when it starts,  multiply the average month-length by  60,000, add the result to the first molad  (the moment the first rosh chodesh  began), and there is your answer. The  question is – what is the first molad that  determines all other molads?

According to the Rambam (Kiddush  Hachodesh 6:8), the Zero molad is  Rosh Hashana of the five-day year  when Hashem started the creation. This  non-existent year which only sprang  into being during its last five days is  called Shnas Hatohu – the “Year of  emptiness.” The non-existent molad of  its non-existent Rosh Hashana is called  molad BaHaRaD because these initials  describe the moment the molad would  have happened had it existed – on  Monday (yom Beis), the 5th hour (Hei)  and 204 parts of an hour (RaD).

At this point a reader might scratch  his head. How do we know the molad  of a month that never existed? There  are two answers to this question.  One answer is that we work it out by  extrapolating backwards. By taking a  molad of the present, we can use the  average month length to extrapolate  thousands of years into the past or  future. 

Maharal ben Chaviv has a totally  different explanation. He writes that the  BaHaRaD starting point was revealed  through prophecy or received as a  tradition from Sinai. Rabeinu Bechaye  on Chumash says that BaHaRaD is  hinted in first verses of Bereishis:

“You should know that we have  a tradition concerning this verse of  Bereishis, that we can derive from it  [Hashem’s] name of 42 letters that  is connected to the attribute of strict  judgment [starting from the beis of  Bereishis] until the beis of vohu

Once we know that this verse hints  at the name of 42 letters [we can also  reveal something else]. If we count 42  letters from the letter beis of Bereishis  and reach the letter hei of bohu, after  another 42 letters appears the letter  reish and after another time [counting  another 42 letters] we will reach the  letter daled. The resulting combination  is thus BaHaRaD… A sensible person  will realize that this is no coincidence  and is an absolute proof to the world  being newly created!” 

Unlike the Rambam who holds  that time starts from the non-existent  BaHaRaD, other authorities hold  that we estimate the months not from  an imaginary molad, but from the  world’s first actual molad that took  place on Rosh Hashana, the second  hour of Friday morning (14 hours after  midnight) when Hashem was creating  Adam’s form. Although the moon was  already created since the 25th of Elul, it  was now “born” as the world reached its  perfection at man’s creation (Rav Yosef  Gaon). This molad is called Molad  Adam and also known as Molad VYD  as it occurred on Friday (yom Vav) at  14 (Yud Daled) hours.

In conclusion, according to the  Rambam we start counting the years  from the first year of creation, while  those who disagree with him insist that  we only start counting from the second  year. Does this mean that according to  the second opinion we are not in 5767  but still back in 5766?

This is indeed the case! According to  the Baal Hama’or (beginning of Avoda  Zara), the Gemara reckoned the years  from molad Adam. Then the minhag  changed and our calendar is a year  ahead of the Gemara’s! He explains as  follows:

“Know that the earlier generations  had two customs how to count the years  from the creation of the world, one of  them adding an extra year compared to  the other. This is found explicitly in the  responsa of the Geonim in many places  that some of them calculate from the  Tishrei whose molad is VYD, and this is  a more correct calculation even though  its practice has not spread [nowadays],  because it begins from when the world  existed. And some people calculate from  the Tishrei whose molad is BaHaRaD,  and counts that which did not exist as  if it existed. And this [second opinion]  adds a year to the first opinion, and this  [second opinion] has spread now in all  places known to us.”

How can we include the first year in  our count if it is only five days long?  The logic is that even though the first  year of our reckoning began on the 25th  of Elul, because of the rule that part of  a year is considered like a year, it is  perfectly justifiable to consider those  five days as an entire year. This is similar  to the seven days of mourning which  end at the beginning of the seventh day  because we consider part of the seventh  day like a whole day. 

In the course of this discussion we  concluded that according to our custom  the first year of our calendar was  only five days long. Therefore, Rosh  Hashana 5768 will mark the passing  not of 5,768 years, but only 5,767 years  and five days.

Amazingly, the secular year has a  very similar phenomenon.  People writing history articles  discover that transposing Jewish dates  into secular dates is a bit confusing.  The rules seem paradoxical. To  calculate dates before the Common  Era we consider the year 3761 as the  beginning of the Common Era. For  example, to calculate the civil year  of Avraham Avinu’s birth in 1948 you  subtract 1948 from 3761 and come up  with 1813 BCE. However, to calculate  civil dates after the Common Era we  consider 3760 as the beginning of the  Common Era; to calculate the Jewish  date of World War II we add 1939 CE  to 3760 and come up with 5699.

This is a paradox. How can the  Common Era have two different starting  points? Can 0 CE be 1360 and 1361 at  one and the same time? As the Briskers  would say, this question doesn’t start  because 0 CE never existed!

Lay the blame for this state of affairs  at the door of the Venerable Bede, the  7th Century English cleric and historian  who invented the BCE system. Until  his time, Europeans counted years  anno mundi, anno Adam or Anno  Abrahami. In other words, they began  their calendars from the creation of the  world, the creation of Adam, or the birth  of Avraham Avinu (although their view  of when these events happens conflicts  with ours). Then along came Bede and  created the BCE system.

For some reason, Bede omitted the  year “0” from his system. Imagine the  last seconds of 1 BCE are ticking and  a group of Roman legionnaires are  sitting, beer tankards in hand, waiting  for their digital watches to register the  transition to 0 CE. As they raise their  tankards to their lips to celebrate. In  walks the Venerable Bede:  “What are you celebrating?”  “Don’t you know? Tonight is the  beginning of a new epoch! The year  zero has just begun!”  “Too late boys, I forgot about 0. It’s  already 1 CE!”

At the zero moment of transition  between BCE and CE, the Common  Era leaped forwards one year and this is  why its benchmark switches at this point  from 3761 to 3760. To compensate for  the civil year leaping a year forwards,  the Jewish benchmark of 3761 jumps  back to 3760.

This created a fiasco seven years  ago.  It’s New Years Eve 1999 and the  neighbors are keeping you up with a  raucous celebration. You tap on their  door.  ”What’s all this noise about?”  “Don’t you know? Tonight is the  beginning of 2000! It’s the beginning  of the new millennium!”  Wanting to get some sleep you tell  how Bede skipped the year zero. Their  fuzzy minds somehow grasp the point.  “You mean we’re a year ahead of  the times?” they ask you.  “That’s right. The second millennium  doesn’t start until next year!”

Hopefully, by then you’ll have  quieter neighbors.

(Credits: Encyclopedia Talmudis,  erech BaHaRaD)

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