Saturday, September 07, 2013

Happy 5940!

A guest post by Y. Bloch

As the first Sabbath of the new Jewish year has just concluded, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy, good and sweet 5940!

Oh, wait, your calendar probably says 5774. Let me explain.

Ancient Hebrews counted years the way their Near Eastern neighbors did, by the year of the ruling monarch, the kings of Judea, Israel, Babylonia or Persia, as the case might be. However, as the age of kingdoms gave way to the age of empires, Jews worldwide, especially in the far-flung Diaspora, needed a universal system. They turned to minyan shtarot; this does not refer to the minimum number of documents you must have in a synagogue, but rather a dating system, Anno Graecorum, year 1 of which was 311 BCE.

However, as the age of empires gave way to the age of faiths, worldwide Jewry was increasingly split between the realms of two younger monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, each of which used its own faith-based dating system. Minyan shtarot was largely irrelevant (though in some lands, including Yemen, it persisted until recently), so a new chronology was needed. What better, then, than counting from the beginning, i.e., "In the beginning," Genesis 1:1?

Now, it was easy to tally the years since the Greek era, as that count had been maintained uninterrupted for a millennium and a half. However, the period before that was somewhat murky, so they turned to Seder Olam Rabba by R. Jose b. Halafta. This 2nd-century Mishnaic sage used biblical text and oral traditions to create a consistent historical record.

The problem, of course, is that neither the Bible nor the Talmud are history books, especially when they converge, as in the Persia Era. R. Jose takes literally the rabbinic statement cited in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 3a): "Cyrus is Darius is Artaxerxes," conflating numerous kings of Persia and cutting the multiple centuries of Persian rule down to a handful of decades. (But don't take the historians' word for it: Rabbi Zerahiah of Lunel, the 12th-century sage known as the Baal HaMaor, also concludes that this rabbinic statement is not to be taken literally.) That's why Seder Olam gives the equivalent of 420 BCE  as the date of the destruction of the First Temple, rather than the historical date of 586 BCE. That's a difference of 166 years, and if we add them back in, this year would be 5940.

But Rosh Hashana is still the anniversary of Creation, right? Well, bear in mind that:
  1. The only time the term rosh ha-shana is used in Scripture is to refer, apparently, to Yom Kippur (Ezekiel 40:1).
  2. The question of whether the world was created in the spring or autumn is a matter of dispute between Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer, and the Talmud endorses the view of the former as a matter of fact (Rosh Hashana 12a).
  3. Even following Rabbi Eliezer's opinion, there are different views as to which day of Creation Rosh Hashana was: the first (ibid. 11a), the sixth (Lev. Rabba 29a) or the seventh (Pesikta Rabbati 46).
So where does that leave us? After all, our liturgy talks about Rosh Hashana (to be more precise, Yom HaZikaron) as the day of creation, and we date halakhic documents--those of marriage, divorce, etc.--by the Seder Olam count. Are we wrong to do so?
Well, let us be precise. Our documents read: "On day X of month Y of year Z to the creation of the world, according to the count which we reckon here..." How significant is this? Consider the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh (HM 43:2, EH 127:10):
If the scribe omitted "to the creation of the world," it is kosher.
The Levush, R. Mordecai Yoffe (EH 127:11), explains:
Even if he left out the thousands and hundreds and wrote only the small numbers, e.g. "Year 59 according to the count which we reckon here," and even if he did not write "to the creation of the world" either, it is kosher.
In other words, 5774 is not sacrosanct because of how much time has elapsed since "the creation of the world;" it is holy because it is our reckoning, the universal count which ties all of Jewry together. Indeed, this is true of Rosh Hashana itself: it is not holy because of what was created on that date, but because we sanctify it and celebrate it as the commemoration of divine sovereignty, recognizing God as sole Creator and King.

Indeed, this is how the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashana 1:3) describes the role of the human court (bet din) in the calendar:
If the bet din says, "Today is Rosh Hashana," the Holy One, Blessed be He, says to the angels: "Set up the stand, summon the prosecutors, summon the defenders -- for my children have declared that today is Rosh Hashana." If the court decides to declare a leap month and make Rosh Hashana the next day,  the Holy One, Blessed be He says to the angels: "Remove the stand, remove the prosecutors, remove  the  defenders, for my children have decided to put it off till tomorrow." What is the reason? "For it is a rule for Israel, a judgment of the God of Jacob" (Psalms 81:5) -- If Israel does not rule, the God of Jacob does not judge.

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