Counting the Years

How the Jewish year is numbered.

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Calculating the Birth of the World

The Tannaim (sages of the late Second Temple Period and the century after the destruction) calculated the date of Creation. They did so by basing their work upon the Bible’s account of lifetimes and kingdoms, thereby determining the period of time from Creation to a known date, in this case, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

Many rabbis attempted this task, but the method attributed to Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta, a second century C.E. sage, is the one which gained popularity. He calculated “molad tohu”--“birth from nothing”--to be in the fourth hour of Monday, October 7, 3761 B.C.E. (according to the Gregorian calendar used in the secular world today). In Hebrew, this moment has the mnemonic acronym “BeHaRD”, which stands for:

Bet: the second day of the week, Monday (since the letter bet often represents the number two);

Hei: the fifth hour (since hei represents five);

Reish-Daled: 204 halakim (“parts,” a smaller measure of time, based on the idea that reish=200, daled=4).

The calculation of BeHaRD is discussed in a work attributed to Rabbi Yossi, Seder Olam (“Order of the World”), which is also sometimes called Seder Olam Rabbah in order to distinguish it from a work of similar name (the later Gaonic work, Seder Olam Zuta).

Innumerable scholars, both Jewish and Christian, have attempted to calculate the date of Creation. Even if they used the same basis (Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) for their systems of accounting, there is a broad range among their estimates. The historian des Vignoles stated in the introduction to his treatise on chronology that he had found well over 200 different calculations of the time from the birth of the world to the fall of the Second Temple, and that they varied by as much as 3,500 years. Well into the rule of Queen Victoria of England the most commonly given date for Creation was the year 4004 B.C.E., calculated by Bishop Usher, who published this date in 1654.

To this day, those Jews who believe the biblical accounting of time to be literal still accept Rabbi Yossi’s calculation, dating Creation to the year 3761 B.C.E. Others claim that the date is figurative, symbolic, or holds esoteric meaning. In calculating BeHaRD, Rabbi Yossi tried to justify disparate accountings from the following sources: the chronologies of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles; those of the Second Temple kingdoms, in rabbinic histories passed down to the Talmud and found in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 9a and 10a; and the prophecies of Jeremiah and Daniel.

Some academics compare the Genesis accounting of dates with those of the Greeks, Chaldeans (including the Babylonians), Egyptians, and Hindus. The Chaldeans, Egyptians, and Hindus used enormous figures, into the millions of years, to explain the timeframe of Creation. The ancient Hebrews and Greeks seemed unwilling to deal in such large numbers. Both peoples ascribed Creation to a date closer to their own times. This may indicate either a political agenda (consciously or subconsciously communicating a cultural chauvinism) or may simply be a simplification for the purpose of clarity.

It is possible that there is a direct correlation between the seven days of Creation mentioned in Genesis and a specific Babylonian system, which would suggest that each Genesis “day” represents a specific number of solar years.

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Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.