The Hebrew Calendar and its Missing Years – Part Three by Reuven Herzog and Benjy Koslowe

(2015/5775)

In the last two weeks we presented Seder Olam Rabbah and its chronology. We showed how its approach to texts and history reveals a consistent methodology, if it does not match conventional dating. With all that we mentioned above, there still must be a reason why Seder Olam skipped so much. While it is a minimalist work, there still should be justification for this course of action. Several suggestions are given, and we will present two that seem to be the most compelling.

V. Purpose of Seder Olam

V-A. 1,000 Years since Yetziat Mitzrayim

The first answer has to do with Minyan Shetarot, also known as the Seleucid era or the Anno Graecorum (“Greek year”). This is the dating system that Jews accepted in the latter half of the Second Temple period. This count began in what we today refer to as 312 BCE. During this year was fought the Battle of Gaza, leading to Seleucus’s successful conquering of Babylonia. The Greeks decided that this year would be “Year One.” Along with the Seleucid Empire and other Hellenistic civilizations, the Jews adopted the system. Throughout the Talmud there is evidence of documents being dated with respect to this year.

At first glance the year 312 BCE is not especially significant for Jewish history. The Vilna Gaon points out, though, that as per the Seder Olam calculation, 313 BCE (the effective “Year Zero”) is found to be exactly 1,000 years after Yetziat Mitzrayim (2448)! Because of Seder Olam, the Seleucid year was effectively sanctified. A document dated with this count to the 45thyear, for example, suddenly became synonymous with 1,045 years since Yetziat Mitzrayim. Support for this can be found in the line at the end of Seder Olam“UVeGolah Kotevin BiShtarot LeMinyan Yevanim ‘Alfa,’” “And in the exile they write on Shetarot of the Greek count (Minyan Shetarot) ‘One Thousand.’”

One may notice that even so, a slight gap exists in Seder Olam’s chronology. The Macedonian conquest is calculated to have occurred in 3442[1], yet Minyan Shetarot begins in year 3448!

This can be explained by a Gemara in Mesechet Avodah Zarah (10a), discussing Minyan Shetarot and its inherent connection to Yetziat Mitzrayim:

ההוא שטרא דהוה כתיב ביה שית שנין יתירתא, סבור רבנן קמיה דרבא למימר: האי שטר מאוחר הוא, ניעכביה עד דמטיא זמניה ולא טריף, אמר רב נחמן: האי ספרא דוקנא כתביה, והנך שית שנין דמלכו בעילם דאנן לא חשבינן להו, הוא קחשיב ליה, ובזמניה כתביה; דתניא, ר' יוסי אומר: שש שנים מלכו בעילם, ואח"כ פשטה מלכותן בכל העולם כולו.

מתקיף לה רב אחא בר יעקב: ממאי דלמלכות יונים מנינן? דלמא ליציאת מצרים מנינן, ושבקיה לאלפא קמא ונקטיה אלפא בתרא, והאי מאוחר הוא! אמר רב נחמן: בגולה אין מונין אלא למלכי יונים בלבד.

There was [produced in court] a document which was dated six years ahead. The Rabbis who were sitting before Rava were of opinion that it should be pronounced a post-dated document, which is to be deferred and not executed until the date which it bears. Whereupon Rav Nachman said: This document must have been written by a scribe who was very particular and took into account the six years of the Greek Reign in Eilam which we do not reckon. The dating is therefore correct, for we have learnt: Rabi Yosi said, Six years did the Greeks reign in Eilam and thereafter their dominion extended universally.

Rav Acha b. Ya’akov then put this question: How do we know that our Era [of Documents] is connected with the Kingdom of Greece at all? Why not say that it is reckoned from the Exodus from Egypt, omitting the first thousand years and giving the years of the next thousand? In that case, the document is really post-dated! — Said Rabi Nachman: In the Diaspora the Greek Era alone is used.[2]

Seder Olam mentions that Alexander ruled for 12 years. However, it is unclear if this refers to his complete rule or only to his rule over the former-Persian Empire. Though historically inaccurate, this Gemara implies that those 12 years are his total reign, of which six were only in Greece and six were following the conquest of Persia. These six years are from 3442 to 3448of Seder Olam, achieving the desired goal of 1000 years after Yetziat Mitzrayim.

So how did Seder Olam achieve this desired date? Seder Olam’s biggest jump is the Darius skip, which we have demonstrated is achieved by equating Daryavesh with Artachshasta, and by skipping from Darius I to Darius III. This jump accounts for the vast majority of the missing years. It was well known that Alexander the Great came to power by killing a Persian ruler named Darius. This fact, coupled with the motivation of giving significance to the date of Minyan Shetarot, was good reason to make this skip and shorten an inconveniently-long history[3].

V-B. No Progress is No History

Another apparent justification for Seder Olam’s skipping over 165 years is the assumption that years without Jewish progress, particularly in the context of the second Beit HaMikdash, are effectively removed from Jewish history, as they are not worthy to have existed. This notion can explain the three sets of years which we have shown to be skipped over by Seder Olam.

Before demonstrating how Seder Olam approaches this nadir of Jewish performance, it is worth discussing Sefer Yeshayahu tangentially. Modern academic and a growing number of Jewish scholars suggest a theory that after Perek 39 of Sefer Yeshayahu, a new author takes over. This claim has several bases, including the dramatic shift after Perek 39 from rebuke and destruction to visions of comfort (see Yeshayahu 40:1), the explicit mention of King Koresh (44:28 and 45:1), and the explicit call for Bnei Yisrael to leave Bavel (48:20). Additionally, Yeshayahu is named in the first half of the book 15 times, whereas in the second half he is not mentioned even once. The conclusion is that this anonymous second author, referred to as Yeshayahu HaSheini or Deutero-Isaiah, was a prophet hundreds of years after the Yeshayahu of middle-late Bayit Rishon.

According to this theory, Deutero-Isaiah was a prophet for Bnei Yisrael when Koresh announced that the Jews could return to Israel. This Navi, alongside the leadership of Zerubavel, called on the people to return and to not give up hope (see 40:9 and 40:29). He tried to show how Hashem still desired the nation and had not abandoned them (see 41:8-10), and how He was willing to give the people a new start (44:22). But, as is clear from Sefer Ezra, the Jews at large fail to answer the call.

Shivat Tziyon was a period of tremendous hope and excitement in Jewish history, yet it ended in utter disappointment. The feeling of the time, as presented by the Nevi’im, was that this is the ultimate Redemption and Renewal. This time, the Jewish people would properly serve God as an entire Nation in the Land of Israel; they would correct the mistakes and sins of Bayit Rishon. Zecharyah prophesizes a reversal of Yirmiyahu’s prophecies of torture, of God returning to His people, and telling Bnei Yisrael that they should finally fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people, to be a nation of Tzedek and Mishpat, of Emet and Shalom. Malachi consistently makes allusions to Moshe, implying that the Covenant is being renewed and Bnei Yisrael are starting again on their journey to God. However, as is tragically depicted in Sefer Ezra, this does not occur. The return to Israel is miniscule and the Beit HaMikdash itself is much smaller. Furthermore, for the vast majority of the time the Jews are leaderless, both politically and spiritually, and they assimilate into the surrounding society. Not until Shimon HaTzaddik, during the period of Alexander the Great, do we learn of a religious revolution, and even then it was a different approach of scholar-based Judaism and not a fulfillment of the original path of Bayit Rishon. Politically, too, Bayit Sheini did not achieve its potential. For two and a half centuries, the Jews were ruled by a foreign power with no known strong leader. The Chashmona’im’s revolution did not last, and the last stand against the Romans was doomed by sectarian splits and infighting. Bayit Sheini was the great hope of the Jewish people, but ended as a failure.

We have stated that years of the second Beit HaMikdash without Jewish progress are effectively removed from Jewish history. This explains why Deutero-Isaiah was hidden, as it were. Although an ambitious Navi, Deutero-Isaiah was unable to convince Bnei Yisrael to return to Israel. The result? Deutero-Isaiah was made to be an appendix to Sefer Yeshayahu. Like his local message, Deutero-Isaiah’s real name is forever lost in the annals of history[4].

This brings us back to our discussion of Seder Olam and the missing years. Modern historians tells us that Cyrus II the Great allowed the Jews to return to Israel in 539 BCE and that the Second Beit HaMikdash was completed in 516 BCE. As we have shown, these two decades marked a low-point in Jewish history. A mere 42,360 Jews heeded the call to return to Israel (Ezra 2:64), and internal strife led to a “building freeze” (4:24). Chazal therefore hid the prophet Deutero-Isaiah.

Moving slightly forward in history, modern history reveals that the Purim story probably took place after the Second Beit HaMikdash was already built. The main events of the Megilah take place in the 12th year of Achashveirosh’s reign. Though this fits in Seder Olam’s count, assuming Koresh ruled only three years after his conquest of Bavel, if we assume that Koresh ruled for nine, and that the construction of the Beit HaMikdash took place 18 years after Koresh’s proclamation, even a 12-year reign of Achashveirosh cannot possibly occur between Koresh and Daryavesh.

Rather than leaving the exile even after the Beit HaMikdash’s construction, Jews were living and thriving in Shushan HaBirah. The Pasuk “Ish Yehudi Hayah BeShushan HaBirah UShemo Mordechai,” “There was a certain Jew in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai” (Esther 2:5), should be read with shock rather than with pride. Mordechai is a leader in Persian politics when his nation has the ability to return to Israel. Even his name is derived from the Persian deity Marduk![5]

For the same reasons why Chazal hid Deutero-Isaiah, Chazal adjusted the years of Achashveirosh’s reign. By moving Achashveirosh from after Daryavesh to before Daryavesh (see previous installments to understand how this was possible), the years of Jewish history when the Jews failed to return to Israel were effectively erased from the count.

Even well after the Mikdash was built, though, Jewish history failed to significantly progress toward the Divine goal. The Mikdash is completed in Year 6 of Daryavesh (Ezra 6:15), after which Jewish life was weak and leaderless for several decades until Ezra’s ascent in Year 7 of Artachshasta (Ezra 7:7). For thematic reasons, the book of Ezra closes the gap on these years in which there was no progress. Seder Olam takes the next step and makes it that these years never existed. Seder Olam puts these two dates immediately next to each other, thus skipping nearly 60 years of history. Again, the purpose of this skip was to demonstrate that years in which Jewish history stalemated are not worthy to have existed. According to Seder Olam, they effectively did not.[6]

VI. Conclusion

Seder Olam’s goal may not be primarily to give a comprehensive and precise history of all time, but rather to use history as a tool for teaching. The book assumes that its readers were aware of history. Likely, they knew when exactly the Purim story happened. Given this, it does not need to match up with secular dating. On the contrary, its adjusting of chronology not only remains loyal to the literal sense of the canonized texts, it also yields two tremendous benefits – making Yetziat Mitzrayim be the point of reference for all Jewish dating, and (on a more subtle level) teaching an important lesson about Ge’ulah and the goals of the Jewish future, what needs to happen next.

Appendix

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[1] See end of section II-B.

[2] Translation by Soncino.

[3] Additionally, Seder Olam’s skip allowed for a simple explanation of a rather esoteric prophecy in Sefer Daniel, which we described in last week’s installment. By combining Artachshasta with Daryavesh and skipping from Darius I to Darius III, Seder Olam is able to present a history that indeed involves three Persian kings and then an even greater Greek king, as per the prophecy.

[4] It is worth explaining that Deutero-Isaiah is not merely “hidden” in a random book of Tanach. Rather, his Nevu’ot form a perfect second half to the earlier Nevu’ot of Yeshayahu, and the book certainly should be read as a single, unified work. Though the majority of Yeshayahu’s prophecies discuss Pur’anut, suffering and destruction, the general structure of the book reveals that this suffering will always be followed by Nechamah, comfort and reconstruction of Bnei Yisrael’s relationship with Hashem. In this vein, Deutero-Isaiah could not be a more appropriate conclusion to Yeshayahu, his Nevu’ot discussing the Nechamah that was so long waited for after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.

[5] Much more can be said about the ironic undercurrent of Megilat Esther, as a harsh criticism to the Jews who stayed in Bavel at the time.

[6] It is worth mentioning Mitchell First’s Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology (1st ed.; New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1997). The bulk of the work presents several lists of Jewish figures and how they addressed the discrepancy in calendars. His lists begin chronologically with Azariah de Rossi who, in 1574, accepted conventional history both because of the many testimonies from different historians, as well because of inconsistencies between Tanach and Seder Olam. For example, he points to Nechemyah 12:10-11, a list of succession of high priests that spans many more years than prescribed by Seder Olam’s chronology. First’s research is full and informative and can serve as useful further reading for those who want to continue learning about the topic of our essay and how it was addressed over the years.

Most relevant to our essay is First’s evaluation of the responses that he details, as well as his conclusion. While he raises the “1,000 Years since Yetziat Mitzrayim” explanation and the general tendency of Chazal toward minimalism, Mr. First, for reasons that he elucidates, prefers another answer to the dilemma. Daniel 9:24-27 vaguely describes a period of 490 years, and the author of Seder Olam was interested in presenting this prediction as having come true. Thsse author of Seder Olam assumed that the beginning of the first exile and the end of the Second Temple, respectively, began and ended this period (much can be said about this interesting assumption, which is reasonable but certainly not self-evident). Additionally, he knew that there were 380 years from the onset of Minyan Shetarot until Churban Bayit Sheini. Left with only 40 years for the beginning of the Bayit Sheini under Persian rule, as well as sufficient room to use the text as support, Seder Olam recorded a significantly altered version of Persian history. For more details, see Part IV (pp. 113-137) of Jewish History in Conflict.

A Right to Convert? Developing an Idea of Rav Soloveitchik – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

The Hebrew Calendar and its Missing Years- Part Two by Reuven Herzog and Benjy Koslowe