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


Last week we presented the work of Seder Olam Rabbah and went through its chronology from Adam HaRishon until Alexander the Great, highlighting important events along the way. This week we will bring light to issues that arise when comparing Seder Olam’s account of Bayit Sheini chronology with the conventional account of history. We will then hopefully explain how Seder Olam’s account consistently employs the methodology of Chazal to successfully arrive at its conclusions, regardless of outside chronologies.

III. Addressing Problems with Gaps

The calendric calculation of Seder Olam, which we have seen, becomes dubious when compared to the accepted conventional history. These historic accounts are supported by the vast majority of historians. Steles and other archaeological findings from both Persia and Greece, who were classically enemy empires, as well as works from Ptolemy and other Egyptian sources, all support the following account of history:

Kol Torah Pic 9.JPG

There are three main points of disagreement between Seder Olam and the accepted conventional history. These variances, taken all together, generate for Seder Olam roughly 165 “missing years” during the Second Temple period.

1. Seder Olam describes the chronological order of kings as Koresh, followed by Achashveirosh, followed by Daryavesh. In fact, Daryavesh is said to be the son of Achashveirosh and Esther. Secular sources disagree, instead placing Darius chronologically before Xerxes[1] (as well as recording a king, unnamed in Tanach, between Cyrus and Darius).

Historians believe that the Persian king who took control over the Babylonian empire was Cyrus. After him ruled Cambyses, then Darius, and then Xerxes. Cyrus is consistent with Koresh from Tanach, both narratively – the Cyrus Cylinder is clear evidence for the Biblical Koresh’s proclamation – and linguistically – the names are very similar. Likewise, Darius is naturally identified to be Daryavesh. Pinpointing the character of Achashveirosh is trickier. Seder Olam describes that Achashveirosh was king in between Cyrus (Koresh) and Darius (Daryavesh). However, the name Achashveirosh sounds nothing like Cambyses, whom historians say was the second king of this Persian line.

Of all the kings mentioned, Xerxes is the likeliest candidate to be Achashveirosh. The name “Xerxes” is a Greek translation of the Persian name “Chashyarsha” (“חשיארש”). Interestingly, at the end of Megilat Esther (10:1), Achashveirosh’s name is spelled with a Keri UKetiv (a word that is spelled differently than it is read) that is written as though it should be read like “Chashirash” (“אחשרש”).

There is additional evidence from Sefer Ezra as to Achashveirosh and Xerxes being one and the same. In Ezra 4:5-6 we have a list of Persian monarchal genealogy. Pasuk 5 mentions Koresh and Daryavesh, after which Pasuk 6 mentions Achashveirosh. The simple read of the Pesukim indicates that Achashveirosh was king after Daryavesh. This also suggests that Achashveirosh is Chashirash/Xerxes.

Thus, while conventional history places Achashveirosh as king after Daryavesh, Seder Olam places Achashveirosh as king before Daryavesh. This is one discrepancy.

2. Seder Olam writes that Daryavesh and Artachshasta are the same person. This claim is based on Sefer Ezra. In Perakim 1-6 the king is Daryavesh, whose role in the story ends during his sixth year when the Second Temple is built (Ezra 6:15). In the next Perek the Persian king is called by the name “Artachshasta,” and it is his seventh year as king (Ezra 7:7). It is in this year that Ezra arrives in Israel and emerges as the leader of his generation. Seder Olam claims that Daryavesh and Artachshasta are the same person – this king sees the completion of the Temple construction in his sixth year, and then Ezra arrives in Israel in his seventh.

Seder Olam’s account differs very much from conventional history. Conventional history shows that Artaxerxes (i.e. Artachshasta) was crowned king more than 20 years after the death of Darius. In between Darius and Artaxerxes is the king Xerxes (whom we identified above as Achashveirosh). This is another discrepancy between the two calendars.

3. Both Seder Olam and conventional history agree that Alexander the Great defeated a Persian king named Darius. However, Seder Olam and conventional history disagree as to which Darius this was. According to Seder Olam, this king was the Darius who saw the construction of the Second Temple (and who was alternatively called “Artachshasta”). According to conventional history, this king is identified as Darius III, who lived 150 years after Darius I (the character in Tanach). Conventional history identifies several Persian kings in between Darius I and Alexander’s defeat of Darius III. Seder Olam skips them all.

Because Seder Olam moves Xerxes, morphs Darius with Artaxerxes, and equates Darius I with the king who was killed by Alexander the Great, Seder Olam winds up with roughly 165 fewer years of history than the conventional account.

Another challenge with Seder Olam is that the Chanukat HaBayit-Ezra jump (achieved by identifying Daryavesh with Artachshasta) seems to clash with the narrative of Sefer Ezra. When Ezra arrives in Israel, the entire Jewish population is intermarried with the local idol-worshipers. This would be a truly stunning turn of events only a year after the dedication of the second Beit HaMikdash. Furthermore, Chaggai and Zecharyah, the two central Nevi’im during the construction of the Beit HaMikdash, are nowhere to be found during Ezra’s time; if this is only a year later, as Seder Olam claims, what happened to them? Furthermore, would they have not stopped the people from intermarrying? It seems clear that there must have been a long period without leaders between the two events.

In summary, as we see from the timeline of conventional history, it is commonly deduced that the Persian kings ruled for a total of 220 years. This contradicts the Seder Olam account, which assumes 52 years of Persian rule under only three (or four) kings. This is a discrepancy of approximately 165 years (this approximation is due to slight differences in calculations, which can be explained based on overlapping kings’ years). These are the missing years.

IV. How Seder Olam is Internally Consistent

We will attempt to resolve this conflict by showing how Seder Olam, a Midrashic adaptation of history, is internally consistent. By following its own rules, Seder Olam creates an inclusive and precise, if not externally accurate, calendar.

Tanach is not always crystal clear about chronology. Seder Olam, though, uses exact dates to chronicle the Jewish story[2]. Seder Olam’s modus operandi for deciding a date when there is ambiguity is minimalism. We see this minimalist tendency of Chazal as well regarding character identification. For example, in Shemot Perek 2 we encounter two anonymous Jewish men who witness Moshe killing an Egyptian, forcing Moshe to flee (Shemot 2:13-14). The Midrash Tanchuma identifies these men as Datan and Aviram, two men who appear in Parashat Korach as leaders of an insurgency against the leadership. Chazal make this identification so as to minimize the amount of characters in the grand story (as well as to teach a lesson about long-time rivalries and their origins).

Similarly, and more relevant to our topic, Seder Olam is minimalist regarding chronology. For example, Avraham is told that his descendants will be slaves for 400 years (BeReishit 15:13). However, the Chumash never explicitly identifies when these years begin. Being minimalist and decisive, Seder Olam identifies the 400 years of slavery as beginning from the birth of Yitzchak. This minimalism is evident as well by Seder Olam’s morphing of Daryavesh and Artachshasta. The text of Sefer Ezra is not absolutely clear as to what happens between the sixth year of Daryavesh and the seventh year of Artachshasta, so Seder Olam makes an absolute decision and says that Daryavesh and Artachshasta are the same person. Seder Olam makes a similar decision by skipping from Darius I to Darius III – instead of having two separate characters, it is possible to say that they were the same person. While these decisions are not consistent with conventional history, they work within the methodology of Seder Olam.

Like Seder Olam’s alterations with Darius, we can show as well how its misplacement of Xerxes is internally consistent within its methodology.

The Perek that unlocks much of the post-Churban calendar actually precedes the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. Yirmiyahu Perek 25 is important in that it contains two critical details that together allow for an explanation of the timeline of Galut Bavel and the return to Israel. First, the Perek opens with a double date. The Nevu’ah is introduced, “HaDavar Asher Hayah El Yirmiyahu Al Kol Am Yehudah BaShanah HaRevi’it LiYhoyakim Ben Yoshiyahu Melech Yehudah, Hi HaShanah HaRishonit LiNvuchadretzar Melech Bavel,” “The word which came to Yirmiyahu concerning all the people of Yehudah, in the fourth year of Yehoyakim son of Yoshiyahu, king of Yehudah, which was the first year of Nevuchadretzar, king of Bavel” (Yirmiyahu 25:1). Since all reference points from the Babylonian exile and onward are dated to foreign kings, the synchronization found here between the Judean years and the Babylonian years allows for the shift.

The other key found in this Perek is the message of the Nevu’ah itself, the famous 70 years of Babylonian rule. Yirmiyahu here tells Bnei Yisrael that as a result of the people’s refusal to change its evil ways and serve Hashem properly, Hashem will bring Bavel to rule over them for 70 years. After this time is up, Bnei Yisrael will return to independence. (This refers to a period of subservience to Bavel, and does not mean a period of exile. Exile ensues as a punishment and a message since Bnei Yisrael rebel against Bavel and do not accept their lighter punishment of subservience.)

Sefer Ezra begins with the Persian king Koresh’s proclamation allowing the Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael and to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash. This is dated, “UViShnat Achat LeChoresh Melech Paras Lichlot Devar Hashem MiPi Yirmiyahu,” “In the first year of Koresh, king of Persia, at the conclusion of the word of Hashem spoken by Yirmiyahu.” The only relevant speech of Yirmiyahu is Perek 25. Seventy years of Babylonian rule have expired and, as prophesied, Bavel is no longer controlling anyone; Persia is now in charge.

Yirmiyahu 25 occurs in the fourth year of Yehoyakim’s reign. Working backwards from the Beit HaMikdash’s destruction (year 3338), Tzidkiyahu ruled for 11 years, and Yehoyakim also ruled for 11 years[3]. Accounting for a year of overlap, Yehoyakim’s first year was 21 years before the Churban HaBayit. Thus, his fourth year (i.e. the first year of Babylonian rule) was 18 years before the destruction, which comes out to be year 3338-18=3320 of Seder Olam. Seventy years later, the first year of Koresh’s rule, was in year 3390 of Seder Olam.

In fact, there are two different periods of 70 years relating to the end of Bayit Rishon. The first is prophesied by Yirmiyahu as 70 years of Babylonian rule with no mention of exile. The second, which we previously discussed[4], is a retrospective reference by Zecharyah to the time between the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash and the construction of the second Beit HaMikdash.

The difference in time between the first 70 years and the second is easily calculable. The Babylonian conquest of Israel, the beginning of Yirmiyahu’s 70 years, occurred in the fourth year of Yehoyakim’s reign. We have already established that this was 18 years before the Churban Beit HaMikdash, the start of Zecharyah’s 70 years. Logically, this difference between the beginnings of the two blocks holds for the ends of the two blocks as well. The first year of Koresh’s reign – the end of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy – would therefore precede the second year of Daryavesh’s reign – the end of Zecharyah’s 70 years – by 18 years.

As just demonstrated, there are 18 years between Koresh’s declaration, in the first year after his conquest of Babylonia, and the construction of the Beit HaMikdash, in Daryavesh’s second year. Historical sources point to a nine-year reign of Cyrus over Babylonia, and then another king ruling for eight or nine years, followed by Darius. However, the latest mention of Koresh in the Tanach is his third year (Daniel 10:1). This leaves a large gap until the next date, the second year of Daryavesh – a gap of fourteen years. According to Megilat  Esther, Achashveirosh ruled for at least 12 years – the primary events all occur then (Esther 3:7). Preferring not to leave a gap in the timeline, Seder Olam moves the reign of Achashveirosh/Xerxes into the gap following Koresh, fitting him snugly between Koresh and Daryavesh.

Interim Conclusion

In the final installment of this essay, we hope to suggest two reasons for Seder Olam’s intentional deviation from conventional chronology, one looking toward the past and one looking toward the future.

[1] Who are equated with Daryavesh and Achashveirosh, respectively, as will be explained.

[2] Despite Seder Olam’s interpretation as such, it is possible that numbers in Tanach (and particularly lengths of time) are not entirely precise. Certain repetitions of number in short spans give an impression of rounding and usage of more typological numbers. As an example, five Shofetim and kings in Sifrei Shofetim and Shmuel are said to have each ruled for 40 years, with another Shofeit ruling for 80 years, twice 40. The number four symbolizing completeness (encompassing all directions), 40 years can simply connote “a long period of time.”

We can therefore also suggest that the dates mentioned in Tanach are not intended to be completely exact, but rather are sometimes meant to carry meaning. Due to this, some imprecision of numbers can be allowed.

[3] Yehoyachin, in between these two, did not rule for a significant period of time.

[4] See section II-B.

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

The Tzefat Get of 5774 – Part Four by Rabbi Chaim Jachter