The current Jewish calendar’s reference date, 1 Tishrei AM 1, is equivalent to Monday, 7 October 3761 BCE in the proleptic Julian calendar. In other words, the Jewish calendar begins on this date in the equivalent of 3761 BCE. It’s a bit complicated to explain why. Let me ramble around the houses a bit first and circle back to that question. As a cultural historian I have always had a fascination with calendars and how they work (obviously, or I would not be writing this kind of blog). As a Biblical scholar I am interested in the reckoning of time in the ancient Near East.
Calendars in general are created for a variety of uses, secular and sacred, such as planning agricultural activities, annual festivals, marking anniversaries, and the like. They also help record historical events. Before the days of global communications, cultures used their own calendars based on their own needs. All of them, however, rely on astronomical phenomena in one way or another, and there are not too many variations in how they do it. Obviously the period of a day is universal in all cultures, although there are slight differences in what counts as a day. The month may be either roughly or exactly one lunar cycle, and a year may be determined by the sun or the moon. Lunar years are usually 12 moon cycles (months) long, which makes a year about 354 days long, and means that lunar calendars constantly drift away from solar calendars which are roughly 365 days long (marked from one summer/winter solstice to the next). The Jewish calendar is called lunisolar because the months are reckoned according to 12 moon cycles, but then a month (called an intercalary month) is added every few years to keep it meshed with the solar year. Jewish festivals, such as Passover, are linked to agricultural and pastoral activities and so need to stay synchronized with the solar year. Passover does not have to be exactly the same day every year, but it must be in the spring when lambs are butchered. Otherwise it loses its meaning. The Islamic calendar which is mostly lunar (with some odd wrinkles), is not synchronized with the solar year, hence important ritual dates, such as the holy month of Ramadan, wander all over the solar calendar.
The other big calendric question concerns the date that anchors the whole system. The Gregorian calendar uses the putative year of Christ’s birth, the ancient Roman calendar dated from the year of the founding of Rome, and so forth. The Jewish calendar is tied to the creation as described in Genesis, but, rather curiously, year 1 is not the year of creation, but the year before. Creation occurred in year 2. We’ll get to that in a minute.
The calendar used by Jews has evolved over time. Until the Tannaic period (approximately 10–220 CE), the calendar employed a new crescent moon as the monthly marker, with an additional month normally added every two or three years to correct for the difference between twelve lunar months and the solar year. When to add it was based on observation of natural agriculture-related events. Through the Amoraic period (220–589 CE) and into the Geonic period (589-1038 CE), this system was gradually displaced by the mathematical rules used today.
The principles and rules were fully codified by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah in the 12th century. Maimonides’ work also replaced the previously used Seleucid-era year numbering system with the modern creation-era Anno Mundi (AM), that is “year of the world.” The Seleucid era dates from the return of Seleucus I Nicator to Babylon in 311 BCE after his exile in Ptolemaic Egypt, considered by Seleucus and his court to mark the founding of the Seleucid Empire. Maimonides wanted a fixed starting point that was connected with Torah, and not with some foreign empire.
Occasionally in Talmudic writings, reference was made to starting points for eras, that were linked to Jewish history, such as Destruction Era dating, being the number of years since the 70 CE destruction of the Second Temple, or Creation Era dating based on calculations in the Seder Olam Rabbah of Rabbi Jose ben Halafta of 160 CE. By his calculation, based on the Masoretic Text, Adam was created in 3760 BCE.
According to Maimonides’ reckoning, the beginning of AM 1 is not Creation, but about one year before Creation, with the new moon of its first month (Tishrei) to be called molad tohu, the new moon of “tohu” (chaos or nothing). Maimonides used ben Halafta’s calculation, but added an extra year. Hence AM 1 is equivalent to 3761 BCE. Starting the calendar BEFORE Creation may seem odd, and I am not fully sure of the rationale. I believe it is an acknowledgement that before the Creation, God existed, and the additional year is simply symbolic of that fact. Starting with Creation might imply that God came into existence at that time as well. So . . . before Creation there was God. Marking the time period of God’s existence prior to Creation as one year has no deep theological meaning. It is a token.
Modern people are often hung up on the fact that God did not create the sun and moon until the 4th day, so how could days and years be reckoned prior to that? Surely days and years are based on the sun and moon? This is modern ethnocentric thinking in action. The answer is actually staggeringly simple, but usually overlooked (stay tuned for my next book). According to Genesis, God did not create the sun and moon to MAKE time; he created them to MARK time:
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years . . .’ ” (Genesis 1:14)
By this reasoning, time has always existed; the sun and moon merely act as markers to help humans keep track of it. The sun and moon are like celestial clocks to indicate the passage of time, which previously was known only to God. Simple!
Picking a recipe for today was exceptionally difficult. Maimonides was a doctor and wrote several volumes that included recipes of one sort or another as well as offering general advice about diet. Many of the detailed “recipes” were for medicines rather than food per se, and occasionally included ingredients such as rooster testicles and songbird brains. He is also famous for advocating chicken soup (“Jewish penicillin”) for respiratory distress. All well and good, but I presume most of my readers can either make chicken soup or can find a decent recipe. I finally decided on something associated with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, given that we are talking about the calendar. In the Ashkenazi tradition it is customary to eat something sweet, such as apples with honey, on this day to symbolize the hope for a sweet coming year. Tzimmes, with carrots, seems like a suitable recipe choice because it is traditional for Rosh Hashanah, and because Maimonides was an advocate of carrots. The simplest recipe involves nothing more than carrots in a honey glaze. Others add dried fruits, such as dates or raisins, and occasionally braised meat. Tzimmes is a tad sweet for my tastes but I find that it works well as a side dish alongside other more savory ones. The combination of orange juice and carrots is particularly felicitous. Make sure you cut the carrots into rounds to look like coins, symbolizing wealth in the coming year.
2 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons brown sugar
½ cup dried fruit such as golden raisins, apples, or cherries (or a combination)
½ cup orange juice
kosher salt to taste
Put all the ingredients in a pot and add water to just cover.
Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the carrots are tender, about 25 minutes.
Bring the liquid to a rapid boil and reduce until it makes a thick glaze.
Yield: 6-8 servings