Judaism: Why Do We Live in the Year 5765?
Moshe LermanMoshe Lerman writes from Enav, in northern Samaria. Enav is expanding; contact Moshe for contributions to the Building Fund.
I therefore offer my humble ideas about the matter of the years in the trust that we live in the time about which is written: "For the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end. Many shall purify themselves, and make themselves white, and be tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly. And none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand." (Daniel 12: 9-10)
The Babylonian exile brought the Jewish sages and prophets into contact with the sages of Babylonia, who possessed advanced astronomical wisdom. Importantly, they knew the exact timing of the solar equinox events, the times when the Sun - twice yearly - passes the equator. This subject was of great interest to the Jewish exiles, because of a tradition that the Sun was created at the spring-equinox position, on the fourth day of Creation, which was the fourth day of the first week of the first month (Nissan) of the first year.
At the time, the accepted wisdom of the world was that 19 solar years have exactly 235 lunar months and that a solar year is 365.25 days. An immediate mathematical consequence of the latter is that every 28 years the equinoxes are at the same hour of the same day of the week (28 quarter days make a full week).
After the initial return to the Land of Israel, during the first decennia after the completion of the second Beit HaMikdash, it seems that Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly (Knesset HaGedolah) applied their knowledge in an exceptionally brilliant way.
The creativity of the sages was spurred by observations regarding the spring equinox. Given astronomical facts, these observations could have been made in a limited number of years in a relatively short historical period. For the sake of clarity I will restrict myself to two likely candidates: I will assume that the starting points of the sages' reasoning were the spring equinoxes of the years 9 and 13 after the completion of the second Beit HaMikdash. I will denote these years as 9 ABS and 13 ABS (After Bayit Sheni).
In the year 9 ABS, the spring equinox was on the fourth day of the week, in the first part of the night from Tuesday to Wednesday. In the year 13 ABS, four years later, the equinox was on the fourth day of the month Nissan, at virtually the same hour of the early night.
The sages surmised that the absolute year count of the year 13 ABS had to be a multiple of 19 plus one. After all, in the year one - by assumption the year of the Sun's creation - the equinox had been on the fourth of Nissan, and that situation repeats itself only and exactly every 19 years. Similarly, they concluded that the absolute year count of the year 9 ABS had to be a multiple of 28 plus one. After all, in year one the equinox had been on the fourth day of the week, and that situation repeats itself only and exactly every 28 years. Conversely, the sages could deduce from the reality of their day that the equinox of year one had been early in the night.
In other words, the sages specified what we know in the Jewish calendar as the Machzor HaKatan (the 19-year cycle) and the Machzor HaGadol (the 28-year cycle). The Machzor HaKatan is the basis for the determination of the leap years of the Jewish calendar, and therefore plays an essential role in Jewish law. By contrast, the Machzor HaGadol has no intrinsic function, but our sages gave it an artificial role by assigning to it a Halacha of its own. The Talmud states the following teaching:
"One who sees the Sun at the beginning of its cycle should say the blessing "blessed is the Maker of Creation". When does this happen? Abaye said: "Every 28 years the cycle begins again and the Nissan equinox falls in Shabtai, on the evening of Tuesday, the night before Wednesday." (Berachot 59)
In other words, the sages ordained that every 28 years - to be precise, every 10227 (28 times 365.25) days - a blessing should be recited to commemorate the beginning of a new cycle of the Machzor HaGadol.
Interestingly, the teaching specifies the detailed timing of the relevant equinox: Shabtai is the beginning of the night that starts the fourth day of the week, in accordance with the reality of the year 9 ABS. The teaching insinuates that every 28 years the equinox would return to this specific hour on the fourth day of the week. The truth, however, is that after the time of the Knesset HaGedolah this would never again be the case, the reason being that the solar year is a little (0.0078 days) shorter than 365.25 days.
We now live some 2350 years after the period in which the above teaching was literally true. A simple computation shows that the cycle of the Machzor HaGadol shifted some 18.3 days in 2350 years, 0.0078 days per year. Nowadays, we say the Blessing of the Sun on April 8 of years that are a multiple of 28 plus one. Note that the Machzor HaGadol has no direct relation with the lunar calendar. Hence, the date of the Blessing of the Sun varies in the Jewish calendar; it can be in virtually all of the month of Nissan. By contrast, it is on a fixed date in the solar calendar - except for the slow shift that we are discussing here. The next time we will say the Blessing of the Sun will be in the year 5769, when 18.3 days after the spring equinox (March 20, 1.44 pm, Jerusalem time) will indeed end up early in the night from Tuesday April 7 to Wednesday April 8.
The spring equinox moved similarly away from the fourth of Nissan of the first year of the Machzor HaKatan, because a solar year is a little (0.00462 days) shorter than the formula of 235 months per 19 years implies. After 2350 years, the shift accumulated to 10.8 days. In agreement with this, the fourth of Nissan of the first year of the Machzor HaKatan is now alternating between March 31 and April 1.
In summary, the available data quite definitively indicates that the Blessing of the Sun was instituted about 2350 years ago, very close to the time of the gathering of the Knesset HaGedolah. This is a very nice insight, but it does not solve a burning and often asked question about the Blessing of the Sun. The obligation to say this blessing seems a purely technical Halacha, devoid of any substance. After all, it seems obvious that there is nothing special about the one day per 28 years that the Halacha applies. What could be its purpose?
I will argue that the best answer is hidden in another enactment of the Men of the Knesset HaGedolah. The reader is warned that in the process we will discover something that comes very close to a definite refutation of a commonly held belief among religious Jews.
Why is the current year 5765 after Creation? Did indeed 5765 years pass since Creation? Who determined the year count and how?
Most likely, an official year count did not exist before and during the time of the first Beit HaMikdash. The lack of a reliable tradition in this area did not deter the Men of the Knesset HaGedolah. They brilliantly understood that the correct year count could be derived from astronomical data.
I propose that they reasoned as follows. They pointed out that the year that was 228 (12 times 19) years before 13 ABS was also 224 (8 times 28) years before 9 ABS. Because of its distance from 13 ABS, its absolute year count had to be a multiple of 19 plus one, and because of its distance from 9 ABS, its absolute year count had to be a multiple of 28 plus one. Therefore, the year count of the year that was 224 years before the year 9 ABS had to be one plus a multiple of 532, 19 times 28. The sages decided that this special year was the year 3193 after Creation. They had in fact little choice; 532 years more or 532 years less than 3193 were the closest other options, but these numbers were quite manifestly less acceptable in the light of biblical history.
From the retroactive identification of the year 3193 it followed that the second Beit HaMikdash had been completed in the year 3408. Therefore, the year 9 ABS became the year 3417, and year 13 ABS became year 3421. And this, my reader, is why we now live in the year 5765.
In summary, the Jewish year count was established using the ingredients of the halacha of the Blessing of the Sun: the Machzor HaGadol and the timing of the spring equinox. This is a strong indication that the Blessing of the Sun and the enactment of the year count came from the same genius, very likely one of sages of the Knesset HaGedolah. Though this seems an interesting contention, how could this shed light on the purpose of the Blessing of the Sun?
The above reflections seemingly suffer from an internal contradiction. We explicitly assumed that the sages knew the precise timing of the spring equinox. The assumption is in fact strengthened by the above Talmudic teaching, which confirms that indeed they knew. How then could they believe that the year has exactly 365.25 days? They must have observed that the distance between adjacent spring equinoxes is a little less than 365.25 days!
It is clear that our sages knew that the year is not exactly 365.25 days. They did therefore not really think that the year count that they established was correct with respect to the past. Quite likely, they were not at all interested in the past. Their responsibility was to establish and maintain Jewish unity in a troubled period in which most Jews continued to live in Exile. The sages worried about the future rather than the past, and wanted to establish a year count that would be accepted by all Jews as a common reference, until the end of time. The above construction of the "correct" year after Creation therefore certainly served its purpose. It must have been brilliantly persuasive in the ancient world.
This, however, raises another question. Our sages were no politicians or salesmen. They were Torah scholars, extremely truthful men. Is it conceivable that they lied to achieve a measure of unity? Our sages did not really cover up anything. They merely hid certain things from the average Jew. Students of kabbalah and astronomy have always silently known that the age of the world is not according to common belief.
In this context, I would like to suggest that the purpose of above teaching goes beyond the establishment of a Halacha, and is a precious hint from our truthful sages. In this view, the seemingly esoteric Blessing of the Sun in fact has a profound purpose: It conserved for thousands of years the true background of the Jewish year count.