Sermon: An Even Briefer History of Time – Shemot 2010

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 20 April 2011

So next Shabbat is the first day of January in the year 2011 of the Common Era. I knew that this Shabbat we would be likely to be of a certain age, there being no Bar Mitzvah to celebrate – so that for most of us 2000 and anything feels remarkably futuristic.

2011 and yet none of us are wearing the nylon Jump-suits which filled the imagery of films and other works of science fiction set in the year 2000 as pictured in my youth. None of us arrived to Synagogue this morning in a flying car – all were firmly attached to the ground however useful a flying car might have been in the past couple of week’s snowy weather. Nor are we fortunate survivors of the inevitable Nuclear Holocaust horrifyingly predicted for the first thirty years or so after the Second World War.  Temple Fortune is not under Soviet Domination – and nor is Barnet Council our local extension of the politburo in Moscow.

The year two thousand and eleven is for Jews like us – who live in the modern secular world as well as within a millennia old Jewish tradition – both significant and essentially insignificant. It is significant because we have all grown up with the feeling ingrained in our culture that the dawning of the twenty first century is worthy of note. Business have been named after it, literature has been inspired by its coming. It has been both feared and welcomed – as a time for new beginnings – leaving the worst of the twentieth century behind – murderous racism, thoughtless exploitation of the natural environment and, if the Department of Health is to be credited – smoking – to name but three issues. It has been a time to move forward with the best of the twentieth century to propel us – equality, global communication, leisure for the many to again name but three.

But for the Jew the date is also insignificant – living our Jewish lives as we do in the middle of our sixth millennium. This year is, of course for Judaism the year 5771, for Islam it is 1432. It is only the economic success of the countries which use the Christian dating system that makes this the year 2011 for the majority of the world, even in Israel. But one surprising thing about the Christian Chronology, which makes this the year 2011 next week is that it is the oldest of the three dating systems.

The Christian chronology was devised, by the monk Dionysius Exiguus who was commissioned as a result of the church’s Nicean council in the year 523 of his dating system – which he called Anno Domini – to create a permanent solution to the fixing of the date of Easter. Whilst he was engaged in this project he also created a method of measuring time from the birth of Jesus which also fitted in with the Roman calendar introduced in the time of Julius Caesar and from which we still measure our months. This Julian calendar was modified by Pope Gregory 13 in 1582 in order to deal with the loss of one day every 128 years which was inherent in the Julian calendar, hence we call it the Gregorian calendar. Dionysius’ Anno Domini chronology replaced the Ab Urbe Condita system which had been in general use throughout the Roman empire up to that point. This system measured time from the foundation of the city of Rome and Dionysius fixed the birth of Jesus at 25th  December 753 Ab Urbe Condita.

This, as most people are aware, cannot have been the real date for Jesus’s birth as King Herod, during whose reign he is reported to have been born died in the year 750 Ab Urbe Condita which corresponds to the year 3 or 4 BCE. It is thought that Dionysius’s error may have come from one of two sources. In the Book of Luke (3.1+23) Jesus is said to have been about 30 during the fifteenth year of the Roman emperor Tiberius – which would have him born in 753 Ab Urbe Condita.

Secondly the date of Easter and the other Lunar based Christian festivals occur on the same dates on the Julian calendar every 523 years. So by choosing to start his Christian chronology 523 before The date of his own calculations – that is, by fixing his own time at the year 523AD Dionysius made his task of calculating Easter that much earlier – even if he did miss the actual birth date of Jesus by a few years in the process.

The Muslim Chronology has this year as 1432. It was created a century after the Christian chronology in the year 638 by the Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattav. He set the beginning of Muslim time at what we call the Anno Domini year of 622 – to be precise the sixteenth of July 622. The significance of this date is that it marks the Hijra of Mohammed from Mecca to Medinah – the time when he set out from Meccah to spread the message of his Islamic revelation to the city of Medinah leaving behind his previous life. In Latin the Muslim Chronology is therefore designated Anno Hegirah and so Muslim dates are found in many texts with the letters AH after them. The mental arithmeticians among you may have been subtracting the year 622 from the year 2010 and wondering why you do not get to 1432. That is because the Muslim year is entirely based on the cycles of the Moon without any of the compensating mechanisms that ensure that the Jewish year parallels reasonably closely the solar year. This means that the Muslim year is shorter than the solar year by eleven days each year. Muslim festivals are therefore not tied to any one season and there is no simple conversion from the Christian to the Muslim year – as there is for the greater part of the Jewish year – add 240 and subtract 4000. The exact timing of the festivals is set locally for Muslims by direct observation of the moon and not by formulae as is the timing of Jewish festivals.

The Jewish chronology is, as I said earlier the latest of the three systems. Yes it may well count back the furthest making this year 5771 but it was not in general use as a dating system until at least the Ninth Century of the Common Era. The earliest attestation of the current Jewish dating system is found on tombstones dating from the years 822-827 of the Common Era in the catacombs of Venusa in Southern Italy. The system was not in widespread use amongst Jews until the Twelfth Century of the Common Era at the earliest. The Jewish system purports to count from the creation of the world calculated by adding up the ages of the characters of the Bible from Adam onwards having taken into account overlapping generations and then enhancing the resultant figure with known post biblical history. In Hebrew the system is called Minyan L’Yetzirah – counting from creation and in Latin Anno Mundi – year of the world – so in some texts you will find the Jewish date with the letters AM after it. Before the Anno Mundi system came into general use the chronology which Jews previously used was based on a single incident that happened on a specific date.

From hearing today’s Torah portion you might have thought that that incident was the call of Moses, or perhaps the call of Abraham or the assembly of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai – but no. The date was 312 Before the Common Era and the incident was the victory of the Greek general Selucus Nicator in Gaza which brought about the rule of the Selucid Greeks over the land of Israel. The victory and the dating system which resulted is mentioned in the first chapter of the Book of Maccabees, which is a chronicle of the downfall of the Selucid Greeks in Israel. So generally accepted was the counting of the years by this method among Jews that Yemenite Jews were still counting their years from Selucus’s victory in the Nineteenth Century as did most Sephardi Jewish communities until the end of the Middle Ages. The system is called Minyan Shetarot – meaning dating for official documents – and that is what it was used for from before the Hasmonean Era onwards. Whilst both the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9b) and the Seder Olam Rabbah – a Jewish history book from the Third century contain the calculations which would enable counting Jewish time according to our present Anno Mundi system, this was just a matter of pietistic interest rather than an accepted dating system for a good six hundred years.

There were a number of other chronologies which were popular within Judaism for a time -: counting the years from the destruction of the Second Temple was one – and there are documents from the late tenth century in existence (Cairo Geniza 987) which date in this way. Counting from the beginning of the reign of a King was another – the beginning of the  Book of Jeremiah, is just one example where we are told that Jeremiah was born in the thirteenth year of King Josiah . The Books of Haggai and, Zechariah count the date in terms of the year of the Persian King since there was no longer a King over Israel.

With all of these possible systems available what is the significance of Jews and Judaism having accepted the Anno Mundi or Minyan Yetzirah system of counting from the creation of the world? Firstly, when compared with the Muslim or Christian systems, and remember that it was actually developed after they were already in general use, the Anno Mundi system communicates the considerably greater age of our religion – in a faith where the antiquity of our roots is of great importance. Secondly it demonstrates that Judaism is not based on the birth or growth or actions of one individual, moments in whose life provide the starting point for the other systems rather, in Judaism no person is destined to be closer to God than any other. Thirdly the Anno Mundi system is based on a universal event – the creation of the world, rather than an event particular to our Jewish religion. This shows that Judaism does not exclude those who do not wish to follow our particular route to doing God’s will from the life of the righteous.

0f course we know perfectly well that the figure 5771 has nothing to do scientifically with the age of the earth. We have known this since 1795 when James Hutton published his Theory of the Earth. Whilst it took over half a Century for his theory that geology could prove that the earth was millions not thousands of years old to be accepted – his discovery is one of the foundations of the modern world within which Reform Judaism lives. So what then is the point of our using the Jewish dating system when we know it not to be scientifically accurate?

Its point is the basing of Jewish time in the literature of our people It grounds us in the Torah, in the Jewish legend of the world and the message of a universal mission of a particular people which flows from our source legends. It is a message which flows from the Garden of Eden in the Jewish year zero, through the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, through Moses and Sinai, through the Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah through our struggles and our creativity as subjects of both oppressive and beneficent empires, through Rabbinic literature and the lives of our ancestors, through our encounter with modernity to the present day. And now, as we prepare to join our fellow citizens in the year 2011 – let us continue to make our Jewish contribution to the future of the world, for good, for peace and for the hope of a better future whatever the date may be