May 21, 2024
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Counting Down From Destruction, Looking Forward to Redemption

The marriage documents from the Jews on the Greek island of Corfu are distinguished for using double dating, the year since creation (which all ketubot contain) and also the year since the destruction of the Temple (see photo).

The custom of calculating the years since the destruction of the Temple seems to have been a widespread one across the Balkans. The Greek-speaking Jews of Corfu, known as Romaniotes, traditionally saw themselves as direct descendants of slaves brought from Jerusalem to Southern Europe and the Balkans and they took great pride in that.

Sephardic Jews too often referred to their community as “the exiles from Jerusalem that are in Sepharad” mentioned in the book of Ovadiah.

Philologos writing in the Forward:

…When Ben-Yehuda began publishing his weekly Hebrew newspaper Hatsvi in Jerusalem in the autumn of 1884, the date on its first issue was: “Friday, 5 Heshvan, 1816 years since the destruction of the Temple, 5645.” (There was no Gregorian date at all.) This formula was followed in the first seven issues of Hatsvi, after which “5645” was dropped. From then on, the only year on the masthead referred to the destruction of the Second Temple, which Ben-Yehuda chose to date to the beginning of the Romans’ siege of Jerusalem in 68 C.E. rather than to their final victory in 70. In everything else that he published, including his monumental 16-volume dictionary, he followed the same system.

Ben-Yehuda was an ardently nationalistic Zionist and an equally ardent anti-religious secularist, and his method of dating served both ideologies, replacing a chronology that started with God’s creation of the world with one that started with the loss of Jewish political independence in antiquity. And yet, just as he was always looking for justifications in Hebrew sources for his many linguistic innovations, so was his dating rooted in the past. Counting the years from the destruction of the Temple was actually quite common among Jews in the early centuries of the Christian era and was a system used in many ancient Hebrew documents and contracts. Although its year zero was eventually replaced by that of Creation, traces of it can still be found in Sephardic and Yemenite prayer books. Thus, for example, in some Sephardic liturgies for the fast day of the Ninth of Av, the day of mourning for the Temple, there is the passage:

“Alas for the destruction of the Temple! Alas for the burning of the Torah! Alas for the murder of righteous Jews! Alas for the sorrow of the Messiah [in having his coming delayed]! Today is ____ number of years since the destruction of our holy shrine.”

A great scholar of the Cairo Genizah published many fragments from the Cairo Genizah that enabled him to piece together some of the customs and rites of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael in the medieval period.

One beautiful custom involved the following recitation at the conclusion of the weekly Shabbat prayers.

It is recited in Q&A format:

Today is the holy Sabbath.

What priestly shift was on duty today? Followed by the response from the assembled.

How many years since the creation of the world until today? Ibid

How many years since the destruction of the Temple until today? Ibid

Joel is an independent researcher of Jewish history—with a particular interest in the fluidity of Jewish subethnic and religious identity in the medieval and modern periods—and a translator of Hebrew text (he also misses being a scholar-in-residence during non COVID times). He can be reached at [email protected].

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