June 16, 2024
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Dating in Sura and Pumbedita

The first Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 2a) states that the first of Nisan is the Rosh Hashanah for kings, and Rav Chisda (a third-generation Amora, head of Sura academy, lived 217-309 CE) explains that the practical import is for the dating of Jewish legal contracts. He further clarifies (3b) that this refers only to the Jewish kings of Israel, but years for gentile kings of other nations are counted from Tishrei. However, his contemporary, Rav Yosef (b. Chiya, third generation, affiliated with Pumbedita academy, d. 333 CE) objects and maintains that this counting from Nisan even applies for gentile kings. (We’ll discuss Rav Pappa, 8a, next week.)

Why should this dispute arise specifically in the third scholastic generation? (Note though that it is also a dispute among different Amoraim in the Yerushalmi, such as Rabbi Eleazar b. Pedat, second generation, citing Rabbi Chanina b. Chama of the first generation.) Further, Rav Chisda’s prooftext is from the book of Nechemia, dating events of King Artaxerxes from Tishrei, while Rav Yosef’s prooftext is from the book of Chagai, dating events of King Darius from Nisan. A statement of Rabbi Abahu (third generation, situated in Israel) answers that Cyrus was righteous, so his dating is from Nisan. The Talmud brings a brayta that equates these three kings, an application of the closed canon approach. Alternatively, the intent could be that these three were equal in righteousness, such that we should reckon the reign of each from Nisan. Regardless, individual Amoraim don’t necessarily agree.

Historically, kings and empires imposed their own calendars. For instance (excerpting all this from Wikipedia on Iranian calendars), when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonian in 538 BCE, the Babylonian luni-solar calendar came into civil use. Darius, a Zoroastrian, accompanied Cambysis in conquering Egypt in 525 CE, and became ruler of the Persian empire in 517 CE. They adopted the wandering Egyptian solar calendar in which the year begins in the spring, Nisan. This persisted in the Persian Empire under the fall of the Parthian dynasty. In 224 CE, King Ardashir I of the new Sassanian dynasty abolished the existing official Babylonian calendar and replaced it with the Zoroastrian calendar. This shift included the first month being in the fall, in Tishrei.

This does not necessarily have bearing on Jewish law. The nations of the world may establish whatever calendars they want. Rav Chisda, in analyzing the Mishna, spoke of how Jewish legal documents were dated based on gentile kings. However, in interpreting Biblical verses, it seems eminently plausible that Cyrus, and especially Darius, would themselves date from Nisan and that the Biblical author followed that dating. Similarly, perhaps Artaxerxes is indeed a different king and his dating is from Tishrei, or whatever first calendrical month he followed.

Perhaps historical events, and which empire was presently ruling, did influence the writing of Jewish contract. The Mishna was composed and redacted in Israel while it was under Roman occupation. Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, the new Sassanian calendar went into effect in 224 CE. Sura academy was founded 225 CE. Also, King Shapur I of the Sassanid dynasty began his reign in 241 CE and, significantly, conquered the city of Sura in 253 CE. Other kings were: Hormozd I (began in 270); Bahram I (271); Bahram II (272); Bahram II (293); Narseh I (293); and Hormozd II (303).

Rav Chisda lived from 217-309 CE in Kafri, and was a student of Mar Ukva the Exilarch, who held court there. Karfri was a short distance south of Sura, and Rav Chisda associated with the Sura academy, as a colleague/student of Rav Huna. He became its head after Rav Huna’s death in 299 CE, for about a decade. Perhaps Sasanian culture and law had greater influence in Sura, and the frequent turnover of Sasanian monarchs provided repeated opportunity to consider how to date a given year. Meanwhile, Pumbedita was 108 miles away. Rabbi Dr. Elman discussed Amoraim as “Resistors” and “Accommodators” to Persian culture, and contrasts Rav Yehuda, of Pumbedita, who, e.g., opposed using Persian words, with Rav Nachman, of Nehardea, who regularly used it, and pointed to the respective geography of Pumbedita and Nehardea to partly explain it. Similarly here, Pumbedita might be more resistant to this secular dating for non-Jewish kings.

Tangentially, we have the curious case of Rav Pappa, a fifth-generation Amora, stating a gezeira shava, a verbal analogy based on a repeated rare word of phrase. This is surprising because of the general rule that אין אדם דן גזירה שווה מעצמו, a person cannot devise one’s own gezeira shava (Niddah 19b). If authentic, we’d expect a Tanna/earlier Amora to have mentioned it. There is an exception לקיים תלמודו, using it as a mere mnemonic or else fabricated interpretation to recall or prop up what one knew via tradition/other authentic derivational means, but this doesn’t seem to be how Rav Pappa uses it. However, I think that this isn’t a real gezeira shava, as a phrase (not word) in Ketuvim (not Torah) with narrative (not directly legal) concerns. Rav Pappa connects שְׁנַת עֶשְׂרִים in Nechemia 1:1, framing events, with its use in Nechemia 2:1. Retaining the same start-month is sensible in this juxtaposition. The Talmudic Narrator, following Rav Pappa’s precedent (2b), certainly innovates his gezeira shava, but similarly connects שְׁנַת אַרְבָּעִים at the very end of Bamidbar (33) to the very start of Devarim (1).


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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