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ACUTE ANGLES. Pre-History Is Not Our Business

Dear Rabbi.  In a recent issue of Reader’s Digest, a quiz question asking when the Jewish calendar begins gave the answer as “the creation of the world”.  I always thought our calendar commenced with the creation of Man.  Am I wrong?  Yours, Brie.

Dear Brie,

You are 100% correct! Reader’s Digest is not the source of all wisdom, much as it believes itself to be!

Sadly the details make RD look even worse.  The question was part of a multiple-choice quiz on calendars around the world (Year By Year, July 2022, Australian edition) The question read: The Jewish calendar begins with (a) the creation of the world (b) the birth of Moses (c) the destruction of the Temple (d) the creation of Adam and Eve.  So the correct answer was even offered as an option.  Yet the answer page declared: (a)The Jewish calendar begins with the creation of the world which, according to tradition, is dated … some 5782 years ago.

Not so. Hebrew chronology dates from Man’s arrival on earth (according to one opinion it dates from Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden following the first Sabbath in history).

A key text in understanding this is Genesis 2:5. Following the Creation account the Torah tells us: No growth (following Rav S. R. Hirsch) of the field was yet [happening] on the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprouted. Rashi succinctly draws down the essence of what the Talmud (Chullin 60b)  says about that verse.  On the Third (Creation) Day about which it is written (1:12) “the earth brought forth vegetation, herbage yielding seed …”, these did not emerge from the earth on that day but they stood at the surface of the ground until the sixth day. What was the reason? Because G-D had not sent rain upon the earth. And why had He not sent rain? Because there was no man to work the soil!

There we have it in a nutshell. All of creation was made to serve the needs of Man. Until Man was created, G-D “froze” all of Creation. It was all there in potentia, awaiting the arrival of the pinnacle of creation, Man and Woman, in order to serve their needs as soon as they ‘arrived’ on the scene. The moon was still ‘negotiating’ with G-D about her role vis-à-vis the sun (also Chullin 60b). All this tells us in homiletic language that the celestial bodies too were not operating yet.    Only with the creation of Adam and Eve does time, as we know it, begin, and history with it!

In defining our calendar, Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta in Seder Olam Raba (c. 165 CE) records the calculations which are clearly based on the clear and unambiguous chronological records given in the Torah itself, beginning with Adam and Eve.. The first chronological statistic given in the Torah appears in Genesis 5:5. All the days that Adam lived were 930 years and he died.  From then on we are given impeccable records of early human history, Abraham’s family, Isaac’s family, Jacob’s extended family, namely Am Yisrael, right up until the return to Judea under Ezra to build the Second Temple.   All Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta had to do was compute the arithmetic!  It is highly likely that ketubot used the traditional dating of the Jewish year at least from this time and perhaps before. (The earliest extant ketuba dates from c.440BCE, discovered in Egypt and written on  papyrus. The text was formalised about 300 years later by the Sanhedrin led by R’ Shimon b. Shetach and an entire tractate of the Talmud is devoted to its intricacies.)

So the world is actually – as of this writing – 5,782 years old plus six Creation Days. (Rabbi Eli Munk: The Seven Days of the Beginning)

The six Creation days are a vital inclusion.  As we have seen, a Creation Day is not governed by the parameters of human chronology. The Six Days of Creation constitute pre-history.

They are not our business to delve into.  As Rashi notes:  all the subsequent Creation Days are labelled “second day” “third day”, “fourth day” etc. but the first is called Yom Echad. “One Day.” This can also mean “a day of the One”. A Creation Day is a Godly day. It could last for aeons (Psalms 90:4).  As Rambam (1135-1204) states: “creation is an area of study not to be expounded in public … since not everyone has the breadth of knowledge necessary to grasp the clear implications of these matters in a complete manner”  And as Rashi emphatically declares “the opening verse of the Torah is not there to teach the order of Creation” Had it wanted to tell us what happened “in the beginning”, the Torah would have begun with the word ba-rishona. Bereshit bara Elokim means “in the beginning of G-D’s creation of heaven and earth. We are not told what happened “in the beginning”. Nor are we informed how long a “Godly day is”  It is pre-Man and therefore pre-history.

Moreover, Rav Kook reminds us that according to Kabala, G-D had created previous universes and destroyed them. Our Sages also point to massive seismic shifts that occurred during the Great Flood which make it impossible to date archaeological relics with the remotest accuracy.

Thus there need be no conflict between Torah and science except when science dons the mantle of hubris, attempts to overreach itself and pretends to be able to say with any authority how many “millions of years” or “billions of years” any prehistoric phenomenon is, instead of conceding, as the faithful Jew does when faced with the mysteries of the Six Days of Creation, prior worlds or seismic diluvian shifts: We do not know.

Professor Google’s definition of prehistoric is “relating to or denoting the period before written records”. It is an excellent definition! It sets the boundaries of what we may meaningfully date. Note well that the earliest written records date back only just over five thousand years. In other words, the first  human civilisations emerged about 3,500 BCE. This is even according to secular sources. We know from the Torah that Adam was created 5,782 years ago, i.e. in 3,761BCE. No secular source can pinpoint any prior sign of civilisation.  Well, surprise, surprise!  Or rather, to the believing Jew, no surprise whatsoever!

So let us, once and for all, call out those who flippantly talk about roots “dating back 60,000 years” or “three-million-year-old fossils” as if these expressions had any meaning.. These nonsenses are just another way to try to remove G-D from human discourse. It is unconscionable that any self-respecting Jew should be a party to it.  What is prehistoric is prehistoric and cannot be expressed in terms of history or dates. The six Creation Days will forever remain a mystery.  Which is why it is so important to get it right that the Jewish calendar marks the beginning of human civilisation with the creation (not the evolution) of Man and Woman.  Readers, digest it well!

The 5,783rd  anniversary of Man’s creation will be celebrated by Jews all around the world  on the evening of Sunday 25th September 2022 when we shall embrace another Rosh HaShana.

May it be for us and for the whole world as a blessing and a precursor to the Final Redemption!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation