Rosh HaShanah and the establishment of religious epochal calendars

For more than 1.000 years all the world’s major calendars have included the year as well as the month and day. This seems normal to us but for most of recorded history calendars only recorded the month and day. The year was counted from the start of a king’s or a dynasty’s rule. When a new king or dynasty came along, a new yearly count was started again.

Only major religions that last for many centuries produce an epochal calendar that can outlast political kingdoms and empires. Thus, all the world’s major calendars today are based on a religious epoch. The oldest of the world’s religious epochal calendars is the Jewish calendar, which on September 14, 2015 will be at 5,776.

Christians know their calendar starts its epoch from the birth of Jesus.

Muslims know the Muslim calendar begins its epoch with the flight of Muhammad from Makkah to Medina.

Buddhists know that their epochal calendar starts with the enlightenment of Siddhartha while sitting under a Bodhi tree.

But most Jews would be hard pressed to explain what happened 5,776 years ago to begin the Jewish calendar.

By analogy to the Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist calendars one might expect that the Jewish calendar starts with the birth of Abraham or Sarah (the first Jews), or from the Exodus from Egypt (the trans-formative historical experience of the Jewish people), or from the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (the enlightenment of the Jewish people).

But the second century Rabbis who made up the calendar Jews currently use, chose to begin with Adam and Eve i.e. the beginning of written world history.

The word Adam in Hebrew means mankind/Homo Sapiens– the species. The exit of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden symbolizes the transition of humanity from a nomadic stone age society of hunter-gatherers into a more advanced metal working copper age society of farmers and village dwellers.

By starting the Jewish calendar with a historical transition that would have a universal impact on all of human society, the second century rabbis followed the lead of the Torah which begins not with Judaism, but with the rise of urban civilization and written history.

All historical dates from the first urban societies that are derived from written records fit into the Jewish calendar. In 3,700 BCE, the first century of the Jewish calendar, researchers recently concluded (Science News 9/21/13) Egypt started to evolve from a migrating population of cattle owners to a farming community of villages and a centralized state.

The earliest writing comes from the Mesopotamian city of Uruk (Genesis 10:10) and dates to about 55-56 centuries ago i.e. the third century of the Jewish calendar.

The first dynasty in Egypt arose in the 7th century of the Jewish calendar and king Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316 BCE) lived in the 14th century. The first historical dynasty in China, the Shang dynasty, dates back to the 22nd century, about the time that Abraham lived.

Only in the generations after Abraham does Biblical history begin to focus on the religious development of one specific people.

The Jewish calendar is not only the oldest of the world’s calendars, it is the only one that begins with the beginning of written human history. Everything prior to the Jewish calendar is prehistory or natural history.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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