Every Jewish calendar says this is the 5769th year from creation. But is it? More importantly, did Jews always count years this way?
Palestinians busted trying to sell 2,000 year-old Hebrew scroll
By Jonathan Lis, Haaretz
Two Palestinians were arrested Tuesday for allegedly stealing a rare antique Hebrew scroll and attempting to sell it for millions of dollars.
Police apprehended the two suspects in Jerusalem after an intelligence tip allowed police forces to trace their tracks and intercept the document's sale.
The rare historical document, handwritten in Hebrew on papyrus paper and estimated to be more than 2,000 years old, is a bill surrendering property rights. The document was written by a widow named Miryam Ben Yaakov, and hails from a period in which the people of Israel were exiled from the area and very few Jews remained.
The scroll also, unusually, clearly indicates a precise date on the first line: "Year 4 to the destruction of Israel". The intention is, presumably, either to the year 74 C.E. (the year when the Second Temple was destroyed during the Great Revolt) or to 138 A.D. (the annihilation of the Jewish settlement following the Bar Kokhva revolt).
The Israel Antiquities Authority said on Wednesday that the scroll was an "exceptional archeological document, of the like but a few exist," adding that similar scrolls had been sold worldwide for sums as high as $5-$10 million.
The IAA estimated that the seized document was indeed authentic, but the final verdict will arrive only after it returns from a series of laboratory tests.
The document was apparently stolen from a cave within Israel's borders where antiquities raiders were digging.
"We don't know from which cave it was exactly stolen, "said Amir Nur, director of the anti-antiquities theft division.
"If we had known we would have searched for more scrolls in that area."
Police investigator Eli Cohen said Wednesday that officers was looking into how the suspects arrived at the scroll, and were they involved in other antiquities robberies.
The current scroll came undone somewhat while it was excavated, something which wouldn't have happened, according to the AA, if it would have been removed in a professional excavation.
According to the Antiquities Authorities' law all of the archeological artifacts within Israel's borders, excavated or otherwise, are state property and fall under the responsibility of the Antiquities Authority.
In fact, any trading in artifacts is considered illegal in Israel, with the exception of a small number of cases authorized by the IAA.
For most of the time before the destruction of the Temple, Jews dated their legal documents by the year of the king's rule or, when their was no king, by the year of the High Priest's reign.
After the destruction, they dated them in years from the destruction – except for the brief time Bar Kokhba ruled. During his rule Jews dated documents by the year of his rule.
This pattern continued until approximately 1000 CE, when our current system became standard. This true even though Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, a teacher of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, (apparently) calculated the years from creation in Seder Olam Rabba in approximately 160 CE. But that calculation was not used for dating legal documents until many years later.
The point is, there is no tradional count calculating the supposed age of the universe pre-dating rabbinic Judaism, and even the calculation of Yose ben Halafta was not accepted as usable for legal dating until many years afterward.
The hardening of this near-6000 year old date came in part from the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria. The Ari dismissed ancient Jewish teaching about a very old universe, instead insisting those many thousands of years (or billions in one ancient calculation) were all "spiritual" and had no physical presence. In the Ari's mind, the world was physically young.
The Ari's system of kabbala became the accepted for of Jewish mysticism and served as the basis for the messianic pretentions of Shabbatai Tzvi and the theology of the hasidic movement. It also became the normative kabbala of the non-hasidic rabbinic elite in both Europe and the Middle East. This coincided with Christian attempts to date creation, the most famous of which is that of James Ussher, which roughly corresponds to Yose ben Halafta's.
This, I think, led to the notion that a near-6000 year old universe was an undisputable halakhic fact even though nothing could be further from the truth.
When certain haredi rabbis – Rabbi Elyashiv, for example – insist that a 5769 year old universe is the halakha, and that any devience from it is heresy, they are basing this 'halakhic' judgment on very flimsy grounds.