Tuesday 31 October 2017

The Jewish Count from Creation

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                              The Jewish Count from Creation (5778)

             Nowhere in Tanakh is anyone counting the year from creation. What is the origin of this counting method?
           As further background, if one looks at how Jews dated events in the Amoraic and Geonic periods, we see a contrast between the Jewish community of Palestine and that of Babylonia.  In Amoraic and Geonic Palestine, Jews counted mainly from the second churban.  Either 69 or 70 C.E. was year 1. We know this from many Jewish tombstones from the town of Zoar (south of the Dead Sea). For example, one reads: “May the soul rest of Shaul...who died on the first of the month of Marcheshvan of the first year of the shemitah, the year 364 after the churban beit ha-mikdash.” There are many more tombstones from this site, mostly from the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., and all use a date on the churban beit ha-mikdash count. Another example of a churban beit ha-mikdash count in Palestine is a sixth century inscription found at a synagogue in the Galilee: “built 494 years after the churban beit ha-mikdash.”
          In contrast, in Amoraic and Geonic Babylonia, the main dating system used by the Jews was minyan shetarot (=“the count of contracts”). This was a counting system used in much of the secular world at the time; its name in the secular world was “the Seleucid Era.” Its year one was 312 B.C.E., due to a military victory in Gaza by Seleucus I in that year.  (In some regions, 311 B.C.E. was year one on this system.) Seleucus I had been a general to Alexander the Great.
          We do have evidence from the Talmud that there was knowledge of the Jewish year from creation in the Amoraic period in both Palestine and Babylonia, but it seems not to have been the most commonly used method of dating in either region. (The Talmud, at Avodah Zarah 9b, also refers to one source from the late Tannaitic period that reflects use of the date from creation.)
           How did the Jews in the late Tannaitic and Amoraic periods get their knowledge of what year it was from creation? The starting point is the work Seder Olam, put into final form by R. Yose b. Halafta in the 2nd century C.E. Although this work does not give the total of the years from creation, it gives the length of time for each of the individual periods mentioned in Tanakh, and it gives the length of the Second Temple period. From the data conveniently collected in this work, a Jew could easily calculate the date from creation. For example, Seder Olam starts with the following passage:  “From Adam to Noach, 1656 years.”  Here, the work has conveniently added up all the years listed at the beginning of Genesis.
         Although the lengths of all the different periods from Adam to the second churban are  listed in Seder Olam, it seems that R. Yose did not intend that people total them up and start using a count from creation based on his work. The conclusion of the work instructs people in Palestine to date from the second churban. It also remarks that people in the golah  (=Babylonia) date on the minyan shetarot system.
         But over time, the count from creation, based on the data in Seder Olam, came to be used more and more. Eventually, in the period of the Rishonim, it became the main count used by most Jewish communities. (Interesting is a passage in the Rambam, writing in Egypt in the late 12th century, where he provides the count on each of the three systems. See his Hilkhot Shemitah ve-Yovel 10:4.)
      We do not have enough sources to understand why the Jews slowly began to favor the count from creation. It has been theorized that it was a response to the fact that the Christians began using their own count from creation. (They calculated a different count from creation than us.) The result of the spread of the use of the Jewish count from creation among world Jewry was that world Jewry began to slowly unite behind one counting system. Perhaps this was one of the motivating factors for the shift to this count as well. The Jews in Babylonia had no tradition of a count from the second churban and the Jews in Palestine had abandoned the Seleucid era count in the second century. The count from creation, in contrast, was something that both societies were familiar with, even though it had not been in prevalent use.
         Interesting are tombstone inscriptions from a Jewish community in Italy from the 9th century. (In general, the Jewish customs in Italy followed the customs of Palestine.)  All twenty- three surviving inscriptions bear a date from the second churban but three bear an additional date on the count from creation. These inscriptions show that the date from the second churban was still the dominant chronology in the 9th century C.E. in the areas under the influence of Palestine, but the count from creation was slowly making some headway.
         It is unfortunate that, out of the 3 possible schemes, it was the count from creation scheme that became the mostly widely used one; it is the most problematic of the three. With regard to the other two, there is no dispute how long it is today from the second churban, and no dispute how long it is today from the beginning of the Seleucid era. (I am ignoring trivial issues of 1-2 years.)  The count from creation scheme, on the other hand, has difficulties with it.
          I am here only going to discuss the major difficulty with it. (In 1997, I authored a book on this topic: Jewish History in Conflict.)  When R. Yose in the 2nd century C.E. had to figure out the length of the Second Temple period, where did he get his data?  The Tanakh gives the data for the Biblical period, but the Biblical period only spans up to the mid- 5th century B.C.E. It stops in the middle of the Persian period.  To get the length of the entire Second Temple period, R. Yose had to rely on a prediction in the 9th chapter of Daniel, which refers to a future 490 year period, the endpoints of which are ambiguous. R. Yose interpreted this prediction as referring to a 70 year exilic period and a 420 year Second Temple period. He accordingly assigned 420 years to the Second Temple period. In truth however, the Second Temple period spanned 589 years, from 520 B.C.E (2nd year of Darius) until 70 C.E. (There is no year zero.) This means that our count from creation lacks 169 years if we focus solely on the Second Temple period. (On the other hand, R. Yose assigns 410 years to the First Temple period, and this is about 29 years too big. The First Temple period spanned 967-586 B.C.E.)  A 16th century  Italian Jewish scholar named Azariah de Rossi wrote much about the error in the count from creation due to the 420 versus 589 year problem, causing much controversy.
        Fortunately, in some contexts we use the phrase le-minyan she’anu monin kan, which would seem to cover ourselves for errors. (I.e., we are not claiming that our count is accurate, only that we are giving this specific date according to the way we count.)
       I mentioned earlier that in the Amoraic and Geonic periods in Palestine, the surviving sources mainly reflect a count from the second churban. There is one notable exception. A synagogue mosaic in the town of Susiya, in southern Judea, uses the count from creation. Unfortunately, the precise year inscribed has not survived. But a paleography expert has estimated the date of this particular mosaic inscription to be the sixth or seventh century.
       Finally, the system of counting that counts the present year as 2017 was invented by a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus (the latter word means “the humble”) in the early sixth century C.E. He did not like the system in use in his time which was pegged to Roman emperors who were notorious for persecuting Christians. Accordingly, he invented a system where year 1 was the year that Jesus was born. (But he was wrong in his assumed year of Jesus’ birth; Jesus was born a few years earlier.) It took about two hundred years for the counting system of Dionysius to become the standard one.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com  Since the Jewish count from creation is significantly incorrect and the 2017 count has a Christian origin, he thinks that we should consider going back to dating from the second churban.


Monday 30 October 2017

Palestinian Statue of Saddam is "A Poke in America's Eye," Leaders Say

From RRW
As published by the Jewish News Service - October 29, 2017

PALESTINIAN STATUE OF SADDAM IS "A POKE IN                                                                     AMERICA'S EYE," DIPLOMATS AND LEADERS SAY

by Rafael Medoff / JNS.org

   The unveiling of another statue of Saddam Hussein in Palestinian Authority (PA)-controlled territory is “a poke in America’s eye” and “an impediment to peace,” ex-diplomats and American Jewish leaders say.

   The Associated Press (AP) reported on Oct. 23 that a large statue of the late Iraqi dictator was recently unveiled on a major thoroughfare in the PA city of Qalqilya, with district governor Rafea Rawajbeh in attendance. The AP noted that there are statues of Saddam in “several other Palestinian towns” as well.

    According to Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, there is also a “Saddam Hussein Square” in both Jenin and the PA’s de facto capital of Ramallah, and a “Martyr Saddam Hussein School” in the PA village of Yaabad. Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, told JNS.org that during a visit to the area last year, he saw a Saddam statue “on the northern outskirts of Ramallah.” On an earlier visit, Nir said, he saw a Saddam monument in a village near Ramallah.

   Former Israeli ambassador and peace negotiator Alan Baker told JNS.org, “The Palestinian leadership feels that it has sufficient international clout that enables it to poke America in the eye...The fact that the U.S. negotiation team is running after the Palestinian leadership and fearful of anything that might annoy or offend them only strengthens the Palestinians in their determination.”

   Baker—who has also served as the deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry—recalled that during his years as a diplomat, neither the Clinton, Bush nor Obama administrations ever seriously protested anti-American statements or actions by the PA. 

   “That gave the PA the feeling that it had a ‘green light’ to continue such behavior,” Baker said.

   Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus, told JNS.org that he is “appalled, but not surprised that leaders of the Palestinian Authority would honor Saddam Hussein, a war criminal responsible for the deaths of thousands of U.S. troops.” Roskam added, “These same Palestinian leaders regularly incite, reward, and memorialize terrorists with Israeli and American blood on their hands. President [Mahmoud] Abbas and his government need to decide whether they stand with us in the fight against terrorism or prefer to foster a barbaric and terror-loving society.”

   A total of 4,791 American soldiers were killed fighting against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990, and in the Iraq War of 2003 and its aftermath.

   American Jewish leaders are strongly criticizing the PA’s continued embrace of Saddam. “The placing of this [latest] monument tells you everything you need to know about those who made the decision,” Daniel S. Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, told JNS.org. “Saddam brutalized his people, killing many thousands, including  using  chemical weapons. Venerating a dictator like Saddam speaks to the depravity of those who chose to ‘honor’ him.”

   AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann said in a statement to JNS.org that the Saddam statues are “incitement to violence” and “impediments to peace.” 

   To erect a statue of Saddam “is to advertise one’s moral bankruptcy,” said a leading Conservative rabbi, David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles. “The U.S. government should protest this outrage in the strongest terms.”

   Yoram Ettinger, a former minister for congressional affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, is urging the Trump administration to examine the PA’s use of the $357 million it received from the U.S. last year.

   “At a time when the U.S. is struggling with its own budget and cutting many domestic programs, the PA is using American taxpayers’ money for schools, squares, and statues honoring one of America’s most barbaric enemies,” Ettinger told JNS.org. 

   Ettinger said the PA’s affection for Saddam as well as dictatorships such as Iran, Cuba and North Korea “is a clear indication of the anti-U.S. direction which would be assumed by a Palestinian state.” Such a state would be “another anti-U.S. Arab entity which would destabilize the Middle East, and fueling subversion and terrorism, threatening vital American interests.”

   Peace Now’s Nir disagrees. While he “dislikes the choice” of Saddam as an object of veneration, Nir believes that the creation of a Palestinian state “should not be contingent on changing the hearts and minds of Palestinians.” Nir told JNS.org that Israel should reach a “contractual peace agreement” that would include a Palestinian state in most of the territories and part of Jerusalem, and “hopefully, an agreement would gradually change attitudes.”

   Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, said Nir’s position “would be playing roulette with Israel’s very existence.” If a Palestinian state is established, “Israel will be just nine miles wide and incredibly vulnerable,” Stern said. “We can’t just hope that the Palestinians gradually become peaceful. They have to prove that they have genuinely changed their ways before anyone starts asking millions of Israelis to risk their lives on that kind of gamble.”

   According to Palestinian Media Watch, there are many other sites, institutions and events in PA territory that are named after Saddam, including a monument in Beit Rima, a neighborhood in Vadi Barkin, a district branch of the Fatah movement in Jenin and a soccer tournament in Tulkarm. In 2005, the U.S. provided $402,000 to pave the main street in the town of Yaabad; two years later, the street was named after Saddam, in order to “emphasize the values of Arabness and Jihad,” according to the Yaabad municipality.

Thursday 19 October 2017

The Long Lifespans in Genesis

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
                                      The Longevity of the Ancients Recorded in Genesis

                 We all wonder about those long lifespans recorded at the beginning of Genesis. For example, we are told that Adam lived 930 years, that Shet lived 912 years-and that Metushelach lived 969 years. How have Jewish sources understood these numbers over the centuries?
                   The first Jewish source to address this issue was Josephus (late 1st century). Here is his statement in  Antiquities, book I:
                   “Nor let the reader, comparing the life of the ancients with our own and the brevity of its years, imagine that what is recorded of them is false…For, in the first place, they were beloved of God and the creatures of God himself; their diet too was more conducive to longevity: it was then natural that they should live so long. Again, alike for their merits and to promote the utility of their discoveries in astronomy and geometry, God would accord them a longer life….”
                   Now I will survey the views of our Geonim and Rishonim.
                   R. Saadiah Gaon (10th cent.) discusses this issue in his introduction to Tehillim. He writes that the longevity of these early generations was part of God’s plan for the rapid proliferation of mankind on the earth. The longer people lived, the more children they could have. It would seem that he believed that everyone in those early generations lived a long lifespan.
                  R. Yehudah Ha-Levi (12th cent.) discusses the issue in the Kuzari (sec. 95). He believes that it was only the individuals listed who lived long. Each of the individuals listed was the heart and essence of his generation and was physically and spiritually perfect. The Divine Flow was transmitted from one generation to another through these exceptional individuals.
                 Rambam, in a famous passage in the Guide to the Perplexed (II, chap. 47) writes:  “I say that only the persons named lived so long, whilst other people enjoyed the ordinary length of life. The men named were exceptions, either in consequence of different causes, as e.g., their food or mode of living, or by way of miracle.”
                Ramban (comm. to Gen. 5:4) quotes Rambam’s view and then disagrees, calling Rambam’s words “divrei ruach.” Ramban writes that the individuals with long lifespans named in the Bible were not exceptional in their lifespans. Rather, the entire world had long lifespans before the Flood. But after the Flood, the world atmosphere changed and this caused the gradual reduction in lifespans.
              Most of the Rishonim who discussed the issue thereafter followed the approach of either the Rambam or the Ramban. Either way, they were taking the Genesis lifespan numbers literally. (An underlying factor that motivated Rishonim to accept the Genesis lifespan numbers literally was that the count from creation was calculated based on these numbers.)
              Josephus had mentioned that one of the reasons that God allowed their longevity was to promote the utility of their discoveries in astronomy and geometry. This idea of longevity to enable the acquisition of knowledge and make discoveries (and write them to be passed down) is also included in several of our Rishonim. See, e.g., the commentary of the Radak to Gen. 5:4 and of the Ralbag to Gen. chap. 5 (p. 136), and the Rashbatz (R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran, Magen Avot, comm. to Avot 5:21).
       Rashbatz also mentions the idea that the early generations were close in time to Adam and Adam was not born from a “tipah seruchah” like the rest of us, but was made by God from the earth. Those early generations inherited his superior bodily constitution.        
       Another idea found in some of our Rishonim is that those early individuals did not chase after “ta’avat ha-guf,” which reduces the lifespan. See, e.g., the commentary of the Radak to Gen. 5:4.
      But there were some Rishonim who were unwilling to take the Genesis lifespan numbers literally.
     The earliest such source that we know of was R. Moses Ibn Tibbon (late 13th cent.) He suggests that the years given for people’s lives were actually the years of “malkhutam ve-nimuseihim,” i.e., the dynasties and/or customs that they established.
       Another figure who took such an approach was R. Levi ben Hayyim (early 14th cent.). First he mentions several of the possibilities to explain the longevity, e.g., good and simple food and “marrying late” (!). But then he concludes that in his opinion the names mentioned were just roshei avot. In other words, the number of years given for each individual reflects the total of the years of the several generations of individuals named for that first individual.
          R. Nissim of Marseilles (early 14th century) was another who did not take the numbers literally. He took the same approach as R. Moses Ibn Tibbon. The numbers did not indicate the lifespan of the specific individuals named. Rather, it included the total years of the descendants who followed his customs and lifestyle.     
            The most interesting approach I saw was that of R. Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Nathan ha-Bavli (14th century), in his work Tzafnat Paneach, pp. 29-30. (For information on him, see the article by Eric Lawee in the book Asufah Le-Yosef.) First, R. Eleazar refers to the view that perhaps the individual numbers were not to be taken literally, and points to other statements in the Torah that were not meant to be taken literally, e.g., 1) the Land of Israel was “flowing with milk and honey,” and 2) the cities in Canaan were “fortified up to the Heaven” (Deut. 1:28). (See further Moreh Nevuchim, II,47.)
            But then R. Eleazar suggests the following creative approach.  In listing these individual numbers, the Torah was merely recording the legends about these figures, even though they were not accurate. The important thing was to provide data from which the total years from Creation to Matan Torah could be derived, so that the people would be able to know the length of time between these two periods. Even though the numbers for the individual lifespans were not accurate, the Torah made sure that the total that would be arrived at would be accurate.  (In contrast, when it came to events from Avraham and forward, the Torah was careful to preserve a more accurate accounting.)          
            In modern times, one Orthodox scientist who has written much on this topic is Prof. Natan Aviezer of Bar-Ilan University. He discusses this topic in a post at the Bar Ilan University weekly parshah site for parshat Noach, 1998.  There he explains that modern science has figured out that aging is largely caused by genes, and not by a wearing out of our bodies. He then suggests that when God stated at Gen. 6:3 that man would be limited to 120 years, this was when God first introduced the gene for aging into the human gene pool.
             If you have not found any of the above answers satisfying, I have some good news. R. Saadiah Gaon writes (Emunot Ve-Deot, end of chap. 7) that in the era of the redemption the human lifespan will be approximately 500 years. Presumably, at that time we won’t be bothered by those long lifespans in Genesis anymore! 
           (Note that Radak, comm. to Is. 65:20, is a bit stingier. He predicts lifespans of only 300 to 500 years. See also his commentary to Ps. 92:15. But the 12th century Babylonian Gaon R. Samuel b. Ali predicts lifespans closer to 1000 years!)
            I would like to acknowledge that most of the material above came from an article by Prof. Daniel Lasker of Ben-Gurion University, in Mechkarim Be-Halakha U-Be-Mishpat Ha-Ivri, vol. 26-27 (2009-10). 
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com.  He aspires to longevity and hopes his children can tolerate him for that long.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Why They Keep Leaving Jews Out of the Holocaust

From RRW

As published in the Jerusalem Post - October 10, 2017



By Rafael Medoff

(Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 17 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.)

The Canadian government has announced it will correct a memorial plaque at its new National Holocaust Monument, which spoke of the “millions of men, women and children during the Holocaust,” but neglected to mention Jews. 

Unfortunately, Canadian Minister of Heritage Melanie Joly has compounded the original error, by announcing that the new plaque will acknowledge “the six million Jews, as well as the five million other victims, that were murdered during the Holocaust.”

There is, in fact, no historical basis for that “five million” figure. Yet it keeps cropping up, cited by people who apparently assume it’s true just because a lot of other people keep saying it is.

After critics blasted the Trump administration for neglecting to mention Jews in its January 2017 statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, White House spokesperson Hope Hicks said the administration was trying to be “inclusive of all those who suffered.” She then provided a link to a Huffington Post UK article titled “The Holocaust’s Forgotten Victims: the 5 Million Non-Jewish People Killed by the Nazis.”

A busy White House spokesperson doesn’t have time to start researching Holocaust statistics. That’s understandable. Evidently she assumed a reputable news outlet would not run such an article without basic fact-checking. Also understandable. But she was mistaken.

The author of the article was Louise Ridley, an assistant news editor at HuffPost UK who specializes in “media, social affairs and gender,” according to her tag line. Ridley described some of the groups that were persecuted, in differing degrees, by the Nazis, such as gays, Roma (Gypsies), and the disabled. Her list also included “communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, trade unionists, and resistance fighters.” And she pointed out that the Nazis murdered several thousand priests. The Nazis also murdered millions of Polish civilians and Soviet prisoners of war. In fact, the total number of non-Jews killed by the Hitler regime far surpasses five million.

But none of that was part of the Holocaust. The Germans murdered a lot of innocent people, for a variety of reasons. But the only ones who were targeted for complete annihilation, and whom the Nazis hunted down, in country after country, for the sole purpose of murdering them, were the Jews. The term “Holocaust” was coined to refer to that specific historical event.

Don’t blame Louise Ridley or Hope Hicks for the confusion. It was Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi-hunter, who was first responsible for spreading the “five million” figure. Confronted many years ago by Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, Wiesenthal said he invented the idea of “five million non-Jewish victims” because he thought it would help get non-Jews more interested in the Holocaust. One can understand Wiesenthal’s concern. But he chose the wrong way to address it.

The President’s Commission on the Holocaust, appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1978 and chaired by Elie Wiesel, specifically warned against “any attempt to dilute” the Jewish nature of the Holocaust “in the name of misguided universalism.”

But the Wiesenthal formulation appealed to White House aides who liked the idea of making the Holocaust more ecumenical, even at the price of historical accuracy. As a result, Carter’s October 1979 executive order establishing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council—which then created the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—referred to the Holocaust as “the systematic and State-sponsored extermination of six million Jews and some five million other peoples by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.”

Prof. Walter Reich, former executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, has written: “And so the executive order...officially defined the Holocaust in a way that realized Wiesel’s great fear–that the Holocaust would be defined as an event in which eleven million people, six million Jews and 5 million non-Jews, had been killed, and that the crucial distinction between the planned and systematic extermination of all Jews on racial grounds, and the killing of civilian non-Jews on, say, political grounds–in response to resistance, or because of acts of collective reprisal or brutality–would be lost.”

Simon Wiesenthal picked a number of non-Jewish victims that was high enough to seem substantial, but still a little less than the number of Jewish victims. He thought that formulation would still keep Jews as the primary focus. Evidently he didn’t realize how easy it would be for someone—even an American or Canadian government official—to slide down the slippery slope from “a Holocaust of Jews and non-Jews,” to a Holocaust without Jews at all. It’s just not that far from a Holocaust of everybody to a Holocaust of nobody in particular.