Misconception: Jews have always counted years the way it is done today:
Fact: Throughout Jewish history, a variety of systems have been employed.
Background: For the purpose of keeping track of time and dating legal documents such as loans, ketubot and gittin, there must be a standardized system for counting years. Documents dated using the prevalent Jewish system indicate the current year as 5780,1 meaning that it is now 5,780 years since
Creation. But Jews have not always counted using a system of dating from Creation. Historically, there have been a variety of methods employed, with this system being relatively recent.
Any system of tracking years requires a starting point, known as an epoch. For example, the Islamic calendar (Hijri) starts with Muhammad’s arrival at the city of Medina in 622 ce. The widespread method in the Western world today, which ostensibly2 starts with the year Yeshu was born, was introduced in 525 ce. This replaced the prior system in which the year count was based upon the reigning consul, a system not dissimilar to what the Jews used for centuries. A convention used in ancient Rome was abbreviated as the AUC system, which stood for “ab urbe condita—meaning from the founding of the city” or “anno urbis conditæ—in the year since the city’s founding.” The assumption was that the city of Rome was founded in 753 bce and that was taken as AUC 1. The Roman Empire was founded in 27 bce, (i.e. AUC 727).
The earliest year-counting system used by the Jewish people, found in Tanach, counted from Yetziat Mitzrayim. For example, Sefer Bamidbar opens by declaring that the events described occurred “on the first day of the second month in the second year after the Exodus” (1:1). This system continued for hundreds of years up until the building of the First Temple, 480 years after the Exodus (I Kings 6:1). Following the building of the Beit Hamikdash, events were also dated from the commencement of the construction of the First Temple (e.g., I Kings 9:10). In addition, events were dated in relation to the reign of a monarch (e.g., I Kings 15:28 and II Kings 18:1).3
A summary of the methods used to count years until the Talmudic period is given in the Mechilta (on Parashat Yitro 19:1) and in the Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 1:1 [1b]),4 where it states that initially counting was from the Exodus, then from the building of the First Temple. After the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews counted from the start of the exile (i.e., Ezekiel 40:1),5 and finally they began counting from non-Jewish monarchs (i.e., Chaggai 1:1), a practice criticized by the Tzedukim (Sadducees) (Yadayim 4:8).6 It is noteworthy that in these sources there is no mention of a system of counting from Creation.
Post-Churban Bayit Sheni, some Jews counted from the second Churban. An amazing collection of tombstones dating from 351 to 577 ce were discovered in Zoar, southeast of the Dead Sea. The inscriptions on the Christian tombstones use the calendar of the Roman province of Arabia, which began in 106 ce. The inscriptions on the Jewish tombstones, which are in Aramaic, used a Jewish lunar calendar that counted from the second Churban, and noted the year number in the seven-year shemittah cycle, as in the Book of Jubilees.7
During the late Second Temple period and shortly thereafter, several short-lived year counting systems were adopted. For example, a get written on Masada is dated “year six” and scholars contend it was written in 111 ce, the starting point being 106 ce, the year the provinces of Arabia and Bostra were incorporated into the Roman Empire (era of the Provincial Arabia).8 Coins minted during the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 ce) were dated from the beginning of the revolt. The coins include inscriptions such as “year one of the redemption of Israel” or “year two of the freedom of Israel,” similar to the way some people today write on a wedding invitation, “seventy-one years since Israel’s independence” or “fifty-two years since the liberation of Jerusalem.”
In addition to the short-lived year counting systems, one more system developed in the mid-Second Temple period, known as Minyan Shetarot (“accounting of documents”) or l’malchut Alexandrus, known in the secular world as the Seleucid era (SE), which lasted for many centuries.9
The starting point for this system relates to the founding of the Seleucid monarchy in Syria, the year that Seleucus I Nicator (Alexander the Great’s general) returned to his then-capital Babylon after solidifying his claim to a piece of the now-deceased Alexander the Great’s empire. Seleucus’ son, Antiocus I, rather than begin counting anew as was customary for rulers, continued the year count from his father’s reign, thus initiating the Seleucid era. Jewish tradition also calls the system “l’malchut Alexandrus” and some sources erroneously attribute the starting date to Alexander the Great, although he actually died in 323 bce or -11 se.
During the Talmudic period (third to fifth centuries ce) the method of dating documents seems to have differed between the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. Rashi (Avodah Zarah 9a, s.v. tzeh), commenting on a baraita which reflects practices in the post-Temple Land of Israel, implies that the standard method of reckoning years in Eretz Yisrael was counting from the destruction of the Second Temple. Outside of Eretz Yisrael, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 10a) records, in the name of Rav Nachman, that one should count years from [the beginning of the era of] the Greek kings (i.e., Minyan Shetarot). However, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a) recognized that during the Talmudic period Jews were using a variety of counting methods and therefore it provides the conversion factors between the Seleucid system, the count from Creation and the count from the Second Temple’s destruction.
In the immediate post-Talmudic era, Minyan Shetarot continued to be used, as did dating from the second Churban. At some point Jews also started counting from Creation and thus, in the early Medieval period, all three systems were in use. When Rambam wanted to make clear which year was a shemittah year, he used all three systems. He wrote (Hilchot Shemittah v’Yovel 10:4): “According to this calculation, this year, which is 1107 from the [second] Churban, which is 1487 according to Minyan Shetarot, which is 4936 [1176 ce] to Creation, is a shemittah year and is year twenty-one in the yovel cycle.” It seems that in twelfth-century Egypt, all three of those systems were in use.
For most Jews, dating from Churban Bayit Sheni went out of style long ago; however, Romaniotes (descendants of the original Greek Jewish community) used this system until recently. A poignant example is a ketubah from Corfu10 dated “Friday, the fourth of Sivan, 5704 to Creation, and 1876 to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, may it be built speedily in our days and the days of all of Israel, Amen, according to the dating system we are accustomed to use here, the city of Corfu.” That date corresponds to May 26, 1944, just two weeks before the Nazi’s order to round up all the Jews of Corfu for deportation on June 9, 1944.
Minyan Shetarot continued to be used by Jews in some Sephardic countries, particularly in Egypt, until several hundred years ago. Rambam says (Hilchot Gerushin 1:25) that in twelfth-century Egypt when writing a get, all Jews counted either from Creation or from Minyan Shetarot, and thus he gives the option of using either (Hilchot Gerushin 4:12). As is the case today, Jews often also used the local secular calendar,11 and thus one can find documents in the Cairo Genizah that used the Islamic calendar alongside the dominant Minyan Shetarot.
The earliest year-counting system used by the Jewish people, found in Tanach, counted from Yetziat Mitzrayim.
Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (the Chida, 1724-1807) wrote that one of the accomplishments of the great sixteenth-century halachic authority Rabbi David ben Shelomo ibn Zimra (Radbaz, 1479-1573), in addition to writing more than 3,000 responsa, was that he abolished the use of Minyan Shetarot in Egypt (Shem Hagedolim, vol. 1, dalet:16, p. 19a).12
A significant exception to the abolition of Minyan Shetarot was in Yemen, where it continued to be the exclusive system used until modern times. Rabbi Yosef Kapach proudly proclaimed13 that Yemenite Jews adhered to tradition and continued to use it in ketubot, gittin, legal documents and personal correspondence until the twentieth century. Rabbi Yaakov Sapir (Even Sapir 62b) in 1864 described that Yemenite Jews (and Cochin Jews, who were in close contact with the Jews of Yemen) exclusively used Minyan Shetarot on all their legal and personal documents, and with the exception of scholars and scribes, most people did not even know the count from Creation. He was so intrigued by this that he devoted the entirety of chapter twenty-nine of Even Sapir to analyzing the SE system’s three possible starting dates and what can be learned from the Yemenite tradition.
At some point in history, most of the Jewish world moved over to counting from Creation. Rabbi Azariah dei Rossi (1511-1578) in his controversial Me’or Enayim (p. 254-255), says many people erroneously believe that counting from Creation is an ancient custom, but he demonstrates (p. 256-257) that it clearly was not used in the time of the Mishnah and Gemara and is of relatively recent vintage.14 He surmises (p. 257) that it started to be used after the time of Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1006) who used SE extensively in his famous epistle. Rabbi Azariah postulates that this switch coincided with the disintegration of the Greek Empire, and thus the transition to using a counting system based upon Creation, i.e., the Kingdom of Heaven, a system to which local rulers would be willing to defer.15
Rabbeinu Tam in twelfth-century France (Tosafot, Gittin 80b, s.v. zu), the Tur in early fourteenth-century Cologne and Toledo (EH 127, last line), and the RaN in mid-fourteenth-century Catalonia (Gittin 42a in Rif pages) all record that in their time the universal practice was to date a get from Creation. The Shulchan Aruch in the sixteenth century assumes (EH 127:10) that in dating a get the Creation system would be used, and further assumes that that year-counting system was so accepted that if the sofer leaves out the words l’briat olam, the get is still kosher. This indicates that at some point there was a move to (near) universal use of the Creation system, a system that had certainly been in use but was not the dominant method.
Counting from Creation is referred to by scholars as AM—anno mundi, meaning “in the year of the world.” To use the AM system as a standard, there needs to be an agreed-upon starting date. The Bible states a few chronologies, but no absolute dating from Creation. The oldest systematic Jewish chronicle is Seder Olam Rabbah (presumably edited by the Tanna Yose ben Chalafta [d. about 160 ce]). The system it employs gives such famous dates as Avraham Avinu being born in 1948 am iii. But it is not the only system. There are actually three common variants of the AM system, based on the epoch used.16 In AM I, the currently used system, year one started one year before Adam’s creation. In AM II, the system used in the Talmud,17 year one started on the day of Adam’s creation.18 In AM III, the system of Seder Olam, year one commenced one year after Adam’s creation. In different locations, time periods and classical documents, all three of these methods have been used, and this has led to considerable confusion.19 It is not clear why AM I became the accepted system, but one advantage is that shemittah years occur when the year number divided by seven has a remainder of zero. Thus, in the currently used system Avraham was born in 1950 am i.
Pitchei Teshuvah (EH 127:16) explains that in order to avoid confusion between AM I and AM II, the phrase “In the year so and so to the Creation of the world according to the counting in this city . . .”20 is included. That phrase is also used in general to disambiguate which counting system is being used, since a variant of the phrase is found in gittin that use Minyan Shetarot.
It is certainly peculiar that the SE system, of all the systems, should be the one that lasted so long. It seems odd that the Jews would latch on to a system that counts from a long-gone Greek ruler. The answer to this puzzle may lie in a point noted in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 10a): that the SE system started exactly 1,000 years after the Exodus. In 5603 (1843), Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Leib haKohen Rapoport (1786-1867) postulated that the SE system of counting was really just a continuation of the counting from the Exodus, as they share the prat gadol. Rabbi Yaakov Medan, rosh yeshivah at Yeshivat Har Etzion, points out21 that the count from the Exodus is thus actually a count from the start of a royal reign—not a human reign, rather the reign of the King of Kings.
1. Usually written as tav-shin-peh, which is equivalent to 780 (400+300+80). The complete date includes a “heh” (five) in the thousands place, which is usually omitted for convenience. The full four digits (5780) are known as the klal. If, as is usually done, the thousands digit is omitted, the remaining three digits are properly known as the prat gadol. If the hundreds digit is also omitted, the letters representing the remaining two digits are called the prat katan (see Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 43:2). The familiar lamed-peh-kuf abbreviation found on many tombstones stands for l’prat katan and is used, erroneously but nearly ubiquitously, to refer to the last three digits. Rashi (Avodah Zarah 9a, s.v. prati) describes the hundreds and thousands as klali and tens and units as prati.
2. Factually, it appears to be off by four to eight years. Because of the stated starting date, some posekim are averse to using this system (which was adopted as the epoch of the Gregorian calendar). The Chatam Sofer wrote that counting from Creation reminds us that the world is renewed [by God], that the Land of Israel is for us and that it is wrong to use the Gregorian count (Derashot, derush 10, 7 Av 5570, vol. 5, p. 114 [5775 edition]). He felt that Jews should be ashamed that some today count from the birth of the Christian savior (derush 18, 8 Tevet 5593, vol. 2, p. 374-5 [5775 edition]). His student Maharam Schick (YD 171) ruled that it is a Biblical prohibition to write the Gregorian year on a tombstone. For comprehensive discussions of this topic, including possible reasons to be lenient, see Yabia Omer 3:YD:9 (which takes into consideration the historical dating error and the many earlier rabbis who used the Gregorian year) and Tzitz Eliezer 8:8. To remove the religious significance from this system, scholars use BCE (Before the Common Era) instead of BC, and CE (Common Era) instead of AD.
3. The system of dating from kings is convenient on a short-term scale but has a major drawback in calculating longer time periods. It is much easier to calculate how many years passed between 5704  and 5744  than from year twelve of the FDR presidency to year four of the Reagan administration.
4. The Torah Temimah (to Bamidbar 9:1, one of the verses cited by the Yerushalmi) cites the Yerushalmi and then concludes: “and now [i.e., late nineteenth century] we count from the Creation of the world.”
5. Although not exactly “dating from the Churban,” to this day Yemenite Jews conclude the kinot on Tishah B’Av evening with a moving declaration of how many years it has been since the destruction of the Second Temple, as well as how many years since the destruction of the First Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jews to Yemen (see Rabbi Yaakov Sapir, Even Sapir 65a; Rabbi Yosef Kapach, Halichot Teiman [1987 edition], p. 45). Similarly, the Spanish-Portuguese community in New York uses a 1965 edition of Isaac Leeser’s siddur, which, just before the last kinah on Tishah B’Av night, includes the announcement (in Hebrew [p. 137]): “Brethren of the House of Israel, it is owing to our iniquities and the iniquities of our fathers, that we number this day (x years) since the destruction of our sanctuary and the burning of our Temple. . . .” (Note that they [erroneously—see note 19] count from 68 ce.)
6. The Mishnah (Gittin 8:5) includes counting dates from the building of the Bayit Rishon or from the destruction of Bayit Sheni as unacceptable dating systems for a get. But that implies that those systems were still extant and that one may have thought to use them.
7. See Sacha Stern, “The Jewish Aramaic Tombstones from Zoar,” Journal of Jewish Studies 68, no. 1 (spring 2017): 158-179.
8. P. Beniot, J. T. Milik and R. de Vaux, Discoveries in the Judean Desert II: Les grottes de Murabba’at (Oxford, 1961), 104-109. Yigael Yadin, the famed Israeli archeologist, disagreed and dated it, based on a counting of the Great Revolt, to 71 ce. It seems exceedingly unlikely that there were any Jews in the vicinity of Masada as late as 111 ce, although the Roman garrison was still stationed there until then. See Eshel, et al, “Four Murabba’at Papyri and the Alleged Capture of Jerusalem by Bar Kokhba,” in Law in the Documents of the Judean Desert, ed. Katzoff and Schaps (The Netherlands, 2005), 48-9.
9. There are actually three possible starting dates for year 1 se: Immediately after the Battle of Gaza, with year two beginning a few months later in autumn 312 bce; autumn 312 bce (the SE generally used by the Jews); or autumn 311 bce. It seems that the author of I Maccabees used the first possibility while the author of II Maccabees used the standard, second version (Edgar Frank, Talmudic and Rabbinical Chronology [New York, 1956], 32).
10. See the ketubah in the Jewish Theological Seminary online digital collection: http://garfield.jtsa.edu:8881/R/?func=dbin-jump-full&object_id=252394&local_base=GEN01.
11. Note that in Israel, one may date legal documents using the Jewish calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar.
12. An example of its use in thirteenth-century Egypt, is the pruzbul from Fustat, Egypt, dated “Thursday, 27 Elul, 1535 in Minyan Shetarot, as normally counted in Fustat, Egypt on the Nile River” (N. H. Tozczyner, et al., Sefer Klausner [Tel Aviv, 1937], 231-232).
13. See his comment no. 49 to Rambam, Hilchot Gerushin 1:25.
14. A possible early use of dating from Creation is in the ancient synagogue in Susya. There are several broken inscriptions found there, and one of them seems to date its founding to the fifth millennium from Creation, i.e., between 240 and 1240 ce (the piece with the prat gadol is broken off). Scholars say the shul was built in the Byzantine era, sometime between the fourth to seventh century ce and was used until the ninth century ce. For the text of the inscription see: https://www.k-etzion.co.il/%D7%97%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%91%D7%AA%D7%A1%D7%95%D7%A1%D7%99%D7%90-%D7%93%D7%95%D7%93-%D7%A2%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%AA.
15. Rabbi Yaakov Sapir seems to have believed that counting from Creation was an ancient Jewish tradition. He records (Even Sapir 63b) that Josephus wrote that at the famous meeting between the Kohen Gadol Shimon HaTzaddik and Alexander the Great, Shimon HaTzaddik promised that in exchange for Alexander not putting a statue in the Temple, the Jews would name all boys born that year Alexander and would switch from counting from Creation to counting from Alexander (i.e., the SE system). Unfortunately, while both the Gemara (Yoma 69a) and Josephus discuss this meeting, neither mentions the promises. The tenth-century Josippon (ch. 5 [17b]) does mention the promise about the name, but not about the calendar. I have been unable to find the source for the Even Sapir.
16. There are actually many other AM systems based on various readings of the Biblical text! Using the dates cited in Seder Olam, one arrives at a Creation date of Oct. 7, 3760 bce. Christian scholars often use the year 4004 bce. The calendar used in the Byzantine Empire and many Orthodox churches is based on the Septuagint text and has an epoch equivalent to 1 September 5509 bce.
17. In Hilchot Shemittah v’Yovel (10:2), Rambam uses only AM, but gives both AM I and AM II. The Kesef Mishnah on Rambam’s Shemittah v’Yovel states that the AM II is used. See Rabbi S.Y. Zevin, HaMoadim B’Halachah (seventh edition), p. 35-36 (section on Rosh Hashanah).
18. See ArtScroll Arachin 13a, note 12, where it explains that AM I counts from the Creation of the world, considers the five days before the creation of man as a full year (referred to as “shnat tohu”), was used in the West (Land of Israel) and has become the standard system. AM II was used in the East (Bavel) and thus by the Talmud and subsequently, by the Rishonim. It starts with the creation of man and thus differs by one from the standard system (AM I).
19. There is a widespread belief in both the Jewish community and the academic historical community that the Talmud, Seder Olam and Rambam all place the destruction of the Second Temple in 68 or 69 ce in contradiction to the overwhelming historical evidence that it occurred in 70 ce. Edgar Frank, in his important book on the calendar, Talmudic and Rabbinical Chronology, convincingly demonstrated that all of the sources accurately placed the destruction in 70 ce. This misconception arose due to misunderstanding that there are various AM systems with differing epochs. In other words, according to AM I, the current year is 5780 and the Churban Bayit Sheni was in 3830, exactly 1,950 years ago, placing the destruction` in 70 ce. According to AM III, the Seder Olam system, the Churban was in 3828. But in that system we are in 5778. See Tashbetz (3:301) who addresses several seeming calendrical contradictions in the traditional sources. See also Chazon Ish Hilchot Shevi’it 3:33.
20. Regarding a get written in 1204 in southern Italy that was dated only using AM (4964), Rabbi Isaiah di Trani (Shu”t Rid 23) explained the purpose of this phrase.
21. See: https://www.etzion.org.l/ he/%D7%A4%D7%A8%D7%A9%D7%AA-%D7%91%D7%90%D7%94%D7%97%D7%95%D7%93%D7%A9-%D7%94%D7%96%D7%94-%D7%9C%D7%9B%D7%9D.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.