Seder Olam Rabbah
Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman
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Seder Olam Rabbah (Hebrew: סדר עולם רבה, "The Great Order of the World") is a 2nd-century CE Hebrew language chronology detailing the dates of biblical events from the Creation to Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia. It adds no stories beyond what is in the biblical text, and addresses such questions as the age of Isaac at the binding and the number of years that Joshua led the Israelites. Tradition considers it to have been written about 160 CE by Yose ben Halafta, which is not unreasonable, but it was probably also supplemented and edited at a later period (Strack 1991). In the Babylonian Talmud this chronicle is several times referred to simply as the "Seder Olam" (Shab. 88a; Yeb. 82b; Nazir 5a; Meg. 11b; Ab. Zarah 8b; Niddah 46b), and it is quoted as such by the more ancient Biblical commentators, including Rashi. But with the 12th century it began to be designated as "Seder Olam Rabbah," to distinguish it from a later, smaller chronicle, Seder Olam Zuṭa; it was first so designated by Abraham ben Nathan - also known as Ha-Yarhi (Ha-Manhig, p. 2a, Berlin, 1855).
In its present form the Seder Olam Rabbah consists of 30 chapters, each 10 chapters forming a section, or "gate."
The work is a chronological record, extending from Adam to the revolt of Bar Kokba in the reign of Hadrian, the Persian period being compressed into 52 years (Strack 1991). The chronicle is complete only up to the time of Alexander the Great; the period from Alexander to Hadrian occupies a very small portion of the work—the end of the 30th chapter.
It has been concluded, therefore, that originally the Seder Olam was more extensive and consisted of two parts, the second of which, dealing with the post-Alexandrian period, has been lost, with the exception of a small fragment that was added by the copyists to the first part.
Many passages quoted in the Talmud are missing in the edition of the Seder Olam which has survived.
The author probably designed the work for calendrical purposes, to determine the era of the creation; his system, adopted as early as the 3rd century, is still followed. Adhering closely to the Pharisaic interpretations of Bible texts, he endeavored not only to elucidate many passages, but also to determine certain dates which are not indicated in the Bible, but which may be inferred by calculation.
In many cases, however, he gave the dates according to tradition, and inserted, besides, the sayings and halakot of preceding rabbis and of his contemporaries. In discussing Biblical chronology he followed three principles:
- To assume that the intention of the Biblical author was, wherever possible, to give exact dates
- To assign to each of a series of events the shortest possible duration of time, where necessary, in order to secure agreement with the Biblical text
- To adopt the lesser of two possible numbers.
The application of these principles would obviously have had the effect of compressing the Biblical chronology. The following examples will illustrate the manner in which these principles are applied.
Examples of method
The confusion of languages in Genesis is said to have taken place in the days of Peleg (Genesis 10:25). The author concludes that the first year of Peleg's life cannot be meant, as at the time of the confusion Peleg had a younger brother, Joktan, and the latter had several children; nor could it have occurred during the middle years of his life, for Peleg lived 239 years, and the designation "middle years" is not an exact one (Genesis 11:18-19); had the redactor intended to indicate only a general period, he would have used the phrase "in the days of Peleg and Joktan." The Bible must therefore mean that the confusion of languages took place in the last year of Peleg's life, and by comparing the dates of the previous generations, the author concluded that it occurred 340 years after the Flood, or 1996 years after the creation of the world.
After dealing in the first 10 chapters with the chronology of the period from the creation of the world to the death of Moses, the writer proceeds to determine the dates of the events which occurred after the Israelites, led by Joshua, entered the Holy Land. Here Biblical chronology presents many difficulties, dates not being clearly given, and in many cases the Seder Olam was used by the later Biblical commentators as a basis of exegesis. Thus, it is known that from the entry of the Israelites into the Holy Land to the time of Jephthah a period of 300 years elapsed (Judges 11:26). By computing the life periods of the Judges and assuming that Jephthah sent his message, in which he alluded to the 300 years, in the second year of his rulership, the writer concluded that the reign of Joshua lasted 28 years. It may be added that he placed the making of the image for Micah (Judges 27:1) and the destruction of nearly the whole tribe of Benjamin in consequence of the wrong done to the Levite and his concubine in Gibeah (Judges 19-21) in the time of Othniel.
It is further stated that Solomon began to build the Temple in Jerusalem in the fourth year of his reign, 480 years after the Exodus (1 Kings 6:1), that is, 440 years after the Israelites entered the Holy Land. Thus there was a period of 140 years from the second year of Jephthah to the building of the Temple. The author of the Seder 'Olam concluded that the forty years during which the Israelites were harassed by the Philistines (Judges 13:1) did not begin after the death of Abdon, as it would seem, but after that of Jephthah, and terminated with the death of Samson. Consequently there was a period of 83 years from the second year of Jephthah to the death of Eli, who ruled 40 years (I Sam. 4:18), the last year of Samson being the first of Eli's judgeship. At that time the Tabernacle was removed from Shiloh, whither it had been transferred from Gilgal, where it had been for 14 years under Joshua; consequently it remained at Shiloh for a period of 369 years, standing all that time on a stone foundation. It is also to be concluded that Samuel judged Israel for 11 years, which with the two years of Saul (ib. 13:2), the 40 of David's reign (I Kings 2:11), and the four of Solomon's reign, make 57 years, during which the Tabernacle was first at Nob, then at Gibeon.
The chronology of the Kings was more difficult, as there were differences to reconcile between the book of Kings and book of Chronicles. Here especially the author applied the principle of "fragments of years" ("shanim meḳuṭṭa'ot"), by which he regarded the remainder of the last year of any king's reign as identical with the first year of his successor's. In the 20th chapter, which closes the second part ("Baba Meẓia"), the author deals with the forty-eight prophets that flourished in the land of Israel. Beginning with Joshua, the author reviews the whole prophetic period which terminated with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, elucidating as he proceeds many obscure points. Thus, the prophet mentioned in Judges vi. 8 was, according to the Seder 'Olam, Phinehas, and the man of God that came to Eli (I Sam. 2:27) was Elkanah.
The prophecy of Obadiah occurred in the time of Amaziah, King of Judah (comp., however, Yalḳ., Obad.), and those of Joel, Nahum, and Habakkuk in the reign of Manasseh. After devoting the 21st chapter to the prophets that lived before the conquest of the land, to the seven prophetesses, and to the seven prophets of the Gentiles, the author resumes the chronology of the Kings. He continues it to the end of ch. xxvii., where he reaches the destruction of the Temple, which, according to his computation, occurred after it had existed 410 years, or 3,338 years after the creation of the world. Then follow the 70 years of the Captivity and the 420 years of the Second Temple, which was destroyed, as may be seen, in the year 3828 of the Creation.
The 420 years of the Second Temple are divided into the following periods: the domination of the Persians at the time when the Temple stood, 34 years; of the Greeks, 180 years; of the Maccabees, 103 years; of the Herods, 103 years. It can be seen that the allowance, contrary to historical facts, of only 34 years for the Persian domination is necessary if the Seder 'Olam chronology is to agree with the Pharisaic Talmudical interpretation (of Dan. 9:24) that the second exile was to take place after 70 Sabbaths of years (= 490 years) from an "issuing forth of a word" to rebuild Jerusalem. If from this period of 490 years the 70 years of the first Captivity is deducted, and the beginning of Alexander's domination over the Land of Israel is placed, in accordance with Talmudical tradition, at 386 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, then there remain only 34 for the Persian rule. Alternatively, what seems to be a historical inaccuracy in Seder ‘Olam has been explained in a different way. According to RASHI, the 34-year Persian period must be understood in the context of their hegemony over Israel while the Second Temple stood. Meaning, 34 years is the precise timeframe between the building of the Second Temple under Darius (II) in 352 BCE (according to Jewish calculations) and Alexander the Great's rise to power in 318 BCE – collected altogether as 34 years of Persian hegemony over Israel while the Temple stood. This timeframe, therefore, does not signify the end of the dynasties in Persia, but rather of their rule and hegemony over Israel before Alexander the Great rose to power. Likewise, the period of Herodian rule over Israel, namely, 103 years, refers merely to its hegemony over Israel while the Temple was still standing. The beginning of this period is reckoned during Herod the Great's reign in 35 BCE and ends in 68 CE with the destruction of the Second Temple (based on Jewish computations) – although in essence, Herod's dynasty continued long thereafter.
From the destruction of the Second Temple, which, according to the Seder 'Olam, occurred at the end of the last week of a Sabbatical year, to the suppression of Bar Kokba's revolt (or the destruction of Bethar) is given as a period of 52 years. But the text here is very confused and has given rise to various emendations and interpretations, as the historical date for the destruction of the Second Temple is 70 C.E. and that for the conclusion of the Bar Kokba revolt is 135 C.E. (comp. Salzer in Berliner's Magazin, 4:141 et seq.).
Assuming that this "Seder Olam" is the same as the "Seder Olam" mentioned in the Talmud, Jewish authorities generally ascribe its authorship to the well-known Talmudist Jose b. Halafta, on the strength of R. Johanan's statement, "The tanna of the 'Seder 'Olam' was R. Jose" (Yeb. 82b; Niddah 46b). Johanan's comment is supported by the fact that Jose was known as one who occupied himself with Jewish chronology; further, many sayings of R. Jose's quoted in the Talmud are paralleled in the Seder Olam.
Objecting, however, that the Seder Olam often conflicts with opinions of Jose's expressed in the Talmud, that Jose is referred to in it in the third person ("R. Jose said"), and finally that mention is made in it of Talmudists that lived later than Jose, Ratner (Mabo leha-Seder 'Olam Rabbah, Wilna, 1894) concludes that Jose was not its author; he thinks that Jose was only the principal authority of the Seder 'Olam, and that Johanan's statement, mentioned above, is similar to another statement made by him—"Any anonymous opinion in the Mishnah belongs to R. Meïr" (Sanh. 86a), although the redactor of the Mishnah was Judah I. Ratner further supposes that R. Johanan himself compiled the work, following generally the opinion of R. Jose. He endeavors to prove this view by showing that many utterances of R. Johanan are taken from the Seder Olam.
Ratner's objections, however, are answered by other scholars, who think that in the Seder 'Olam Jose preserved the generally accepted opinions, even when they were contrary to his own, as is clearly indicated in Niddah (l.c.). Besides, this work, like all the works of the ancient Talmudists, underwent many alternations at the hands of the copyists. Very often, too, finding that the utterance of a later rabbi agreed with the Seder 'Olam, the copyists inserted the name of that rabbi. A careful examination shows that certain additions are later than the latest midrashim, and it may be that Abraham ibn Yarḥi (l.c.), Isaac Lattes (Sha'are Ẓiyyon, p. 25), and Menahem Meïri (introduction to Abot, p. 14), who seem to place the redaction of the Seder 'Olam at the time when the Massektot (tractates) Derek Ereẓ Rabbah, the Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, the Soferim, and other later treatises were composed, may have referred to the work in its present form.
Besides directly quoting the Seder 'Olam, the Talmud often alludes to it under "tanya" (= "we learned") "tana" (= "he learned"), "tanu rabbanan" (= "our teachers learned"), "amar mar" (= "the teacher said"): often the sentences following these phrases are found in the Seder 'Olam. In addition, many of its passages have been taken into the Mishnah without any allusion to their source. The Seder 'Olam is not mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, although several passages in the latter are based on it. Finally, many of the sayings of the Seder 'Olam have been taken into the Mekilta, the Sifra, and the Sifre.
- The Seder 'Olam Rabbah first appeared at Mantua, in 1514, together with the Seder 'Olam Zuṭa, the Megillat Ta'anit, and Abraham ibn David's Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah. It has been reedited several times since then.
- In 1577 the Seder 'Olam Rabbah and the Seder 'Olam Zuṭa were published in Paris, with a Latin translation by Gilbert Genebrard. The former was edited, with a Latin language translation, notes, and introduction, by John Meyer[disambiguation needed] (Amsterdam, 1699).
- Commentaries on the work were written by Jacob Emden (with the text, Hamburg, 1757), by Elijah Wilna (with the text, Shklov, 1801), and by Enoch Zundel b. Joseph (a double commentary, Eẓ Yosef and Anaf Yosef, Wilna, 1845).
- The three latest editions prior to 1906 are those of Ratner (with critical and explanatory notes, Wilna, 1897), A. Marx (who published the first ten chapters, basing the text upon different manuscripts and supplying it with a German language translation and an introduction; Berlin, 1903), and Jeroham Meïr Leiner (containing the commentaries of Jacob Emden and Elijah Wilna, and the editor's annotations under the title Me'r 'Ayin, Warsaw, 1904).
The current Hebrew calendar year numbering system, which counts years from the creation, has been in use for more than 1000 years. The year numbering system was adopted sometime before 3925 Anno Mundi (165 CE), and based on the calculation of Rabbi Yose ben Halafta during about 160 CE in the book Seder Olam Rabbah.
The year numbers are based on the computations of dates and periods found in the Hebrew Bible. In Jewish tradition, "Year 1" is considered to have begun on the 25 of Elul, 6 days before the beginning of "Year 2" on the first of Tishrei, when Adam was created. The new moon of its first month (Tishrei) is designated molad tohu (the mean new moon of chaos or nothing). By Halafta's calculation Adam was created during the year 3761 BCE. However, Seder Olam Rabbah treats the creation of Adam as the beginning of "Year Zero". This results in a two-year discrepancy between the years given in Seder Olam Rabbah and the Jewish year used now. For example, Seder Olam Rabbah gives the year of the Exodus from Egypt as 2448 AM; but, according to the current system, the year would be 2450 AM.
Despite the computations by Yose ben Halafta, confusion persisted for a long time as to how the calculations should be applied. During 1000, for example, the Muslim chronologist al-Biruni noted that three different epochs were used by various Jewish communities being one, two, or three years later than the modern epoch. The epoch seems to have been settled by 1178, when Maimonides, in his work Mishneh Torah, described all of the modern rules of the Hebrew calendar, including the modern epochal year. His work has been accepted by Jews as definitive, though it does not correspond to the scientific calculations. For example, the Jewish year for the destruction of the First Temple has traditionally been given as 3338 AM or 421/2 BCE. This differs from the modern scientific year, which is usually expressed using the Proleptic Julian calendar as 587 BCE. The scientific date takes into account evidence from the ancient Babylonian calendar and its astronomical observations. So, too, according to Jewish computation, the destruction of the Second Temple occurred in the lunar month of Av in anno 68 CE, rather than in 70 CE. In this and related cases, a difference between the traditional Jewish year and a scientific date in a Gregorian year or in a proleptic Julian calendar date results from a disagreement about when the event happened—and not simply a difference between the Jewish and Gregorian calendars (See the "Missing Years" in the Jewish Calendar and below, Excursus: Jewish Chronology in the Scroll of Antiochus).
In Jewish thought the counting is usually considered to be to the creation of the world, as has been emphasized in many ancient texts dealing with creation chronology that the six days of creation till man are literal days—including the days before the creation of the sun and earth. However, some understand these days metaphorically.
The modern epoch year is set at 3761 BCE, taking into account that there is no year zero in the Julian year count.
- This is chronologically difficult. Abraham was born at year 1948 after creation, according to Biblical chronology. This means the confusion happened when Abraham was 48 years old. And when Abraham went into Egypt (Genesis 12:10), he was probably between 80 to 90 years old. This implies that in less than 40 years Egypt was formed with Pharaohs and officials.
- RASHI’s commentary on the Bablylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a, s.v. מלכות פרס בפני הבית)
- Maimonides (Times:Laws of 7th year, chapt 10): For instance this year is ... and which is also counted as 4936 to the creation... is a Shemita year."
- p.107, Kantor. Note that the book Seder Olam Rabbah has been continuously edited throughout the ages, and probably reached its current version around 806 CE according to the historian Leopold Zunz.
- Genesis 2:7
- Leopold Zunz On Time and Literature Zur Geschichte und Literatur opening chapter.
- See The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries.
- e.g.Maimonides Guide to the Perplexed (chapt 25): For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe.... [A] mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory [of literalism] can be supported by an equally good argument. SacredTexts.com
- e.g.Ramban on Genesis 1:3, And there was light: ...You should know that the "days" mentioned in the account of Creation, concerning the creating of heaven and earth, were real days, made up of hours and minutes, and there were six of them, like the [regular] six days of the work[week], in accordance with the simple understanding of the verse. (Translator's footnote:) Although there was no sun or moon for the first three days, so "day" cycles as we know them today did not exist then, nevertheless the six days of creation were six periods of twenty-four hours each. The Torah: with Ramban's commentary translated, annotated, and elucidated. Translated by Rabbi Yaakov Binder in collaboration with Rabbi Yoseph Kamenetsky. Artscroll Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
- Rabbi A. Kook (Orot Hakodesh Book 2 Chapt 537): If these six days were simply six days, why then would they be called "The secrets of creation" and why would it be forbidden to learn them until correctly prepared... The theory of evolution is increasingly conquering the world at this time, and, more so than all other philosophical theories, conforms to the kabbalistic secrets of the world. Evolution, which proceeds on a path of ascendancy, provides an optimistic foundation for the world. How is it possible to despair at a time when we see that everything evolves and ascends? ... My Jewish Learning
- Richard A. Parker & Waldo H. Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 626 BC - AD 75, Providence 1956
- The Ancient Fragments, ed. I. P. Cory, Esq., p. 65, London 1828. Manetho was the high priest and scribe of Egypt who wrote down his history for Ptolemy Philadelphus.
- Tosefta (Zevahim 13:6); Palestinian Talmud (Megillah 18a), et al.
- Maimonides, Questions & Responsa, responsum # 389; in other editions, responsum # 234 (Hebrew). Maimonides states explicitly this tradition, putting the destruction of the Second Temple in the lunar month Av, in the year which preceded anno 380 of the Seleucid era (i.e. 68 CE). See also She'harim la'luah ha'ivry (Gates to the Hebrew Calendar) by Rahamim Sar-Shalom, 1984 (Hebrew)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.. The JE cites the following works:
- Fürst, in Orient, Lit. vii. 547 et seq.;
- idem, Bibl. Jud. ii. 107-108;
- Grätz, Gesch. 3d ed., iv. 184, and note 14;
- A. Marx, introduction to his edition of the Seder 'Olam;
- B. Ratner, Mabo leha-Seder 'Olam Rabbah;
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. cols. 1433-1434;
- Weiss, Dor, ii. 257 et seq.;
- Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüdische Litteratur, iii. 299 et seq.;
- Zunz, G. V. p. 85.
- Strack, H.L. (1991), Stemberger, Günter; Bockmuehl, Markus, eds., Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Google eBook) (1996 ed.), Fortress Press, p. 326, ISBN 978-1451409147 (Note: page 326 in this edition was p. 354 in 1991).