Dating History


By Philologos

Published October 07, 2005, issue of October 07, 2005.
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The new Jewish year of 5766 that began this week will be called in Hebrew “Tashsav,” after the four letters, e-q-y-z, whose numerical equivalent is 766. (z in Hebrew numerology equals 400; y, 300; q, 60; and e, 6 — the remaining 5,000 generally being unexpressed, although it can be indicated by putting the letter d, which equals 5, before the others.) The rule for converting Hebrew years into English ones is to subtract 3,760, which in this case gives us 2006.

All this may seem complicated enough, but you haven’t heard anything yet. Listen to this.

The other day I was reading the Hebrew Nobel Prize laureate S.Y. Agnon’s novella “And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight.” It tells the story of a well-off Jewish merchant who loses his money and is forced to go begging, for which purpose he obtains a letter of recommendation from his rabbi. At the bottom of this letter, Agnon writes, “The rabbi affixed his signature on the day that is doubly good, in the portion of ‘The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouse, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto,’ in the year of ‘He hath blessed thy child within thee.’”

Would you believe that all the rabbi has done is sign his name and add, in phrasing auspicious for a beggar’s success, the date (if my calculations are correct) “Tuesday, 21 Elul, 5618” –– that is, Gregorianly speaking, August 31, 1858?

And yet that’s exactly what he’s done. I’ll explain.

By “on the day that is doubly good,” the rabbi means Tuesday, since in the story of creation in Genesis, the only day during which the Bible says twice “And God saw that it was good,” is day three.

By “in the portion of ‘The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee,” etc., the rabbi is referring to the weekly Torah reading of Ki Tavo, which spans Chapters 25-28 of Deuteronomy. (The verse occurs in Deuteronomy 28:8.) We’ll get back to this in a minute.

Finally, by “in the year of ‘he hath blessed thy child within thee,’” our rabbi means 5618 or 1858. Why? Because if we look at this verse, which comes from Psalms 147:13, its Hebrew is “berakh, b’nekh be-kirbekh”; the letters of its Hebrew translation –– “jaxwa, jpa, jxa” –– add up to 618.

Which brings us back to Ki Tavo. In an ordinary year, it is the fifth Torah reading from the end of the annual cycle, and in 5618 or 1858 it was read in the synagogue on Saturday, the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Elul, which fell on the Gregorian date of August 28. Hence, the following Tuesday would have been the 21st of Elul or August 31.

Elementary, no?

Of course, you still may have one question. Why, you might want to ask, would anyone, even a rabbi, be foolish enough to indicate a simple date in so complicated a manner?

Curiously enough, however, this manner was once considered highly stylish, especially when it came to the title pages of Hebrew books. If one looks at old Hebrew editions, particularly those predating the 19th century, one will see that the year of publication in many of them is indicated in precisely this way.

Thus, for example, taking down from the shelves of my library one of the few such editions possessed by me, the 18th-century Jewish doctor Tuvia Katz’s medical work “Ma’aseh Tuvia” (“The Tale [or Work] of Tuvia”), I find on its title page, alongside the imprimatur of the Catholic censor, the information that it was printed in Venice “in the year of: uw diaeh dyrn,” that is, of the “Tale [or Work] of Tuvia Katz.” And no, that tiny Hebrew letter v at the end is no mistake, as we presently shall see.

When was this book printed? Well, if we add up all the Hebrew letters here, we get 557; put 5000 in front of that and we have the Hebrew date 5557; subtract 3,760 and we have the Gregorian date 1797. That would be fine — except for the fact that Tuvia Katz died in 1727 and my copy of “Ma’aseh Tuvia” is a first edition, issued during his lifetime. Something isn’t right.

That’s where that tiny v comes in. Its small size is a signal to ignore it when doing one’s arithmetic. Since its numerical value is 90, by leaving it out of the count we get the Hebrew year 5467 rather than 5557, which yields the Gregorian date 1707. And that’s just when “Ma’aseh Tuvia” was published.

A high percentage of old Hebrew books that give their publication dates by this method employ such not-to-be-counted letters, the reason being that unless you play around in this way, it can be extremely difficult to find a biblical verse, or any other apposite line, that will yield the right date. Agnon, too, in the passage from “And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight,” had to change the verse from Deuteronomy, “he hath blessed thy children within thee,” to “he hath blessed they child within thee” in order to get the year he wanted.

Anyone care to give it a try with 5766?

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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