Everyone knows when it’s New Year’s Day — and everyone knows what new year it’s the first day of. After 2012 comes 2013. But although nearly all American Jews know it’s Rosh Hashanah this week, not all of them could tell you that the new Jewish year is 5773. After all, once the holiday is over, it’s not a number we’ll use for anything. We won’t date our checks with it, we won’t use it to figure out how old our car or TV set is, and we won’t remind ourselves that the next American presidential elections will be held in 5777. Until Rosh Hashanah of 5774, we’re unlikely to encounter it again.
And in Israel, oddly, fewer Jews will know it’s 5773 than anywhere else. This isn’t because Israelis are less aware of Rosh Hashanah. But for Jews in Israel, as for traditionally minded Jews elsewhere, the new year will be written and known, not as 5773, but as “Tash’ag” — and if you were to ask the average Israeli what number the Hebrew acronym “Tash’ag” stands for, in most cases you would get a blank stare.
Some of those staring at you, in all fairness, would be able to figure it out pretty quickly on their fingers. They would know that each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value; that the first nine letters — alef, bet, gimmel, daled, heh, vav, zayin, ḥ et and tet — have the values 1 to 9; that the second group of nine — yod, kaf, lamed, mem, nun, samakh, ayin, peh and tsadi — represents 10 to 90; that the last four letters — kuf, resh, shin and taf — stand for 100, 200, 300 and 400, and that the taf, shin, ayin and gimmel of “Tash’ag” add up to 773. Some of these some might even know that there’s a missing heh, or 5, at the beginning, since the Hebrew year is generally written without its thousand-indicator. Very few, however, would be able to answer “5773” right off the bat. Tash’ag is simply Tash’ag for them, just as last year was Tash’ab and next year will be Tash’ad.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Jewish literacy included the ability to look at a group of Hebrew letters and read the number they stood for immediately, just as the characters “4,” “8” and “3” are immediately recognized by us as “four-hundred eighty-three.” If a Jew was told to look in Isaiah samakh-heh, yod-tet, he knew at once that this meant chapter 65, verse 19. (Any Jewishly educated Jew, of course, still knows this today.) If asked how many commandments there were in the Bible, he thought of the rabbinic phrase taryag mitsvot and translated taryag on the spot as 613. (Tet= 400, resh=200, yod-gimmel=13.) Everyone understood that if the rabbis stated a distance as tak parsah, this was 500 (taf+kuf) parasangs or about 2000 miles; that an unassumedly righteous man was called a lamed-vavnik because he might be one of the 36 hidden saints on whom the existence of the world depended, and that a passage on kuf-zayin bet of a Talmudic tractate was to be found on the second side of page 107. As late as the early 20th century, indeed, even modern Hebrew fiction and poetry were still often paginated this way, and the conservative-minded Nobel prize-winning Hebrew author S.Y. Agnon insisted on his novels being printed in such a fashion until his death in 1970.
Hebrew is not unique in this respect. On the bookshelf facing me as I write is a Greek-Latin dictionary that, if taken down and opened to its title page, announces that it was printed in Leipzig in MDCCXXII. Many of us would not know at first glance that this means 1722 in Roman numerals, let alone that M equals 1000 because it’s the first letter of Latin mille (as in “millennium”); that D stands for dimidium (“half,” that is, half of 1000 or 500); that C, 100, is short for centum (as in “century”), and that X for 10, like V for 5, originated by taking the single line that meant 1, now represented by the letter I, and intersecting or crossing it with a second line.
It’s a crude form of notation and no good at all for even simple arithmetic operations, which were done in ancient times on an abacus. (Try multiplying MDCCXXII by CXIV with the help of letters only and you’ll see why.) And yet Roman numerals were in use all over Europe until the 14th century, when they were gradually replaced by the decimal system that was borrowed from the Arabs, by whom it was taken from the Hindus. Nor did the Romans invent the idea of letters standing for numbers. They got it from the Greeks, who got it from the Egyptians in the third century B.C.E., during the Hellenistic period, when Egypt was in effect a Greek colony. And it was by the Greeks, too, that the ancient rabbis were inspired to do the same with the Hebrew alphabet.
But that’s all history now, as is Tash’ab. Have a terrific Tash’ag!
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This story "A Very Merry 5773 to All" was written by Philologos.