Counting the Years

How the Jewish year is numbered.

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The Jewish calendar not only has its own unique months, but it also numbers years differently from the secular calendar. The year 2003, for instance, was roughly equivalent to the Jewish year 5763. (Specifically, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September 2003 marked the transition from 5763 to 5764).

The counting of Jewish years, as we know it today, dates from the Middle Ages. In secular texts, Jewish time is often noted as “A.M.”--anno mundo--literally, “years of the world.” (Occasionally, “A.M.” is explained as standing for aera mundi, “era of the world.”) This system of Jewish time is called the “Mundane Era” (English for aera mundi) because those who invented it believed they were calculating dates from the birth of the world.

Chronologies of the Bible and Temple

The basis of the Jewish annual calendar is ancient. The Torah speaks of the annual cycle of holy days and festivals, and it was systematized by the sages well before the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
hebrew calendar
If one tries to ascertain the origin of our counting of years, however, the Bible does not seem particularly helpful. When providing a history, the Bible refers to lifetimes. For example, the Torah tells us that Abraham was 75 years old when he and his household were sent from Haran to Canaan (Genesis 12:4). In the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, dates are generally given according to the years of a sovereign’s rule.

Most often, the dates are consistent among these five books. During the time when two kings ruled the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the ascendance of one state’s king might be given relative to the years of the other king’s reign. For example, II Kings 14:1 reads: “In the second year of [the reign of] Yoash ben Yoahaz, King of Israel, Amatzyahu ruled [i.e. came to the throne] as King of Judah.”

During the fourth century B.C.E., a dating system was sought out for secular use on business and legal documents. At this time, the Jews borrowed the practice of the Greeks, who had introduced the practice of numbering time in “eras”--periods of time relative to a historical event, rather than the lifetime or rule of any one person. This new system is called the “Seleucid Era” by secular scholars and, in Jewish circles, it is known as “minyan shtarot”--“accounting of contracts.” It counts time from the year 312-311 B.C.E., supposedly six years following the arrival of Alexander in the Land of Israel.

For private records and Temple histories, a different era was established, one measured from the Exodus from Egypt. An example of this can be seen in I Kings 6:1, where the date for the construction of the First Temple is given as 480 of the Exodus era.

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Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.