[b-hebrew] Calendarical Assumptions in the Torah

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Sun Jun 25 14:48:16 EDT 2006

Shoshanna continues a topic here on the oral law, which is only vaguely
related to the topic of the list.  To get this more "on topic", it may perhaps
be best to understand the "oral law" as those assumptions underlying the
Hebrew Bible.  In this case, Shoshanna's comments are right on target,
especially when a date is involved.  When the Torah demands that "on
the tenth day of the seventh month, you shall fast", it is unlikely that the
meaning is "on the seventh month of your calendar, whichever calendar is
practiced in your community and city, on the tenth day, you shall fast."
Some calendar is intended.  That a lunisolar calendar was widely accepted
is seen from the fact that both Samaritan and Jewish Rabbinic calendars
are lunisolar, and even the date of Easter is calculated in a way that
suggests a history of a lunisolar date.  However, we know of two other
calendars that were in use during the Second Temple period: a 360-day
calendar (12x30 with intercalary 30 day month) and a 364-day calendar
(30, 30, 31 x 4 probably with some intercalation mechanism).  Certain
Biblical books (Gen 7:24, 8:3-4, Esther 1:4, Daniel 12:11) hint at the use
of a 360 day calendar. Other verses hint at a lunisolar calendar (Gen 7:11,
8:14).  Still other verses may hint at a 364 day calendar (Lev 23:15-16,
Deut 16:9-10).

On 6/25/06, Shoshanna Walker wrote:

> When it says [Exodus 12:2] "This month shall mark for you the
> beginning of the months"?  To which months is this referring?  Is it
> referring to Egyptian months (where the Jews were living at the time)
> or Chaldean months (from where their patriarch Abraham originated)?
> Solar months or lunar months?  Without an oral tradition, there is no
> way to know to what this verse is referring

While it is likely that this particular verse refers to a spring new year,
it does not necessarily follow that all other mentions of months including
the numbered months, are numbered from the spring.  Various arguments
for an autumnal calendar during the pre-exilic and later periods, and
counter-arguments, can be read in the Dr. Clines' article in the following


Note also the dates of the flood (second-seventh month, wine festival
in new year) seem to assume an autumnal new year.

>   When the Torah [Ex. 16:29] says "Let no man leave his place on the
> seventh day" to what place is this referring?  Does it mean his home,
> his property if he has more than one home, his neighborhood, his
> city, or something else ?

Some communities indeed observed the Sabbath by not leaving their
homes.  However, this verse may perhaps be limited only to the story
of the Manna, that is: 'no man need leave his home because you'll
already get the manna ahead of time.'

> In fact, Isaiah [66:23] says "It shall be
> that at every New Moon and on every sabbath all mankind will come to
> bow down before Me - said the L-rd" which implies that people will
> leave their homes on the sabbath and go to worship the L-rd .
> Evidently, Isaiah did not understand this verse in Exodus as the
> simple reading would have it.

Or perhaps Isaiah was speaking of something that would happen in the
future, when different laws will be in force.  Do we even have evidence that
Isaiah knew of the verse in Exodus?

> The Passover sacrifice must be brought by every Jew [Ex. 12:47] on
> the day before Passover [Num. 9:5].  What happens if that day falls
> out on the sabbath?  Surely, slaughtering and offering a sacrifice is
> work.  Which takes precedence -- the sabbath or the paschal
> sacrifice?  There must be an oral law to explain this if these laws
> were intended to be put into practice

You are already assuming here that the Passover may occur on the
Sabbath.  In the 364-day calendar, Passover fell on a Wednesday
always.  It is not necessarily a problem in the text than a problem
in the situation created by applying the text to a different calendar.
However, since sacrifices are also to take place on the Sabbath
(Num 28:9-10, for example) this specific example is perhaps not the
best one.

So while dates are good examples of details for which an understood
assumption is attached (especially the Biblical, Judaean, and Israelite
forms of dates, where the months are numbered).  Many of them can be
interpreted in a way consistent with various calendarical systems and no
doubt this would be of use theologically or pragmatically in putting the
code of laws together in practice.  But assuming that a given calendarical
system is the one under which the various laws were meant to operate
when they were written and composed is missing the point.  Each law and
date should be assessed independently from a historical point of view in
order to determine its original calendarical background.  If you want to
assume that your specific tradition will tell you the correct historical
reality behind the original laws, that's fine.  But the claim "Without an oral
law, we wouldn't know the answer or method by which this law was
originally / historically meant to be practiced" is wrong.  Careful study
might still provide its own answer.  This is probably true for all examples of
undelrying assumptions or "oral law."

Yitzhak Sapir

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