What does the Jewish year mean, anyway?

Tomorrow at sundown begins Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish year 5772.

Five years ago, I wrote an article about the meaning of the Jewish calendar. Officially, it’s 5,772 years since creation.

But we all know that all Jews do not believe the same things about such things.

I wrote at the time:

“The Jewish calendar year was formulated long ago by rabbinic authorities who wove together a Torah-based family tree of the patriarchs. Adam, of course, is at the top, and he was said to have lived to the age of 930.

The branches continued through Noah, who arrived 10 generations later and also made it to 930, through Abraham another 10 generations later — who died at a relatively young 175 — and on and on.

After all the calculations were done, many based on estimates from unclear biblical accounts, creation was set to the year 3761 B.C.E.”

The world of science, meanwhile, holds that the universe is billions of years old. Maybe 13 billion (give or take a few million).

Big difference.

Much is made of the fact that some evangelical Christians disregard science and hold that the world is actually around 6,000 years old. But what do the Jews believe?

Back in 2006, Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker, formerly of the Reform Temple of Suffern, told me: “We celebrate the biblical view of the world, but from a Reform perspective, we don’t separate ourselves from a scientific understanding of the universe, of evolution. Intelligent people can have contradictory ideas in their heads.”

David Kraemer, a professor in the Talmud and Rabbinics department at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, told me: “All attempts to do the counting are flawed. All calendars are, in some sense, arbitrary. But the number is important because this is how the Jews count.”

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, an official with the Orthodox Union, told me: “As far as Orthodoxy Jewry is concerned, the number is the number. How it conforms with what science seems to have proven, that the world is much older than that, is open to interpretation. But it doesn’t change the basic belief of every religious Jew that (tonight) the world will have a birthday, its 5,767th.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, an Orthodox group, told me then that the six days of creation may not have been “ordinary days.”

He said: “The happenings of the week of creation, other than what the Bible tells us, are unknown. Then there is the moment of creation, in which untold aging of the universe could have taken place. One could also theorize that time worked differently. Einstein did describe a universe in which time is relevant to the observer.”

“Torah tells us to perceive the world as 5,767 years old,” Shafran said.

So there you go.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.