A Timely Note

by Mordecai Plaut

(Page 2)

From the book "At the Center of the Universe".

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meaning of "yom," since in all subsequent cases it translates nicely as "day." This is a problem we pass over for the moment to some other observations.

It will prove interesting to note that the basis for the calculations that result in the figure of 5,763 as the current age of the world is the beginning of Adam's life. To calculate the elapsed time from the creation to the Flood we add the nonoverlapping lifetimes of the people in the genealogical tables that are included in the Bible. This is the only way we have of assigning a number to the age of the world based on the Bible.

According to the most commonly accepted version, the world was created in Tishrei, which is the view of Rabbi Eliezer.(1) In his detailed account, Rabbi Eliezer says that Adam was created on the first day of the first year, with yom echod (day one) on the twenty-fifth of Elul, five days previously in the "zeroth" year!(2) This means that our count of the age of the world does not start from the beginning of the creation, but rather from the appearance of man.(3)

When one sets up a system of measurement, besides fixing a unit which we have already discussed, it is necessary to assign a point as the origin, the "zero" point. Choosing an origin is a task which is essentially arbitrary, that is, there is no essential difference which point is chosen. For example, whether we pick the freezing point of water (such as in the Centigrade system) or some lower level (such as in the Fahrenheit system) as our zero point for measuring temperature, there is nothing true about a statement that the temperature of some substance is 122 degrees that is not true of a statement that its temperature is 50 degrees, as long as the reference point (and unit) is chosen appropriately.

In the case in point, 5,763 is completely unobjectionable as the number for a particular year -- once it is made clear that the origin of the numbering system is the creation of man. One could as easily assign 2,003 or 1,423 or 2,314 as the number of the year if one is inclined to pick other years as reference points. The result is that we assign 5,763 as the number of years from (noninclusively!) creation.

It is worth noting that in addressing G-d in the Rosh Hashanah service we apply the phrase "beginning of Your deeds" (techillas ma'asecha) to that day.(4) This is clearly in line with the view of Rabbi Eliezer, and, at the level of pshat, it would seem that the creation of man is thus called the origin (an alternate explanation is given by the Tosafot).

Thus, to point out that 5763 counts only from the beginning of human activity rather than the entire physical world would seem an alternate and independent way to resolve the discrepancies between our traditional dating and that assigned by the general scientific method, though we might express some reservations about it too, since it leaves our number with an air of the arbitrary.

However if, notwithstanding that each of the two proposals is independently adequate to determine 5763 as a correct number for a particular modern year in relation to the beginning of the world in harmony with alternative approaches that may give radically different numberings, we rather view these as two complementary parts of a single framework, then we have a powerfully complete view of this aspect of the beginnings of the world. We have found man to be the central measure of the world. His appearance serves to fix the origin of our measuring system, and it is our knowledge of his subsequent history which gives us the essential parameters for our calculations. When we talk of the age/Age of the world we are also talking, in effect, of the age/Age of Adam.

In view of all this we suggest that perhaps the yom unit is not a purely quantitative measure as is the day unit, but that it also includes a qualitative component. It has, in fact, often been suggested that many of the terms in the Torah are in some sense primarily to be interpreted as essences, and that it is a Divinely engineered "coincidence" that more particular, concrete interpretations are materially adequate.

Time is generally measured as a purely quantitative entity, though we often experience it in a qualitative way. The common phrase "the minutes seemed like hours," which describes a feeling many of us have experienced, is an indication that a quantitative measure fails to capture all the aspects of time that are part of our experience.

Furthermore, there is a more objective sense of qualitative change too. There are often situations in which a small change has enormous importance, which is to say, in our terms, that though the quantitative change is small, in qualitative terms the change is large. The opposite situation is, of course, also possible. That is, there can be a large amount of change that is not too important.

In the conventional terminology used in the analysis of measurement this is expressed in the fairly obvious observation that the qualitative aspect of a unit of measure is wholly independent and thus capable of taking on virtually any value, regardless of the quantity involved. The fact that quality and quantity are independent does not mean, however, that they can never coincide. Within a particular system, it may even be that they almost always coincide, that usually a quantitative unit subtends also a qualitative unit. In such cases we are likely, as a matter of convenience and habit, to come to assume them always to coincide, yet we must be alert to recognize those cases in which they diverge. In the case at hand, it is suggested that particular attention be directed toward the relationship between "day" and "yom."

Our suggestion here is that "yom" is applied primarily as a measure of qualitative change, and that along this dimension, the change within the six units mentioned at the beginning of the Torah is equivalent to the amount which is subsequently subtended by two successive sunsets. This is to say that once man is an active participant in the world and thus lends it the significance infolded in his participation, the conventional day becomes a substantial unit, especially in view of the fact that man's activity is naturally segmented into (periods of activity in the) daylight and (periods of rest in the) darkness.

Without the presence of man, when natural processes are of a completely material nature, a much larger amount of change is necessary for it to be spoken of as a qualitative equal to a human day. We do not mean to imply that these parts of the world are in any way unimportant in themselves, but only that a purely quantitative comparison to the works of man is misleading.

For example, though the organizing of land and water (third yom) is a process of awesome magnitude, we might be able to accomplish things of equal importance, say, before lunch.


1. Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 10b f.

2. Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, Chap. 8. Note that a date is first mentioned in connection with the creation of the sun and moon. See also the commentary of R. Dovid Luria.

3. Actually there are three origins used for the counting of the years of the world in tradition, with a total of two years' difference between the two extremes. One counts the first day of Adam's life as the beginning of the year two, counting the first five days (or the first six months according to Rabbi Yehoshua) as year number one. The second counts that sixth yom of creation as the beginning of year one. And the third counts the years of the world exactly as we count the age of people and does not assign the number one to the age of the world until Adam's first birthday.

Thus, at the first anniversary of Adam's creation, the world is three years old according to the first version, two years old according to the second version, and one year old according to the third version. All rely on information about Adam's age to calculate the world and all take his creation as the focus of the numbering system.

I have adopted the one which is, I think, most commonly assumed to be the one in use by any who make such assumptions at all, though it is not necessarily the one which gives the result we use. Adoption of the method (the first mentioned above) which gives the result which we use would not change the essential argument, though it might change the presentation somewhat.

4. See Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 27a. The explanation offered here is intended as complementary to the one given by Tosafot. One would expect the origins of din to be linked to the beginnings of its most important object, i.e., man.

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