Counting Down From Destruction, Looking Forward to Redemption

(photo and description of Ketubah graciously provided by Mary Raz from the “Greek Jews” group on Facebook)

— by Joel S.W. Davidi

Corfu ketuboth are distinguished for using double dating, the year since creation and the year since the destruction of the Temple. The two dates on this ketubah read at the wedding of Yani, the son of Raphael De Osmo, and Esther, daughter of David De Mordo, are 5573 and 1745. The decoration is calligraphic, inscribing verses from the Books of Isaiah and Ruth which speak of bridegroom, bride, rejoicing, and blessings, (Ketubah, Corfu, 3 Heshvan, 5573 (1812), Hebraic Section, Library of Congress Photo).

The custom of calculating the years since the destruction of the Temple seems to have been a widespread one across the Balkans. Both Sephardim and Romaniotes prided themselves on their roots from the exiles of Jerusalem (Sephardim would often refer to ‘The exiles from Jerusalem that is in Sepharad‘, mentioned in Obadiah, while Romaniotes and Italkim [like De Rossi, for instance] cited oral tradition that they arrived in the area as Titus’ slaves after the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in 70 CE).

More after the jump.
When Eliezer ben Yehuda began his Zionist project of reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, he encountered strong Sephardic support. This community, which people like A. Papo in his Sephardim in the United States, dubbed ‘zionist in nature’, was enthusiastic about such a project.

Philologos writing in the Forward newspaper:

…Yet when Ben-Yehuda began publishing his weekly Hebrew newspaper Hatsvi in Jerusalem in the autumn of 1884, the date on its first issue was, “Friday, 5 Heshvan, 1816 years since the destruction of the Temple, 5645.” (There was no Gregorian date at all.) This formula was followed in the first seven issues of Hatsvi, after which “5645” was dropped. From then on, the only year on the masthead referred to the destruction of the Second Temple, which Ben-Yehuda chose to date to the beginning of the Romans’ siege of Jerusalem in 68 C.E. rather than to their final victory in 70. In everything else that he published, including his monumental 16-volume dictionary, he followed the same system.

Ben-Yehuda was an ardently nationalistic Zionist and an equally ardently anti-religious secularist, and his method of dating served both ideologies, replacing a chronology that started with God’s creation of the world with one that started with the loss of Jewish political independence in antiquity. And yet, just as he was always looking for justifications in Hebrew sources for his many linguistic innovations, so was his dating rooted in the past. Counting the years from the destruction of the Temple was actually quite common among Jews in the early centuries of the Christian era and was a system used in many ancient Hebrew documents and contracts. Although its year zero was eventually replaced by that of Creation, traces of it can still be found in Sephardic and Yemenite prayer books. Thus, for example, in some Sephardic liturgies for the fast day of the Ninth of Av, the day of mourning for the Temple, there is the passage:

“Alas for the destruction of the Temple! Alas for the burning of the Torah! Alas for the murder of righteous Jews! Alas for the sorrow of the Messiah [in having his coming delayed]! Today is ____ number of years since the destruction of our holy shrine.”

Note: Catriel Cellabos from the Western Sephardic Debate group points out:

We say something like this after ‘arbith of 9 de Ab (the traditional date that commemorates the destruction of both Temples), in Spanish: “Nuestros hermanos hijos de Israel, por nuestros pecados etc.” with the number of years.

Joel S.W. Davidi, a historian, is the creator of Romaniote Jews and Italkim/Bene Roma.  This site “Studies the indigenous Jewish communities of Southern Europe and the Balkans.”