This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Millennium Fever *

News Item:

1999. Much of the world anticipated momentous, if not apocalyptic, events with the arrival of the year 2000 of the Christian calendar.

Aside from some niggling concerns about the functioning of our computers after January 1, I expect that most Jews have been happy to sit on the sidelines of the current Millennium hysteria. After all, we operate according to a different calendar, which places us in the year 5760 since the Creation.

Some of us might even be tempted to remark disdainfully that the millennium closes at the end of 2000, and not 1999. Furthermore, no historian seriously believes that Jesus' birth, the supposed starting point of the calculation, took place in the Year Zero or One.

Therefore it seems safe to conclude that the date of the Christian Millennium has no eschatological significance for Jews; notwithstanding the reports that a seventeenth-century Kabbalist named Rabbi Abraham Azulai calculated that 5760 will be a year of powerful judgments on the world.

A similar atmosphere prevailed at the turn of the previous Christian millennium, as the year 1000 loomed near. In fact, texts from a thousand years ago indicate that both Jews and Christians had powerful expectations that something momentous was about to transpire, though they did not all pin their hopes on the same year. Even for Christians the number 1000 was not believed to be as significant as 1063. Many Jews hung their hopes on the year 1068, which was believed to mark the thousandth year since the destruction of the Second Temple.

There were also many Jews who expected that the Christian year 1085 would bring the redemption.

In order to understand the underlying reasons for this last-mentioned date, we must learn to appreciate some peculiar features of the calendar. From an astronomical standpoint, we are influenced by two principal cycles, governed respectively by the sun and the moon.

Jewish tradition attaches importance to the fact that that once in twenty-eight years the Spring equinox occurs on Tuesday night, which is Wednesday, according to the Hebrew reckoning. This constellation repeats the situation that was in place when the sun was made on the very first Wednesday of creation. A special blessing, the birkat ha-hamah, was ordained to be recited every time that cycle begins.

A second cycle relates to the lunar rhythms that determine the patterns of months. These cycles repeat themselves every nineteen-years.

Medieval Jews attached enormous importance to periods of 532 years, the number produced by multiplying 28 by 19, and indicating those rare occasions in which the lunar and solar cycles return to their condition at the beginnings of time. Years that were multiples of 532 were considered especially auspicious, and a special Hebrew acronym was coined to designate them: "Taklab."

In a liturgical commentary composed in France at the close of the eleventh century, Rabbi Shema'yah, a senior student of Rashi, noted how privileged he had been to have lived during the Hebrew year 4845 (1085), which, according to his calculation (and assuming, for obscure reasons, that the lunar cycles were not counted until the year 57 after creation), marked the conclusion of the ninth Taklab.

In his exposition, Rabbi Shema'yah mentions that the calculation of Taklabs was also of interested to non-Jews of his own generation, and he quotes a Christian informant to the effect that the birth of their saviour had also taken place in a Taklab year, the equivalent of 3.C.E. Accordingly, 1067 C.E. had been a Taklab year for Christians (or 1067, for those who dated Jesus' birth from the year Zero).

Rabbi Shema'yah had no difficulty brushing aside the bad math that underlay the Christian calculations, since the nearest Taklab to New Testament times would have occurred in the year 27 C.E.

In fact, the Jewish sage had missed the point entirely. The Christians were not measuring their cycles from the Creation, but simply assumed as axiomatic that any meaningful chronology should by definition begin with the birth of Jesus.

In spite of Rabbis Shema'yah's rejection of the Christian reckoning, he did accept the correctness of the date they assigned to Jesus' birth. It is even more extraordinary to observe how subsequent generations of Jewish scholars laboured to incorporate the dates of New Testament events into their own sacred chronology.

The thirteenth-century commentator Rabbi Abraham ben Azriel of Bohemia cites a tradition according to which Jesus was crucified in a Taklab year. He is unsure however how to fit this into the accepted Jewish chronology, and plays around with an assortment of dates ranging from 105 to 37 B.C.E.

Several other writers of the time discuss this theme. It is based on the premise that Taklab years possess a beneficial quality. In the present instance, a remarkable "midrash" was quoted to the effect that Jesus had arranged to be arrested in such an auspicious year.

He knew that it was a Taklab year, and said "I shall accept suffering for the sake of the unity of God's name and the yoke of Heaven." He surrendered his body out of reverence for his Creator. "May it be his will that I be found acceptable to God." A divine voice then declared "Because it is now a year of grace, a Taklab, your prayer will be answered--though not in your own times, and not within your lifetime, but only a long time after your death." And so it came to pass.

This amazing Jewish legend, though evidently adapted from Christian sources, is not as sympathetic to Jesus as it might appear at first glance. It portrays Jesus as a kind of sorcerer, akin to the midrashic depictions of Balaam whose prophetic abilities were limited to his ability to anticipate moments of divine favour. A text from the same era spells this out:

We have it on tradition that in a Taklab year there is a moment when the gates of mercy open, and the heavens are exposed. Jesus calculated when that moment would occur. He prayed that the nations would have faith in him even as Israel had held faithfully to the Torah...

The story explains the success of the Christian religion as little more than sleight of hand. Ultimately, it makes Jesus' death, rather than his birth, into the favourable event of the Taklab year.

As with our current millennial anticipation, the significant dates of the time, whether according to the Jewish or the Christian reckoning, became focal points of messianic anticipation. In addition to the years 1068 and 1085, many Ashkenazic Jews anticipated the 256th lunar cycle in its entirety (1085-1104) to have eschatological importance.

There was indeed much going on at the time to warrant such a perception. In particular, the illustrious Jewish communities of the Reinland were suffering massacres at the hands of the Crusaders. The grand conflict between Edom and Ishmael over the possession of the Holy Land must certainly have appeared to contemporary Jewish observers as a prelude to the advent of the Messiah.

In those days as in our own, Jewish and Christian millennial expectations could not help but exert a profound influence upon each other.

Perhaps we ought to commence our preparations for the next Taklab, due to arrive in 2149.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressNovember 19 1999, p. 8.

  • Bibliography:
    • Emanuel, Simcha. "A Jewish-Christian Debate--France 1100." Zion 63, no. 2 (1998): 143-155.