This week we will read in Parshas HaChodesh, “HaChodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim,” “This month will be for you the beginning of the months.” In the first mitzvah that Hashem gave the Jewish Nation, we are commanded to count the months from the month in which we left Mitzrayim. In other words, what we now call Nisan is the first month; Iyar is the second, etc. Let us take this opportunity to discuss a very common and mundane action and the halachic issues involved. I refer to the use of the secular date.
Most people at this point will ask themselves, “What does using the secular date have to do with halacha?” The answer is that according some halachic opinions, one who uses the secular date might transgress three Torah commandments, two negative and one positive!
Before we address these issues, let us examine the background of the secular date.
2006 YEARS SINCE WHAT?
We know that our current year, 5766, refers to the years since the creation of Adam HaRishon. On the sixth day of creation, the first of Tishrei in the year 1, Hashem created the first man. However, which historical event does the secular year refer to?
The “official” answer to this question is that it is the number of years since the birth of Yeshu. It was common practice to add the letters AD before the year, i.e., AD 2006. This is an abbreviation of “Anno Domini,” Latin for “in the year of the lord.” (This abbreviation gave way to the religiously neutral “CE,” or Common Era.)
I emphasize “official” answer, because most non-Jewish Biblical scholars maintain that this is incorrect. They believe that his birth actually took place four to eight years earlier. However, according to the Gemara and Rishonim there is an even greater discrepancy.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 107b) writes that Yeshu was a student of Rebbi Yehoshua ben Prachia. (Although this text was deleted from most texts by medieval censorship, it appears in Sefer Kevutzas HaHashmatos,Krakow5654.) The Gemara (Shabbos 15) tells us that Hillel was Nasi one hundred years before the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Also, we know from the first chapter of Pirkei Avos that Hillel was three generations after Yehoshua ben Prachia. Therefore, being that the destruction took place in 69 CE, and Hillel was Nasi in 33 BCE, we must conclude that Yeshu lived more than one hundred years before the Common Era. This point is noted by several Rishonim. The Rishonim also quote the opinion of the non-Jewish historians that we mentioned and point out that according to the Gemara it is incorrect. The Abarbanel posits that the non-Jewish historians claim that Yeshu lived later then he actually did in order to blame the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash on the fact that the Jews killed him. (See Yabi’a Omer III, 9 for a further discussion of this point.)
In any event, one can stated with certainty, that although the secular year was originally thought to be the number of years since Yeshu’s birth, according to all opinions, it is not.
THE SECULAR MONTHS
Another area that we should examine before delving into the halachic issues is the names of the secular months.
The months from July and onwards have nothing to do with avodah zarah. July and August are named after Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, while the rest are Latin for the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months, i.e., “sep” means seventh, “oct” means eighth. This of course is no longer true, as September is the ninth month from January. However, the calendar originally consisted of only ten months, and two were added at a later point.
Most of the remaining months are named after either Greek or Roman gods, which as we will see, presents us with a possible Torah prohibition.
THE MITZVOS INVOLVED
We can now discuss the various positive and negative commandments, and see if they apply to our question.
The Torah says (Shemos 23:13), “And the name of other gods you shall not mention; it shall not be heard on your mouth.” The Gemara (Sanhedrin 63b) bases several halachos on this mitzvah that are relevant to our topic.
The Gemara quotes the following incident: When Ulla came, he spent the night in Kalanbo. Rava asked him, “Where did you spend the night?” Ulla answered, “In Kalanbo.” Rava retorted, “And is it not written, ‘and the name of other gods, you shall not mention’”? Ulla responded, “So said Rabbi Yochanan: ‘It is permissible to mention the name of any idol worship that is written in the Torah.’“ The Gemara then proceeds to indicate where that particular idol is alluded to in Tanach.
Prior to this, the Gemara rules that not only is it forbidden for one to mention the name of an idol, one is not even allowed to cause a non-Jew to mention the name of an avodah zarah. Therefore, the Gemara forbids making a partnership with an idolator, since at one point, the idolator might be required to swear to his Jewish partner and invoke the name of his idol. This halacha is derived from a slight change in the understanding of the possuk, “it shall not be heard through your mouth.” In other words, the name of the avodah zarah “shall not be heard” by the non-Jew, “through your mouth,” or by your requesting him to swear.
We see from this Gemara how much one must distance himself from using names of idols.
Another prohibition that is discussed in relation to this issue is (Vayikra 18:3), “U’vechukoseihem lo seileichu,” “And you shall not follow their statutes.”
This includes that we should not follow their established practices, such as going to their places of entertainment (Toras Cohanim). Rambam (Hilchos Akum 11) adds that we should not be similar to them in modes of dress and hairstyles, nor are we to be similar to them in other ways. Rather the Jews should be separate and unique both in dress and other activities. Exactly how far this goes is a subject for a future discussion.
In addition to these two negative commandments, there is a positive mitzvah as well. The Torah writes (Shemos 12:1), “HaChodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodoshim,” “This month is for you the beginning of the months.” The Ramban comments on this possuk that the Torah did not give names to the months, rather, the months in the Torah are referred to by number. The reason for this is that we should always count our months from when we left Mitzrayim, in order to remember all the miracles that Hashem did for us at that time. .
If so, where did the names of our months come from? The origin of these names is Bavel. They are Persian names and when the Jews returned to Eretz Yisrael from Bavel and rebuilt the second Beis Hamikdash, they brought these names with them. The reason for this was to remember that Hashem took us out of Bavel and returned us to our land.
The question is if there is a mitzvah to count our months, and the Torah specifically did not name the months, rather called them by number, how did the generation that returned from Bavel adopt names for the months? This topic is the subject of a disagreement. According to one opinion, Chazal understood that this mitzvah was temporary. As long as we were considered “redeemed from Mitzrayim,” this mitzvah was in force. However, once we became “redeemed from Bavel,” Chazal found it necessary to institute a remembrance of that event. This is based on the possuk in Yirmiyahu (23:7), “It will no longer be said, Chai Hashem, Who brought up the Bnei Yisrael from thelandofMitzrayim, rather Chai Hashem, Who brought up the seed of the House of Yisrael from the land of the north, etc.” (Sefer HaIkrim 3:16)
According to the other opinion, however, the Torah does not change and no mitzvah ever becomes obsolete. Giving the months names does not contradict the mitzvah to count the months from Nisan. We can call the first month Nisan and the second month Iyar. The mitzvah is not to start counting the months from a different month, rather, only from the month in which we left Mitzrayim. Thus, we can do two mitzvos. We remember the exodus from Mitzrayim when we count from “Chodesh Ha’Aviv” and remember the fact that Hashem brought us back to Eretz Yisrael from Bavel when we use the names Nisan, Iyar, etc. (The commentary HaKosaiv printed in the Ein Yaakov (Megillah 3)
The question of using the secular date only began to appear in the writings of the poskim about 300 years ago. One of the Acharonim who dealt with this issue was Maharam Shick (Shu”t Y.D. 171), who was asked regarding an incident where someone broke tradition and erected a tombstone in the Jewish cemetery upon which was engraved a foreign tongue and also contained the secular date. Maharam Shick, protesting very strongly, first points out that the cemetery is common property and no one is allowed to use it in a way that is against the wishes of the other owners. To erect a type of tombstone in the community cemetery that goes against the wishes of the Chevrah Kadisha is considered improper.
He then discusses the issue of using the secular date and suggests that it is prohibited according to the Torah, as one is not allowed to mention the names of avodah zarah. Even though the prohibition applies to either writing or saying the actual names of the idols, in this case counting the secular years causes the avodah zarah to be remembered and is equally prohibited.
At first glance, it would seem that Maharam Shick’s prohibition of using the secular year on tombstones should include using it in all situations.
Another source for prohibiting the use of the secular date is Sefer Get Pashut (127:30). According to halacha, a get is required to have a date. The question is whether the date used by idolaters is considered a date. Get Pashut holds that using the date of idolaters invalidates the divorce document. He bases this on the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam, who invalidates the get of an apostate Jew who wrote the name of avodah zarah in the document. He concludes by writing, “Even in mundane letters one should be careful only to write (the years) according to the creation of the world. This is not like those whom I have seen in letters that come from foreigners who count according to the Christian system of counting, with the names of the months and the numbering of years, and it is not proper to do this.”
A very strongly worded rebuke to those who use the secular date can be found in the drashos of the Chasam Sofer (7 Av 5570). After writing that it is worthwhile to use the count from the creation of the world, as this emphasizes our belief that the world was created, he continues: “And not like those recent innovators who write at the beginning of a letter the number of years since the birth of the Christian messiah. (One who does so indicates) through his writing that he has no portion in the G-d of Yisrael. Woe is to them that have bestowed evil upon themselves. They have despised Hashem’s Torah, etc.”
Tzitz Eliezer (vol. VIII, 8) addresses the issues raised by Maharam Shick and Get Pashut. He suggests that both of them would forbid the use of the secular year because of the prohibition of mentioning the names of avodah zarah, only if one were to add to the year the words, “according to the counting of the Christians,” or its abbreviation. However, merely writing the year in accordance with the international custom does not transgress this prohibition. (Note, that it is this writer’s opinion that the abbreviation, “A.D,” is at least as problematic as “according to the counting of the Christians,” if not more so.)
He goes on to quote the opinion of Sefer Get Mekushar, who argues with Get Pashut regarding the validity of a get in which the secular date was used. Get Mekushar claims that writing the secular date is not an issue of avodah zarah, and although ideally one should use the Jewish date, the get is still valid.
Tzitz Eliezer understands from this, that in the opinion of Get Mekushar, even if one were to write, “according to the counting of the Christians,” it is not an issue of avodah zarah, rather it is merely using a date that follows the international consensus. Ideally, one should not use this dating system, as it deviates from the time-honored tradition of using the Jewish date.
In addition to this, he quotes the Aruch HaShulchan (127:44) who maintains that if one uses the secular date in a get, it is kosher. Apparently, the author of the Aruch HaShulchan is not concerned about any avodah zarah issues when it comes to using the secular date.
Tzitz Eliezer deals with Chasam Sofer’s statement in his drashos that it is forbidden to use the secular date, in the same fashion that he dealt with Maharam Shick. If one writes the year without the words “according to the counting of the Christians,” there is nothing wrong. If fact, Chasam Sofer cannot be speaking about where there is a practical need to use the secular date, such as for business purposes or when communicating with a government that only recognizes this date. This is because we find that the Chasam Sofer himself (Igros Sofrim pg. 105), used the secular date when writing to the government. In addition to this, other Acharonim, most notably the Rema (51) (see Yabi’a Omer for examples), used the secular date in their correspondence. Also many of the greatest authors had the secular date included on the title pages of their seforim.
Yabi’a Omer (III 9) addresses the issue of not following the statutes of the non-Jews. He quotes an opinion that holds that this prohibition extends to using the secular date. He then quotes Beis Yosef (Y.D. 178) who defines the parameters of this prohibition. When expressing this mitzvah, the Torah uses the word, “u’vechukoseihem.” “Chok” is a law or custom whose reason is not known. Therefore, there is only a prohibition when the reason for the custom is not known. One who does an unusual activity that has no apparent logical reason only because non-Jews practice it, indicates that he agrees with them and is being drawn after them. For if this were not true, why else is he doing it? Beis Yosef continues that alternatively, one transgresses this prohibition if he follows a non-Jewish practice that is licentious.
Therefore, since the practice of using the secular date is not without reason, as it is merely an internationally agreed upon number by which to count the years; nor is there anything licentious about it, this prohibition does not apply.
ANOTHER LINE OF DEFENSE
In a subsequent responsum, Tzitz Eliezer (vol. IX 14) quotes an opinion that the fact that the year which we use does not refer to Yeshu’s birth since it did not take place at that time, is an insufficient reason to allow the use of the secular year. This is because, as far as most people are concerned, the event did take place then and therefore, by using the secular year the avodah zarah is being mentioned.
He responds that if mentioning the year since Yeshu’s birth would be the equivalent of mentioning the avodah zarah, then there would be room to be stringent and not use the year. However, since mentioning the year itself is not included in the prohibition of not mentioning the names of avodah zarah, the fact that people think that it refers to Yeshu’s birth, makes no difference and it is permitted. Additionally, very few people, if any, when mentioning the secular year give any thought to the fact that this year refers to anything significant.
Yabi’a Omer quotes the opinion of several Rishonim (Yerei’im, Ra’avyah, see also Darkei Moshe 147) that the prohibition of saying the names of other gods is only where the name is unique to a deity, or a name of importance. However, where the names given to the avodah zarah are also common names of people, there is no prohibition. This is evident in the wording of the possuk, “the name of other gods.” It is forbidden to mention names of “gods.” Therefore, he maintains that, even assuming the secular year refers to the number of years since Yeshu’s birth, there is no prohibition of mentioning names of other gods, since writing the year does not entail any mention of avodah zarah.
HOW TO WRITE THE MONTHS
Until now we have discussed whether using the secular year is prohibited because of mentioning avodah zarah. The aforementioned poskim also deal with the names of the months.
Tzitz Eliezer maintains that since the names of the months are based on names of avodah zarah, it is preferable to avoid using them. Rather, one should use the month’s number, i.e., January is one, February is two, etc. Although we have already mentioned that several of the Acharonim used the names of the secular months in their correspondence and this would indicate that there is no issue of avodah zarah, Tzitz Eliezer suggest that they did not realize that these names refer to avodah zarah. However now that we are aware, we should not use them.
However, Yabi’a Omer basing himself on the Ramban that there is a mitzvah to count from Nisan, contends that one should not use the month’s number from January, rather one should use the actual name of the month.
Both Tzitz Eliezer and Yabi’a Omer conclude that according to the halacha there is no prohibition in using the secular date. They both point out, however, that although in most cases one is forced by circumstances of the non-Jewish world that we live in to use the secular date, one should not take this as a blanket dispensation to do away with the Jewish date. One should only use the secular date when necessary. Otherwise, it is preferable to use the Jewish date.
It is a generally accepted custom that where one is forced to use the secular date, one writes “l’minyanom,” “according to their counting,” to emphasize the fact that we are not following non-Jewish practices. We find in several places that this was the practice of Chasam Sofer. (See Chasam Sofer E.H. I 43 and Drashos vol. II pg. 396b)
Using the count of years from creation reminds us that Hashem created the world, and as indicated by the Rashba (Gitin 80), glorifies Kavod Shamayim. Also, as we mentioned, using the Hebrew months and counting from Nisan reminds us of Yitzi’as Mitzrayim and how Hashem brought us back to Eretz Yisrael from Bavel.
On a related topic, it is worthwhile to mention that the Ramban (Shemos 20:8) quotes a Mechilta that by counting the days of the week, Yom Rishon, Yom Sheini, etc, one constantly remembers that there is a Creator who created the world in six days. One also fulfills the mitzvah of “Zachor es Yom HaShabbos l’kadsho,” “Remember the day of Shabbos.”
PERSIAN NAMES, ARAMAIC SPEECH
We quoted the Ramban’s explanation as to why we use the Persian names of the months.
The question is why did the Jews of that generation opt not to use the Torah’s system of counting the months from Nisan, and instead chose the Persian names as a remembrance to the exodus from Bavel? Additionally, the Medrash says that one of three outstanding points of the Jewish people in Mitzrayim was the fact that they did not change their language. Therefore, it is strange that their spoken language during the period of the second Beis HaMikdash was Aramaic.
HaRav Yaakov Kaminetzky (Iyunim B’Mikrah, 5746, pg. 144) maintains that these two institutions were done intentionally. There was concern that the Jews returning from Bavel after seventy years of exile and who were rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash, would feel that the final redemption had arrived. In order to emphasize the fact that they were still in golus, they continued speaking the language of their exile and using the names of their months.