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Using the Jewish and Secular Date

Numbering or Naming the Months

According to the Ramban (in his commentary on the Torah), the Torah not only teaches us the mitzvah of sanctifying the month, but also teaches us the proper ordering of the months of the year.

The Torah informs us that the month in which we were brought out of Egypt is the first month of the year, and the other months of the year must be counted based on this. This method of numbering thus refers to Yetzias Mitzrayim in the calendar itself, as do many mitzvos of the Torah.

After stating the basic instruction to number the months of the year after the month of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Ramban addresses the question of the names of the months commonly used. If there is a mitzvah to number the months of the year in accordance with our coming forth from Egypt, why do we use names rather than numbers?

The Ramban responds that although the mitzvah was initially to count the months of the year in accordance with the redemption from Egypt, after the later redemption from Babylon the Jewish people began to use Persian names for the months, which are the names that we use today.

This practice, he explains, is based on the prophecy stating, “It will no longer be said, ‘Hashem, who elevated the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but rather ‘Hashem, who elevated and brought forth the Children of Israel from the land of the north” (Yirmiyahu 16:14-15).

Following the redemption from Babylon and the second coming of Jews to the Land of Israel, it became the common practice to call the months using Persian names recalling the redemption from Babylon rather than the initial redemption from Egypt. The Beis Shlomo (22) adds that although the names are Persian in origin, they should not be looked down on, for the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah enacted their usage, and thus they surely contain deep secrets.

The Continuing Mitzvah of Numbering Months

Does this teaching of Ramban mean that the original numbering of the months no longer applies? This question is the subject of a dispute among authorities.

According to Sefer Ikkrim (Maamar 3, Chap. 15), the initial mitzvah to count the months of the year in accordance with the event of Yetzias Mitzrayim no longer applies. Instead of the initial mitzvah, which applied from the time of our coming forth from Egypt until the time of the redemption from Babylon, the mitzvah is now to call the months by their Persian names.

Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel, however, writes in his commentary on the Torah (and in Rosh Emunah, chap. 13) that the reason we are permitted to call the months by their Persian names is because we also continue to number them in accordance with Yetzias Mitzrayim. As he writes: “Yet, the names of the months that we use, which those who ascended from Babylon brought with them… do not amount to a transgression of the mitzvah of the month, because they continued to number the months as the first month, the second month etc., in accordance with instruction of the Torah. In addition to the number, they also called the month by the name that was used in Babylon.”

This approach is supported by one of the homilies (derashos) given by Ramban, where he writes (homily for Rosh Hashanah): “We do not mean to change the names of the month and to forget our redemption from Egypt, but rather to append the Babylonian names, to declare and to recall that we were exiled to Babylon and Hashem brought us forth.”

A somewhat different approach is mentioned by Maharam Chaviv (Ein Yaakov, beginning of Megillah). In his opinion, the mitzvah of the Torah months never instructed us to call the month by its number. It is therefore permitted to call the months of the year by any name we wish. The mitzvah, rather, is that whenever we number (as opposed to name) the month, we should recall the redemption from Egypt by establishing the first month as the month in which we were redeemed.

Mentioning the Number of the Month in Gittin and Documents

Shut Beis Shlomo (no. 22), in discussing the mitzvah of numbering the month, sides with the approach taken by Abarbanel, whereby the mitzvah of numbering the month in accordance with Yetzias Mitzrayim applies even today, in conjunction with the names commonly used.

Based on this premise, Beis Shlomo questions why we do not find any enactment in the writings of rishonim and acharonim, and even in the halachic writings of Ramban, that the proper date (that is, with the number of the month) should be written in gittin and legal documents. Indeed, we even find in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 10a) that the common method of dating was by means of the shtaros calendar, which counts the years from the reign of Alexander (see Rashi, Avodah Zarah 9a, who writes that this method of dating was used even for gittin).

If the principle halachah requires the Hebrew date, why is it not upheld?

In response to this question, the Binyan Shlomo gives two possible answers. One is that the custom at the time of the Talmud was to write the date according to the ‘calendar of kings.’ Because the year of a king begins in the month of Tishrei and not in the month of Nissan, it was impossible to use the number of the month as counted from Nissan. A second answer is that for gittin we specifically use the date from the creation of the world. Because the halachah follows the opinion that the world was created in Tishrei, it follows that the months cannot be numbered from Nissan.

However, these answers do not provide an explanation for why we make no mention of the number of the month in the monthly kiddush ha-chosesh recited on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh. To explain this difficulty, the Binyan Shlomo writes that it is possible that other authorities do not concur with the ruling of Ramban, and maintain that there is no mitzvah to label the months by their number from the month of Nissan. This, he notes, is certainly the common custom.

Indeed, it should be noted that the Rambammakes no mention (in his Mishnah Torah or elsewhere) of the mitzvah to count the months, and it emerges from the commentaries of a number of rishonim (Rashba, Ritva, and Ran to Rosh Hashanah 3a) that they do not share Ramban’s opinion on this matter.

The Hungarian Tradition of Jewish Dates

Although, as mentioned, the obligation to use a particular system of months is not broadly upheld by ancient halachic authorities, the Hungarian tradition treats the matter with utmost stringency.

According to the Chasam Sofer (Toras Moshe, Parashas Bo), there is an obligation to begin one’s letters with the day of the week (counting from Sunday), and the number of the month (counting from Nissan): “This is an explicit rebuke: That we should write in our letters and similar documents `the first day in the first month,’ to testify to the creation of the world in six days, ‘and He rested on the seventh,’ and to the redemption from Egypt—and not, Heaven forbid, the date of the nations.”

The Chasam Sofer reiterates his stance in his homilies (Homily for Seventh of Av, 570), in which he writes: “Those who have come to reform, who begin their letters with the year of the birth of the Christian messiah, are writing and signing away their portion in the World to Come!” According to Chasam Sofer, it therefore appears that there is a prohibition against using secular dates (and certainly the Christian dating system), whether concerning days of the week, months of the year, or years of the calendar.

This principle is restated in full force by the Maharam Schick (Yoreh De’ah, no. 171) – the foremost disciple of Chasam Sofer and his heir in the war against reform – who explains that aside from the general prohibition against using non-Jewish months (as drawn from the Ramban), using the Gregorian count of years transgresses the prohibition, “You shall not mention the names of other gods.”

The reason for this is that the count is based on the Christian idolatry, and by mentioning the date one thus mentions the idol. Because of this prohibition, he writes that a tombstone on which the secular date is inscribed must be smashed.

Aside from the Hungarian tradition, it is interesting to note that the Get Pashut, after questioning the validity of a get on which the secular date was written, writes that even in everyday letters one should be wary of writing the date based on the Christian calendar, and rather should use the count of years from the creation of the world.

Concerning the matter of a get, the Aruch Hashulchan (127:44) writes that a get is valid in spite of its non-Jewish date, though he concludes by stating that the matter requires further investigation (Get Mekushar also validates the get). The Levush (127:11), however, writes that is it the custom to write only the Jewish date, and the use of a non-Jewish date casts doubt over the get’s validity.

Lenient Opinions for Secular Dating

Many modern day authorities take a more lenient stance than that of Chasam Sofer and his disciples.

One of the most interesting and comprehensive halachic discussions of the subject is found in Yabia Omer (vol. 3, Yoreh De’ah, no. 9), where Rav Ovadiah Yosef challenges the very premise whereby the secular count of years dates back to the birth of the Christian “savior”. Citing numerous proofs from Talmudic and other writings, Rav Yosef demonstrates that Yeishu lived long before [and at the very least four years before] the beginning of the Gregorian calendar, and cites Otzar Yisrael (vol. 5, p. 277) that their count dates to the Roman Empire, and not to the birth of Yeishu.

There is, however, room to argue that although the dating might be off, the fact that most people believe that the Gregorian calendar counts from the birth of Yeishu is sufficient to consider it a mention of the Christian faith.

Yet, Rav Ovadyah proceeds to explain that even if the secular dating system implies a reference to the birth of Yeishu, there remains no prohibition of  “going in their ways” [of non-Jews and idolaters] because this prohibition applies only where we are not aware of any rationale behind custom, or where the custom involves immodesty (Beis Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 175). With regard to the dating system, these concerns do not arise.

He also notes that we find many Jewish leaders over the generations who used non-Jewish dates in their letters, such as the Shach (who dates a letter 3rd February 1660), Maharam Padwa, and others. Moreover, the publication details of Torah volumes always made reference to non-Jewish dates, and nobody even raised an objection to this.

Indeed, there is even a letter of the Chasam Sofer on which the non-Jewish date appears. The letter was addressed to the secular government, and it was, of course, appropriate and necessary to use the secular date – yet we nonetheless see that the prohibition is not absolute. With regard to the strong wording of the Chasam Sofer, he explains that this refers specifically to those who were seeking to “reform” the traditional Jewish ways, and his strongly worded response was intended for them alone.

Finally, Rav Ovadyah concludes: “It is therefore clear that there is no prohibition whatsoever to use the secular date. Nonetheless, there remains a virtue [of using the Jewish date], and whenever there is no great need, the months and years should be written according to the dating of Israel—and in particular in our Holy Land. When there is a need to write the secular date, it is good to also make mention of the count of years from Creation.”

Secular Date: Numbers or Names

A very similar position to the above approach (of Yabia Omer) is taken by Rav Eliezer Waldenberg in his Tzitz Eliezer (Vol. 8, No. 8), who writes that there is no inherent prohibition in using the secular date.

The two authorities disagree over the preferable way of writing non-Jewish months. According to the Yabia Omer, it is preferable to write out the name of the secular month in full (January, February, and so on), and not to mention the number of the month, so as not to uproot the number of the month counting from Nissan.

The Tzitz Eliezer, however, writes that it is better to use the number of the month and not to mention its name, because one should avoid mentioning non-Jewish months whose names derive from idolatry.

Although he opines that no prohibition is involved, the Tzitz Eliezer writes that one who uses the non-Jewish count of years should append the world leminyanam or lemisparam (according to their count). If the Jewish count is also mentioned, he writes that the practice of mentioning both dates is unquestionably permitted.

Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos vol. 1, no. 830) writes in a similar vein that there is no transgression in using non-Jewish dates, adding that it is preferable to number the Torah months, and thereby fulfill a mitzvah (based on Ramban).

Dating Checks

For writing out checks, there is no question that outside Israel, one may use the secular date without concern. We have already seen that even the Chasam Sofer used the secular date where it was required, and for checks and other business transactions, it is similarly permitted to use the secular date.

As noted, there is a dispute as to whether it is better to fully name the month, or to use the number – so that both options are acceptable (though many prefer the name to the number). Concerning the year, some prefer (where possible) to use only the final digits of the year (13 rather than 2013), to avoid counting back to the birth of Yeishu.

In Israel, it is legally acceptable to use the Hebrew date for checks, and therefore this should be preferred, like other letters and documents for which it is preferable to use the Hebrew date.

Summary:

  • According to the Ramban there is a mitzvah to count the months from Nissan, the month in which we were redeemed from Egypt. Most commentaries maintain that this mitzvah still applies today, though some maintain that there is no problem in using names for months, and the mitzvah only applies when one wishes to actually number the month of the year.

It appears however that many authorities do not concur with the Ramban, and maintain that there is no mitzvah to count the months from Nissan.

  • Authorities concur that it is preferable to use the Jewish dates, rather than secular dates, in writing letters and other documents. Some write that one should try to number the month in question (from Nissan).
  • Most authorities write that there is no prohibition in using secular dates. The Hungarian tradition, however, sees the matter in a more stringent light.
  • When using non-Jewish dates, authorities dispute whether one should write out the name of the month in full, rather than write a number. Some (Be’er Moshe) also write that one should seek to write the year in short rather than in full (10 rather than 2010).

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