Seder Olam

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SEDER OLAM (Heb. סֵדֶר עוֹלָם; "The Order of the World"), name of two midrashic, chronological works called respectively Seder Olam Rabbah ("The Great Seder Olam") and Seder Olam Zuta ("The Small Seder Olam").

Seder Olam Rabbah

Seder Olam is mentioned in the Talmud (Shab. 88a; Yev. 82b; et al.) and is ascribed by the Palestinian amora R. Johanan (third century) to the second-century tannaYose b. *Ḥalafta (Yev. 82b; Nid. 46b). The work is divided into three parts, each consisting of ten chapters. Part one enumerates the dates of major events from the creation of the world until the death of Moses and the crossing of the Jordan by the Israelites under Joshua; part two, from the crossing of the Jordan to the murder of Zechariah, king of Israel; part three, chapters 21–27, from the murder of Zechariah to the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar; and chapter 28, from the destruction of the Temple to the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus. Chapter 29 and the first part of chapter 30 cover the Persian period, which is stated to be only 34 years. The larger part of chapter 30 contains a summary of events from the conquest of Persia by Alexander until the Bar Kokhba Revolt. This summary may be an epitome of a large section shortened by some later editor uninterested in post-biblical history. The book is written in a dry but clear Hebrew style. It is embellished with midrashic interpretations of biblical passages which are used as sources for the chronological calculations.

Yose b. Ḥalafta, the presumed author of Seder Olam Rabbah, probably had access to old traditions that also underlay the chronological computations of the Jewish Hellenistic chronographer *Demetrius (third century b.c.e.). The most significant confusion in Yose's calculation is the compression of the Persian period, from the rebuilding of the Temple by Zerubbabel in 516 b.c.e. to the conquest of Persia by Alexander, to no more than 34 years. Like other rabbinic scholars, he believed that Zerubbabel (sixth century b.c.e.), Malachi, Ezra, Nehemiah (all fifth century b.c.e.), and Simeon the Just (third century) were all contemporaries. The work in its present form has gone through many hands. Some quotations from it in the Talmud are missing in the extant text (see bibl. Ratner, Mavo, 118ff.). On the other hand, the book contains many later additions (ibid., 134ff.).

Seder Olam Rabbah was the first to establish the era "from the creation of the world" (ab creatione mundi, abbreviated A.M. for anno mundi). Utilizing the biblical chronology and reconstructing post-biblical history as well as he could, the author arrived at the conclusion that the world was created 3828 years before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. According to this calculation the destruction took place in the year 68, which is in contradiction to the accepted chronology that it took place in the year 70 c.e. An attempt to harmonize the contradiction was made by E. Frank (see bibl.). It was a long time until the reckoning according to the anno mundi era took root in Jewish chronology. For many centuries the calculation of the Seder Olam Rabbah was of interest only to talmudic students who tried to satisfy their curiosity for historical reconstruction. The usual calculation accepted by Jews in talmudic and even post-talmudic times was that of the Seleucid era, beginning with the year 312 b.c.e., and usually referred to in Jewish literature as minyan shetarot ("dating of documents"). Only when the center of Jewish life moved from Babylonia to Europe and the calculation according to the Seleucid era became meaningless was it replaced by that of the anno mundi era of the Seder Olam.

The first mention of the anno mundi date is in the chronological book Baraita di-Shemu'el (eighth–ninth centuries; see A. Epstein, Mi-Kadmoniyyot ha-Yehudim (1957), 18, 193), on tombstones in Venosa, southern Italy (ninth century; see U.(M.D.) Cassuto, in: Kedem, 2 (1945), 99–120), and in the commentary of Shabbetai *Donnolo (tenth century, Italy) on the Sefer Yeẓirah (ed. by David Castelli (1880), 3). From the 11th century onward it became dominant in most of the Jewish communities in the world. In the 16th century, Azariah de *Rossi was the first Jewish scholar to doubt the antiquity of the usage of this era (see Me'or Einayim, ch. 25). Until the 12th century the book was known only as Seder Olam, but the word rabbah was then added in order to differentiate it from the chronicle Seder Olam Zuta. The first to use the name Seder Olam Rabbah was Abraham b. Nathan ha-Yarḥi (see Sefer ha-Manhig, 52ab).

The book has gone through many editions and was commented upon by many scholars, among them Jacob *Emden, *Elijah b. Solomon Zalman Gaon of Vilna, and B. Ratner, who devoted to the book a separate large introduction (mavo) containing valuable critical references. A Latin translation by G. Genebara of Seder Olam Rabbah and Seder Olam Zuta appeared in 1577, and another one appeared in 1692. An attempt at a critical edition of the book was made by Alexander Marx, who published the first ten chapters of it with a German translation in 1903.

Seder Olam Zuta

This is an anonymous early medieval chronicle. Written mostly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic, it consists of ten chapters. The first six chapters deal with the chronology of 50 generations from Adam to Jehoiachin, king of Judah, who was exiled by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon and according to this chronicle was the first of the Babylonian exilarchs. Chapters 7–10 deal with 39 generations from Jehoiachin until the end of the Babylonian exilarchate under the Sassanid dynasty. The object of the chronicle is presumably to show that the exilarchs were of Davidic descent and that the lineage of these exilarchs had died out in Babylon when Mar Zutra (ii) left Babylonia for Ereẓ Israel in 520. A detailed account of Mar Zutra's adventures is given at the end of the book to substantiate this contention. This part, which enumerates the exilarchs of the fourth and fifth centuries, is historically important as it is the only source of information for this period. The Karaites also traced back the descent of their exilarchs through this record.

There is a difference of opinion concerning the time of composition of this chronicle. Many hold that it was written about 804, which corresponds to the date given in the De Rossi manuscript (Parma) published by Schechter (mgwj, 39 (1895), 23–28). However, this may be a later addition. According to others it was written in the time of the *savoraim (sixth century), and others claim that it was written when there was considerable doubt about the authenticity of the genealogy of the Babylonian exilarchs (second half of the seventh century; see *Bustanai b. Ḥaninai). For the biblical period the author drew on the Seder Olam Rabbah and for the talmudic period, on the chronicles or chronological lists which were composed in the Babylonian academies (Sifrei Zikhronot le-Veit David, Sifrei Beit David; see Iggeret Sherira Ga'on, ed. Lewin, 96). Abraham Zacuto included the greater part of this chronicle in his Sefer Yuḥasin (see Sefer Yuḥasin ha-Shalem, ed. by H. Flipowski and A.Ḥ. Freimann, 91–93).


seder olam rabbah: B. Ratner, Mavo le-Seder Olam Rabba (1894); idem (ed.), Seder Olam Rabba (1897), reprint with introd. by S.K. Mirsky (1966); A. Marx (ed.), Seder Olam (1903); E. Frank, Talmudic and Rabbinical Chronology (1956), 11ff.; Baron, Social2, 8 (1958), 204–10. seder olam zuta: F. Lazarus, in: Bruell's Jahrbuecher, 10 (1890), 157–70; M. Grossberg (ed.), Seder Olam Zuta (1910); Ḥ. Tykocinski, in: Devir, 1 (1923), 171ff.; A.D. Goode, in: jqr, 31 (1940/41), 149–69; M.J. Weinstock (ed.), Seder Olam Zuta ha-Shalem (1957); Dinur, Golah, 1 pt. 1 (19582), 264f.

[Judah M. Rosenthal]