New American Reform Responsa

209. Hebrew Yahrzeit Dates

QUESTION: My congregation for many years notified individuals of the date of their Yahrzeit, but has chosen to do so with the English dates. We have now switched to the Hebrew dates, but there has been some protest. Is one preferable over the other? (Harry Rubenstein, New Jersey)

ANSWER: As we look at the history of the Jewish calendar we realize that the base year for numbering the years has changed through the ages. In the Biblical period the numbers were reckoned according to the reign of a particular king. As this method proved cumbersome in a more complex society, especially one which dealt with individuals outside of the Jewish kingdom, the Seleucid system of numbering was adopted. Later still the destruction of the Temple was used as the base year, and sometime in the Talmudic or Gaonic period numbering the years according to the creation, the system now generally used, was introduced. For centuries several systems existed side by side. We should note that when the Seleucid system was adopted it carried no religious overtones, simply the practical implications of Seleucid rule over a large area; it was the system by which contracts had to be dated (minyan shetarot). There were authorities in the Mishnaic period who felt that the date according to this system had to be included in a divorce in order to validate it (M Git 8.6). Although Joseph Caro much later indicated that this system of dating was used simply "for the sake of peace" (Bet Yosef to Tur Even Haezer 127). We still find some remnants of this Seleucid dating up to the sixteenth century in Egypt.

Through the entire Middle Ages the Christian and Muslim calendar had strong religious overtones, and so they could not be used. However in the last centuries the Christian calendar has become secularized and is generally utilized for practical and commercial relationships. Leading rabbinic authorities have not hesitated to use it, so for example Moses Isserles in some of his responsa (#51), or much later the extremely conservative Moses Sofer (Igrot Mosheh Even Haezer #43). The Jewish calendar remained especially for life cycle events and, of course, the religious seasons. All of this indicates that there is little hesitation about using the secular calendar for practical affair. However, it is important to use the Jewish calendar for Yahrzeit and in religious documents. Our people will be aware of the Hebrew calendar only if they are regularly reminded. We do this through announcing the new month, through Hebrew dates in our bulletins and personal correspondence.

The Yahrzeit notification should use the Hebrew date. Furthermore why would it be necessary to inform a family of the Yahrzeit date as they are unlikely to forget the secular date? They may, however, have trouble assigning the proper Hebrew date. It is appropriate to use the Hebrew dating system.

April 1988

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