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Seder Olam Rabbah (Hebrew: סדר עולם רבה) is the earliest post-exilic chronicle preserved in the Hebrew language. Tradition considers it to have been written about 160 CE by Yose b. Halafta, which is not unreasonable, but it was probably also supplemented and edited at a later period (Strack & Stemberger 1991). In the Babylonian Talmud this chronicle is several times referred to simply as the "Seder Olam" (Shab. 88a; Yeb. 82b; Nazir 5a; Meg. 11b; Ab. Zarah 8b; Niddah 46b), and it is quoted as such by the more ancient Biblical commentators, including Rashi. But with the 12th century it began to be designated as "Seder Olam Rabbah," to distinguish it from a later, smaller chronicle, Seder Olam Zuṭa; it was first so designated by Abraham ibn Yarḥi (Ha-Manhig, p. 2a, Berlin, 1855).
Structure of the Work
In its present form the Seder Olam Rabbah consists of 30 chapters, each 10 chapters forming a section, or "gate."
The work is a chronological record, extending from Adam to the revolt of Bar Kokba in the reign of Hadrian, the Persian period being compressed into 52 years (Stack & Stemberger 1991). The chronicle is complete only up to the time of Alexander the Great; the period from Alexander to Hadrian occupies a very small portion of the work—the end of the 30th chapter.
It has been concluded, therefore, that originally the Seder Olam was more extensive and consisted of two parts, the second of which, dealing with the post-Alexandrian period, has been lost, with the exception of a small fragment that was added by the copyists to the first part.
Many passages quoted in the Talmud are missing in the edition of the Seder Olam which has survived.
Object of Work
The author probably designed the work for calendrical purposes, to determine the era of the creation; his system, adopted as early as the 3rd century, is still followed. Adhering closely to the Bible texts, he endeavored not only to elucidate many passages, but also to determine certain dates which are not indicated in the Bible, but which may be inferred by calculation. In many cases, however, he gave the dates according to tradition, and inserted, besides, the sayings and halakot of preceding rabbis and of his contemporaries. In discussing Biblical chronology he followed three principles:
- To assume that the intention of the Biblical author was, wherever possible, to give exact dates
- To assign to each of a series of events the shortest possible duration of time, where necessary, in order to secure agreement with the Biblical text
- To adopt the lesser of two possible numbers.
The following examples will illustrate the manner in which these principles are applied. The confusion of languages is said to have taken place in the days of Peleg (Flood, or 1996 years after the creation of the world.). The author concludes that the first year of Peleg's life cannot be meant, as at the time of the confusion Peleg had a younger brother, Joktan, and the latter had several children; nor could it have occurred during the middle years of his life, for Peleg lived 239 years, and the designation "middle years" is not an exact one ( ); had the redactor intended to indicate only a general period, he would have used the phrase "in the days of Peleg and Joktan." The Bible must therefore mean that the confusion of languages took place in the last year of Peleg's life, and by comparing the dates of the previous generations, the author concluded that it occurred 340 years after the
Examples of method
After dealing in the first 10 chapters with the chronology of the period from the creation of the world to the death of Moses, the writer proceeds to determine the dates of the events which occurred after the Israelites, led by Joshua, entered the Holy Land. Here Biblical chronology presents many difficulties, dates not being clearly given, and in many cases the Seder Olam was used by the later Biblical commentators as a basis of exegesis. Thus, it is known that from the entry of the Israelites into the Holy Land to the time of Jephthah a period of 300 years elapsed (Judges xi. 26). By computing the life periods of the Judges and assuming that Jephthah sent his message, in which he alluded to the 300 years, in the second year of his rulership, the writer concluded that the reign of Joshua lasted 28 years. It may be added that he placed the making of the image for Micah (ib. xvii. 1 et seq.) and the destruction of nearly the whole tribe of Benjamin in consequence of the wrong done to the Levite and his concubine in Gibeah (ib. xix. 1 et seq.) in the time of Othniel.
It is further stated that Solomon began to build the Temple in Jerusalem in the fourth year of his reign, 480 years after the Exodus (I Kings vi. 1), that is, 440 years after the Israelites entered the Holy Land. Thus there was a period of 140 years from the second year of Jephthah to the building of the Temple. The author of the Seder 'Olam concluded that the forty years during which the Israelites were harassed by the Philistines (Judges xiii. 1) did not begin after the death of Abdon, as it would seem, but after that of Jephthah, and terminated with the death of Samson. Consequently there was a period of 83 years from the second year of Jephthah to the death of Eli, who ruled 40 years (I Sam. iv. 18), the last year of Samson being the first of Eli's judgeship. At that time the Tabernacle was removed from Shiloh, whither it had been transferred from Gilgal, where it had been for 14 years under Joshua; consequently it remained at Shiloh for a period of 369 years, standing all that time on a stone foundation. It is also to be concluded that Samuel judged Israel for 11 years, which with the two years of Saul (ib. xiii. 2), the 40 of David's reign (I Kings ii. 11), and the four of Solomon's reign, make 57 years, during which the Tabernacle was first at Nob, then at Gibeon.
The chronology of the Kings was more difficult, as there were differences to reconcile between the book of Kings and book of Chronicles. Here especially the author applied the principle of "fragments of years" ("shanim meḳuṭṭa'ot"), by which he regarded the remainder of the last year of any king's reign as identical with the first year of his successor's. In the 20th chapter, which closes the second part ("Baba Meẓia"), the author deals with the forty-eight prophets that flourished in the land of Israel. Beginning with Joshua, the author reviews the whole prophetic period which terminated with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, elucidating as he proceeds many obscure points. Thus, the prophet mentioned in Judges vi. 8 was, according to the Seder 'Olam, Phinehas, and the man of God that came to Eli (I Sam. ii. 27) was Elkanah.
The prophecy of Obadiah occurred in the time of Amaziah, King of Judah (comp., however, Yalḳ., Obad.), and those of Joel, Nahum, and Habakkuk in the reign of Manasseh. After devoting the 21st chapter to the prophets that lived before the conquest of the land, to the seven prophetesses, and to the seven prophets of the Gentiles, the author resumes the chronology of the Kings. He continues it to the end of ch. xxvii., where he reaches the destruction of the Temple, which, according to his computation, occurred after it had existed 410 years, or 3,338 years after the creation of the world. Then follow the 70 years of the Captivity and the 420 years of the Second Temple, which was destroyed, as may be seen, in the year 3828 of the Creation.
The 420 years of the Second Temple are divided into the following periods: the domination of the Persians, 34 years; of the Greeks, 180 years; of the Maccabees, 103 years; of the Herods, 103 years. It will be seen that the allowance, contrary to historical facts, of only 34 years for the Persian domination is necessary if agreement with the Biblical text is to be insisted upon; for it is stated (Dan. ix. 24) that the second exile was to take place after 70 Sabbaths of years (= 490 years). If from this number the 70 years of the first Captivity be deducted, and the beginning of Alexander's domination over Land of Israel be placed, in accordance with Talmudical evidence, at 386 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, there remain only 34 for the Persian rule. From the destruction of the Second Temple, which, according to the Seder 'Olam, occurred at the end of the last week of the Sabbatical year, to the suppression of Bar Kokba's revolt, or the destruction of Bethar, was a period of 52 years. But the text here is very confused, and gave rise to various emendations and interpretations (comp. Salzer in Berliner's Magazin, iv. 141 et seq.).
Assuming that this "Seder Olam" is the same as the "Seder Olam" mentioned in the Talmud, Jewish authorities generally ascribe its authorship to the well-known Talmudist Jose b. Halafta, on the strength of R. Johanan's statement, "The tanna of the 'Seder 'Olam' was R. Jose" (Yeb. 82b; Niddah 46b). Johanan's comment is supported by the fact that Jose was known as one who occupied himself with Jewish chronology; further, many sayings of R. Jose's quoted in the Talmud are paralleled in the Seder Olam.
Objecting, however, that the Seder Olam often conflicts with opinions of Jose's expressed in the Talmud, that Jose is referred to in it in the third person ("R. Jose said"), and finally that mention is made in it of Talmudists that lived later than Jose, Ratner (Mabo leha-Seder 'Olam Rabbah, Wilna, 1894) concludes that Jose was not its author; he thinks that Jose was only the principal authority of the Seder 'Olam, and that Johanan's statement, mentioned above, is similar to another statement made by him—"Any anonymous opinion in the Mishnah belongs to R. Meïr" (Sanh. 86a), although the redactor of the Mishnah was Judah I. Ratner further supposes that R. Johanan himself compiled the work, following generally the opinion of R. Jose. He endeavors to prove this view by showing that many utterances of R. Johanan are taken from the Seder Olam.
Ratner's objections, however, are answered by other scholars, who think that in the Seder 'Olam Jose preserved the generally accepted opinions, even when they were contrary to his own, as is clearly indicated in Niddah (l.c.). Besides, this work, like all the works of the ancient Talmudists, underwent many alternations at the hands of the copyists. Very often, too, finding that the utterance of a later rabbi agreed with the Seder 'Olam, the copyists inserted the name of that rabbi. A careful examination shows that certain additions are later than the latest midrashim, and it may be that Abraham ibn Yarḥi (l.c.), Isaac Lattes (Sha'are Ẓiyyon, p. 25), and Menahem Meïri (introduction to Abot, p. 14), who seem to place the redaction of the Seder 'Olam at the time when the Massektot (tractates) Derek Ereẓ Rabbah, the Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, the Soferim, and other later treatises were composed, may have referred to the work in its present form.
Besides directly quoting the Seder 'Olam, the Talmud often alludes to it under "tanya" (= "we learned") "tana" (= "he learned"), "tanu rabbanan" (= "our teachers learned"), "amar mar" (= "the teacher said"): often the sentences following these phrases are found in the Seder 'Olam. In addition, many of its passages have been taken into the Mishnah without any allusion to their source. The Seder 'Olam is not mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, although several passages in the latter are based on it. Finally, many of the sayings of the Seder 'Olam have been taken into the Mekilta, the Sifra, and the Sifre.
- The Seder 'Olam Rabbah first appeared at Mantua, in 1514, together with the Seder 'Olam Zuṭa, the Megillat Ta'anit, and Abraham ibn David's Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah. It has been reedited several times since then.
- In 1577 the Seder 'Olam Rabbah and the Seder 'Olam Zuṭa were published in Paris, with a Latin translation by Gilbert Genebrard. The former was edited, with a Latin language translation, notes, and introduction, by John Meyer (Amsterdam, 1699).
- Commentaries on the work were written by Jacob Emden (with the text, Hamburg, 1757), by Elijah Wilna (with the text, Shklov, 1801), and by Enoch Zundel b. Joseph (a double commentary, Eẓ Yosef and Anaf Yosef, Wilna, 1845).
- The three latest editions prior to 1906 are those of Ratner (with critical and explanatory notes, Wilna, 1897), A. Marx (who published the first ten chapters, basing the text upon different manuscripts and supplying it with a German language translation and an introduction; Berlin, 1903), and Jeroham Meïr Leiner (containing the commentaries of Jacob Emden and Elijah Wilna, and the editor's annotations under the title Me'r 'Ayin, Warsaw, 1904).
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.. The JE cites the following works:
- Fürst, in Orient, Lit. vii. 547 et seq.;
- idem, Bibl. Jud. ii. 107-108;
- Grätz, Gesch. 3d ed., iv. 184, and note 14;
- A. Marx, introduction to his edition of the Seder 'Olam;
- B. Ratner, Mabo leha-Seder 'Olam Rabbah;
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. cols. 1433-1434;
- Weiss, Dor, ii. 257 et seq.;
- Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüdische Litteratur, iii. 299 et seq.;
- Zunz, G. V. p. 85.
- Strack, H.L. & G. Stemberger (1991), written at Edinburgh, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, T&T Clark.