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642 Parts — More Concerning the Saadya— Ben Meir Controversy / תרמ"ב חלקים: עוד על מחלוקת רב סעדיה גאון ובן מאיר

אברהם לסקר, דניאל י' לסקר, Arnold A. Lasker and Daniel J. Lasker
Tarbiẕ / תרביץ
כרך ס‎, חוברת א‎ (תשרי-כסלו תשנ"א), pp. 119-128
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23598911
Page Count: 10
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642 Parts — More Concerning the Saadya— Ben Meir Controversy / תרמ"ב חלקים: עוד על מחלוקת רב סעדיה גאון ובן מאיר
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Abstract

In the year 921 a calendrical controversy broke out between the Jewish communities of the Land of Israel and of Babylonia. It revolved around the rule of postponing Rosh Ha-Shana from the day of the Tishri molad if the latter is a 'late molad' (molad zaqen). The standard Babylonian custom, championed by R. Saadya Gaon, was to declare a molad as a molad zaqen if it occurred at noon or later. The leader of the Jews of the Land of Israel, R. Aharon Ben Meir, however, declared that it is one which falls at noon plus 642 parts (ḥalaqim) or later (Since each 'part' is 3 1/3 seconds, 642 'parts' equal 35 minutes, 40 seconds.) The difference between Saadya and Ben Meir became evident when it was realized that in two years' time (4684 A.M. = 923), the Tishri molad would fall at noon plus 237 parts, within the bounds of the controversial 642 parts. The leaders of Babylonian Jewry declared it to be a molad zaqen requiring a postponement. Ben Meir ruled that no postponement was necessary; the Jews of the Land of Israel followed his ruling. The disagreement, in turn, caused the two communities to have different lengths for the two years preceding 4684, leading to different dates for the holidays as well. (For a fuller explanation of the relationship between the molad and the calculated Jewish calendar, see the authors' 'Behold, A Moon is Born! How the Jewish Calendar Works', Conservative Judaism, 41:4 [Summer 1989], pp. 5-19.) Scholars have long debated the reason for Ben Meir's opinion. Hayyim Bornstein, the calendar expert who gave the most publicity to this controversy in his Maḥloqet Rav Saadya Gaon U-Ven Meir (Warsaw 1904), theorized that Ben Meir added the 642 parts as at least a partial compensation for the difference between the Land of Israel and Babylonia. He stated that, since there were believed to be, according to ancient calculations, a difference of 14 degrees of longitude between the two places, Jerusalem time would be calculated to be 56 minutes (four minutes for each degree) earlier than in Babylonia. According to Bornstein, then, Ben Meir, as a proponent of the primacy of Jerusalem, apparently wanted the determination of the molad zaqen to be based on the time there. Most scholars have followed Bornstein in assuming a time differential of 56 minutes but have been unwilling to accept his conclusion. Yet none of the theories that they have offered has been generally accepted. The authors of the present article argue here for a return to Bornstein's theory, but using the true difference in longitude between the Land of Israel and Babylonia. The true distance is not Bornstein's 14 degrees (leading to a time difference of 56 minutes) but rather slightly less than nine degrees (an actual differential of slightly less than 36 minutes, consistent with 642 parts). From a previous article of Bornstein, it is evident that he knew this fact although he never mentioned it in his book on the controversy or in later articles. His critics give no evidence whatsoever of having checked the actual geographical conditions. While some may argue that the true distance between the two countries is irrelevant since Ben Meir could have known only the generally accepted distance between them (i.e., 14 degrees), the fact remains that (1) there was at least one tenth-century Muslim geographer/astronomer who gave the distance as 9 degrees; and (2) the likelihood that Ben Meir used almost the exact time differential purely by chance is quite remote. The authors further argue that the 642 parts were added not only bacause they represented an almost exact compensation for the time differential, but also because the figure of 642 was often used in contemporary Jewish calendrical charts and was undoubtedly a familiar number. (The argument here assumes that Ben Meir considered the time of the molad used for the calendar — the same molad used to this day to calculate the calendar — to follow Babylonian local time and not Jerusalem time. Hence, there was a need to adjust to Jerusalem time.) An appendix discusses various interpretations of a difficult passage from Rosh Ha-Shana 20b.

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