Re: Age of the Earth

Sun, 27 Jul 1997 15:05:51, -0500

sIn #50, L. Rozenblat asks "how modern Judaism deals with scientific claims
about the age of the Earth." I presume that Mr. Rozenblat is referring to
the fact that scientists estimate the Earth as being billions of years old,
whereas we refer to the current year as number 5757 since the Creation. I
am aware of two general approaches to this question.

The first approach notes that the traditional way of numbering the Jewish
year is a custom, but is not meant to be a statement of fact that must be
accepted as true. Indeed, Chazal (the Jewish sages) indicated this in
several ways. For example, the standard ketubah (marriage contract) begins:
"On this [X] day of the week, the [Y] day of month [Z] in the year 5757
since the creation of the world according to the way we number the years
here in [place]." The closing phrase would be superfluous is we were
supposed to accept as absolute fact the notion that this is the 5,757th year
since Creation. Also, when we write a date, we do not include the thousands
number, also as an indication that the number of years since Creation is not
certain. For example, we refer to the current year as Toph, Shin, Nun,
Zayin, which adds up to 757; we do not put a Hey at the beginning to
represent 5,000. And of course, once we acknowledge that we do not know how
many years have passed since Creation, there is no reason why that number
could not be billions, although for some this ties in with the question of
how long was a "yom" (day) of Creation. Nothing in the Torah says that a
"yom" of creation was 24 hours long, and Chazal recognized that each "yom"
of creation could have been much longer than that. Indeed, Chazal placed no
limit upon how long each "yom" of creation was, and therefore there is no
reason why the first "yom" of Creation, for example, could not have lasted a
billion years according to the way we keep time today.

The second approach, which I have seen discussed in a letter attributed to
the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, z"l, accepts (at least for purposes of
discussion) that this is in fact the 5,757th year since Creation, and that
each "yom" of Creation was 24 hours long. It then offers two possible
explanations of the contrary "scientific evidence" concerning the age of the
Earth. First, it is possible that Hashem planted the "scientific evidence"
on Earth, in order to test us as to whether we would accept His Torah as
true regardless of any apparent "scientific evidence" to the contrary.
Second, the scientific methods for dating the Earth, particularly Carbon-14
dating, assume that decay rates and other physical phenomena have been
constant at all times since the initiation of creation. It is possible,
however, that different decay rates applied under the very different
conditions in the early stages of creation.

I personally subscribe to the first approach, so I may not have done justice
to the second one. I hope, however, that I have at least given Mr.
Rozenblat a taste of how the Torah community addresses his concern. He
might also be interested in a book that was published 3-5 years ago,
entitled "Genensis and the Big Bang." by Dr.Gerald Schroeder - any decent
Jewish bookstore probably has it, and it might even be available through
Project Genesis.

Finally, I note that about a year ago, I saw a bentscher (booklet with the
Grace After Meals) from a bar mitzva in Har Nof (a neighborhood in
Yerushalayim), on which a Hey was printed at the beginning of the year. I
wrote to the baal simcha (the person whose son was the bar mitzva), noted
that I had never seen this before, and asked him whether it is the custom
there to put a Hey in the year. He acknowledged that the Hey was intended
to represent 5,000, but, unfortunately, he ignored the rest of my inquiry. I
would not be surprised, however, if there are people who are now doing this
as a way of indicating their rejection of the "scientific evidence"
concerning the age of the Earth.
Jeff Zuckerman