13. What the people of Zion picked up in Babylon

“Wailing Wall” painting by Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904).  The Wailing Wall, or Western Wall, in Jerusalem is what’s left of the wall enclosing the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.  Source: Sotheby’s, public domain {{PD-US}}.

My last two posts were on Mesopotamia and Egypt which came to prominence around 5000 years ago in the Early Bronze Age.  Over the next few 2500 years, empires rose and fell in Mesopotamia while Egypt, a safe distance away, remained one distinct civilization.  Then, the Hittite Empire, which had emerged in present-day Turkey, began to challenge Egyptian supremacy in the region directly East of the Mediterranean Sea.  This land was called Canaan then.  The tribes who occupied it were trapped between great powers.

But eventually those great powers crumbled while something that began with a few tribes of Canaan endured and spread to over half the world’s people.  This was the worship of one God in the tradition of a legendary disciple named Abraham.

It might have begun during the dark period from 1200 to 900 BCE between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.  Nearly every major city in the Eastern Mediterranean was destroyed.  The Hittite empire disintegrated.  Egypt survived but entered a long period of decline.  The Neo-Assyrian Empire, which now controlled Mesopotamia, became the dominant force in the region.

In its shadow, a few tribes in southern Canaan consolidated to form the Kingdom of Israel.  According to the Hebrew Bible, this happened as early as the 11th century BCE.  To the south of Israel was the city of Jerusalem in a region called Judah.  Israel’s second king, David, who had gained fame in his youth for killing the giant Goliath, conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital.  His son and successor, Solomon, built the First Temple in Jerusalem.  Following Solomon’s death, Israel and Judah split into separate kingdoms.

On the left is Michelangelo’s “David” (1501-1504) at the Galleria dell’Academia in Florence.  Photograph by Jorg Bittner Unna via Wikimedia Commons.  The statue had special meaning for the Republic of Florence since it, like Israel, was surrounded on all sides by powerful rival states.  On the right is a painting, possibly by James Tissot (1896-1902), depicting the consecration of Jerusalem’s First Temple by King Solomon.  Source: Jewish Museum, New York, public domain {{PD-US}}.

There is little or no archaeological evidence for a Kingdom of Israel and Judah ruled by David or Solomon.  Most present-day historicans believe the Kingdom of Israel was founded in the 10th century BCE.  The Kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem might have emerged independently only in the 8th century BCE.  Soon afterwards, the Neo-Assyrian Empire captured Israel but allowed Judah to continue existing as a vassal state.  Many Israelites fled to Judah.  Jerusalem continued to grow and prosper.

More and more people in Jerusalem, including some of the kings, began to see Yahweh, a god previously worshiped by a few scattered tribes, as the one and only God.  These people would come to be known as Yehudim or Jews.  Their religion would be called Judaism, after the Kingdom of Judah, which was itself named after a grandson of Abraham.

Life would always remain precarious for the Jews.  It was only a matter of time until the next invasion.

In the 7th century BCE, the Neo-Babylonians defeated the Neo-Assyrians to take over Mesopotamia.  Their second king, Nabu-kudurri-usur II (or Nebuchadnezzar II) seized Jerusalem.  He had become famous for building the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  Now, he would become infamous for destroying Solomon’s Temple.  Most of the Jews were then exiled to Babylonia.  They would be freed nearly a century later when the Persians defeated the Neo-Babylonians but many would choose to stay.

“The Flight of the Prisoners” painting (c. 1896-1902) by James Tissot.  Source: Jewish Museum, New York, public domain {{PD-US}}.

What the Jews in Babylonia accomplished will be familiar to every successful immigrant today.  They retained their faith and identity while adopting elements of the local culture, including the language and, of course, the calendar.

The Babylonians had spent centuries perfecting the formula between lunar months and solar years.  In other words, they wanted integer values for x and y where x years would equal y months.  If they knew this, they could be proactive in adding an extra month to keep the year in line with the seasons.  By the 6th century BCE, they had figured out that eight tropical years was almost equal to 99 lunar months.  Since 12 x 8 = 96, you would add three months every eight years.  Such a calendar would only drift from the seasons by 1.6 days every eight years.  Later, under Persian rule, Babylonian astronomers came up with an even more precise formula – seven extra months every nineteen years.  That would make the calendar accurate to within one day in 210 years.

The Jews adopted this calendar and have periodically modified it.  An extra 30 day month is added to Years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19.  The names of most of the months still retain their Babylonian origins.

Hebrew Months
Nisan (30 days)
Iyar (29 days)
Sivan (30 days)
Tamus (29 days)
Av (30 days)
Elul (29 days)
Tishrei (30 days)
Marcheshvan or Cheshvan (29/30 days)
Kislev (30/29 days)
Tevet (29 days)
Shevet (30 days)
Adar (29 days)

In leap years, Adar I (30 days) is added after Shevet and the regular Adar is referred to as Adar II.

The ecclesiastical new year begins in spring on the first day of the month of Nisan.  Passover begins on the 15th of Nisan.  The civil new year begins in autumn on the first day of the month of Tishrei and is observed as Rosh Hashanah.  Yom Kippur, the holiest day, is on the tenth of Tishrei.  Months alternate between 29 and 30 days except for the two months following Tishrei which can have either 29 or 30 days.

Since Jewish months always begin on a new moon, Jewish festivals always occur during the same moon phase.  The first of each month is a minor holiday known as Rosh Chodesh.  Passover, Purim, and the first day of Sukko always fall on a full moon.

Jewish monotheism is evident in how the days of the week are named.  Other than the Sabbath, the days are simply named “First Day,” “Second Day,” etc., following the creation story in the Book of Genesis.  Hebrew is not alone in this but certainly in the minority.  It is more common for the days of the week to be named after the Sun, Moon and five visible planets.  This goes back to the Babylonians or the Greeks, who worshiped heavenly bodies as gods, a practice which the Jews completely rejected.

Over the centuries, complicated rules were added to the Jewish calendar to ensure that certain dates not fall on certain days of the week.  For instance, Rosh Hashanah should never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday.

The Jewish calendar is a living monument to ancient astronomy and mathematics.  Astronomers should love it because it accurately tracks lunar phases and seasons.  Mathematicians should love it because it is based on calculations instead of observations which means it is consistent, predictable, and objective.


Author: Bhasker Moorthy

I'm a Professor of Astronomy at Harper College in Palatine, IL, USA. My email address is bmoorthy [at] harpercollege.edu.

2 thoughts on “13. What the people of Zion picked up in Babylon”

  1. So, tell me how man’s quantification of time relates to man’s theory(ies) of space time. Philosophically speaking, does time even exist or is it just another way that man holds onto its ego. For if we did not have calendars, time keeping, record keeping or the like- how would we track our existence. How would we hold onto mankind’s ego as a whole. If timekeeping is a form of mankind’s ego then is there still space time? Or is that another attempt to nail down and provide a unwavering formula to the ever changing, ebb and flow of the conglomeration of creation?
    What is your opinion on mankind’s time keeping and the inflexibility of its theories of space time and the actual malleable flow of the universe?


  2. Wow. Your question seems to touch on philosophy, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and theoretical physics. I’m not an expert on any of those topics, but since you asked…I think we can break this down into four questions:

    1. Does time exist
    2. Does everyone/everything experience time
    3. Is there a reality independent of our perceptions
    4. Is science on the wrong track because we’re making wrong assumptions regarding the nature of the universe in order to hold on to our egos

    1. At the mundane, macroscopic level, the answer to the first question is obviously “Yes.” Without time, you can’t have change; there can’t be a before and after. Just about everything we encounter undergoes change.

    2. When we get down to the level of fundamental particles, we have massive particles which experience time and massless particles which might not. This is related to the speed of light. Time slows down when you move fast. The closer you get to the speed of light, the more time slows down for you. If you can travel at the speed of light, time should come to a standstill. The more massive a particle is, the more energy it would require to accelerate to the speed of light. One of the lightest known particles is the neutrino. A couple of decades ago it was not known if neutrinos have any mass at all. Then it was found that they can change from one type to another. This meant they experience time (and, by extension, that they don’t travel at the speed of light and that they have mass).

    3. My answers to #1 and #2 might assume that the answer to #3 is “Yes.” I don’t know. I’m leaving this alone.

    4. I don’t think so. I’m convinced that our theoretical physicists are interested in constructing models of nature that are consistent with the observations, regardless of whether or not those models reinforce our egos. They haven’t found one formula that explains all of creation. There are major theories that explain different things and are largely consistent with each other with some notable exceptions. I don’t think the issue is that we’re trying to pin down something that can’t be pinned down because it’s constantly changing. The changes aren’t completely random. Some things go in one direction, not back and forth. For example, the universe has been expanding and cooling for billions of years. It is not constantly expanding and contracting, heating up and cooling down.


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