Seder Olam – Book Review

Many Torah commentaries cite Seder Olam as a source. This article takes a look at Seder Olam and the role it could play in your Torah learning.

We’ll start by clarifying its name and looking at the earliest known mentions of it.

What is Seder Olam?

The full name of this work is Midrash Seder Olam Rabbah.

Most printed editions of Seder Olam also include two additional rabbinic works: Midrash Seder Olam Katan and Megillat Taanit. However, I will not be reviewing them in this article.

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Seder Olam in the Gemara

I’m aware of 3 times that Seder Olam Rabbah is mentioned in Gemara.

The first is from Tractate Shabbat:

Gemara Shabbat 88a

Come and hear: For it was taught in the Seder Olam: As to the Nisan in which the Israelites departed Egypt …

Next it is mentioned in Tractate Yevamot:

Gemara Yevamot 82b

For it was taught in Seder Olam: Which your fathers possessed, …

The same discussion with just slightly different wording appears in the Gemara Niddah 46b.

In the above quotations I have not included all of the text from Seder Olam since it’s not important for our purposes here.

We understand from these citations that Seder Olam predates the Babylonian Talmud.

Seder Olam 1545 printing
Title page from 1545 printing of Seder Olam

Who Wrote Seder Olam?

It turns out we’re not the first ones to wonder who was the author of Seder Olam.

Gemara Yevamot 82b

For it was taught in Seder Olam: Which thy fathers possessed, …

R. Yochanan stated, “Who is the author of Seder Olam? Rabbi Yosi.”

The Soncino Gemara has a couple of helpful footnotes about Seder Olam and its author.

Soncino Gemara Shabbat 88a – Footnote 4

The Seder Olam is the earliest extant post-exilic chronicle in Hebrew, and is a chronological record extending from Adam to Bar Kochba’s revolt during the reign of Hadrian. Most scholars are agreed in assigning its authorship to R. Halafta, a Tanna of the first century, on the strength of a statement by R. Yochanan in Yevamot 82b.

And here’s the footnote that accompanies the text in Yevamot:

Soncino Gemara Yevamot 82b – Footnote 15

Seder Olam, literally “Order of the World,” a chronological work compiled in the first half of the second century by R. Yosi ben Halafta.

It could be that there is a typo in the rabbi’s name in the footnote for Shabbat 88a.

It turns out, the Soncino Gemara translations and footnotes were done by different authors. Shabbat was translated into English with notes by Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman. The work on Yevamot was done by Israel W. Slotki.

The overall series editor, Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein, writes:

The Editor desires to state that the translation of the several Tractates, and the notes thereon, are the work of the individual contributors and that he has not attempted to secure general uniformity in style or mode of rendering.

So it could be that these translators disagree.

Based on my reading of the Gemara, I think Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta wrote Seder Olam.

Seder Olam 1757 printing
Title page of Seder Olam published in 1757

When Was it Written?

Now we need to determine when Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta lived.

Rabbi Yosi was one of the five main students of Rabbi Akiva. That indicates that he was a 4th generation Tanna. He lived in Tzippori in the Galilee in northern Israel.

Though he is mentioned about 300 times in the Mishnah, we don’t know many details about his life.

Rabbi Aryeh Carmell in his booklet Aiding Talmud Study places Rabbi Yosi in the year 160CE or 3920 on the Jewish calendar.

Another way to look at this, Seder Olam was probably written before Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi compiled the Mishnah in 3948 or 188CE.

Midrash Seder Olam Rabbah cover
Midrash Seder Olam Rabbah published by Zichron Aharon, Jerusalem

My Version of Seder Olam

The edition of Midrash Seder Olam Rabbah on my bookshelf is published by Zichron Aharon in Jerusalem. It contains two additional rabbinic works: Midrash Seder Olam Katan and Megillat Taanit. I will not be writing about them in this review.

The Contents of Seder Olam

Seder Olam is not a very long work. The edition I own is only 91 pages long.

Seder Olam is divided into 30 chapters in a mostly chronological order.

In the Zichron Aharon edition of Seder Olam there is a table of contents. Now, to be clear, I doubt the table of contents was written by Rabbi Yosi. I’m confident it was written by the editors of this edition.

Anyway, here is my loose translation of the Table of Contents:

  1. The generations from Adam to Abraham; deeds of Abraham and Isaac
  2. Deeds of Jacob and the [twelve] tribes
  3. Covenant between the pieces; slavery in Egypt; the future judgment of evil doers
  4. The Flood
  5. The Exodus; Israel’s journeys; receiving the commandments and 10 Commandments
  6. The Giving of the Torah; the Golden Calf; building the Tabernacle
  7. Dedication of the Tabernacle
  8. Counting the Jewish people; the 2nd Passover; Miriam’s sin; the spies; Israel’s journeys
  9. The death of Miriam and Aaron; war with Sichon and Og; those entering the Land of Israel
  10. Moses dies and Joshua brings in the people
  11. Splitting the Jordan; blessings and curses; circumcision; conquering and dividing the Land; Joshua dies
  12. The years of the Judges
  13. The years of Eli and Samuel; the kingship of Saul and David
  14. Deeds of King David
  15. King Solomon and building the Temple
  16. Deeds of the kings descended from David
  17. Deeds of the kings of Israel (after the dividing of the kingdom)
  18. Famine in Samaria; murder of David’s descendants; King Joash (also called Jehoash)
  19. Wars between the kings of Judah and Israel
  20. Prophets and prophetesses – part 1
  21. Prophets and prophetesses – part 2
  22. More deeds of the kings of Israel; exile of the 10 Tribes
  23. Defeat of Sennacherib; deeds of Hezekiah
  24. Deeds of the kings of Judah; conquest of Jehoiakim
  25. Exile of the craftsmen (sages); kingship of Zedekiah
  26. Explanation of the prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah
  27. Destruction of the First Temple and exile of Judah
  28. The Babylonian Exile; explanation of Daniel’s prophecy
  29. The Persian Exile; the Purim miracle; Ezra comes to the Land of Israel
  30. Nehemiah comes to Israel; the Greek empire, the Hasmoneans and Herod; destruction of the Second Temple; destruction of Beitar; more explanation of Daniel’s prophecy

After the Table of Contents is an index of all the names mentioned in Seder Olam.

Commentaries on Seder Olam

Included with the main text are several commentaries that can be put into 2 groups.

The first group are your “standard” commentaries. These authors explain the text, sometimes offer different ideas, and provide corrections to the text:

  • Vilna Gaon – Rabbi Eliyahu from Vilna
  • Rabbi Yaakov Emden
  • Rabbi Yosef Zundel:
    • Eitz Yosef
    • Anaf Yosef

Here is the second group of commentaries:

  • Rabbi Yosef Zundel – Mesoret HaMidrash – Yad Yosef
  • Torah Ohr HaShaleim

Mesoret HaMidrash – Yad Yosef offers other rabbinic sources for the concepts presented in the main text.

Seder Olam is written in a terse style that is similar to Mishnah. Part of what this means is that Bible verses are seldom quoted in full. The author expects his readers to know all of Tanach!

Most of us are greatly helped by Torah Ohr HaShaleim. This resource quotes all verses in full and tells you exactly where to find them. This is a great tool when you want to understand the context of a verse.

Readership

To be clear, Midrash Seder Olam is completely in Hebrew. If you are familiar with Tanach, then the language should should not be much of a barrier.

I’m not aware of an English translation of Seder Olam that I can recommend.

How to Use Seder Olam

One of my interests when I learn Tanach is to understand the chronological order of the events. Granted, the narrative passages are mostly chronological.

However, I also like to understand where each of the prophetic books fits into the timeline of Tanach. So I’ve been using Seder Olam to help me with my understanding of this aspect of Tanach.

Further Reading

There are many reference books that can help your Torah learning.

I’m starting to put together a list of reference tools I use. You can see the list here.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.