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Simple Measurements

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In honor of World Metrology Day, which celebrates the 1875 Metre Convention that established a worldwide uniformity of measurement (with the notable exception of the United States), today’s Jewish Treat focuses on measurements in Jewish law. The Torah and the Talmud use measurements not only to describe significant structures in the biblical narrative (Noah’s ark, the Holy Temple), but also to ensure the proper fulfillment of certain mitzvot (building a sukkah, eating matzah at the Passover seder, etc.).

Unlike the metric system celebrated today, which is based on a standard measure prototype, biblical/talmudic measurements were based on those things that were always on hand. Measurements of length were, for the most part, based on body parts. This was particularly true of smaller measurements such as: etzbah (plural: etzba’ot) – fingerlength; tefach (plural: t’fachim) – the measure of a palm or fist, sometimes referred to as a handbreadth; zeret (plural: z’ratot) – handspan; and, perhaps the best known small measurement of length, amah (plural: amot) – a cubit, which was two z’ratot, or the length from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow.  Other larger terms of measurement were borrowed from the surrounding cultures, such as mil (plural milin), a Roman term that signified the length of approximately 2000 amot, and parsa (plural parsa’ot), a Persian measure of approximately 4 milin.

The measurement of volume is also significant in Jewish law. Similar to measurements of length, measurements of volumes were often based on common items of a consistent size. The two best known biblical/talmudic measurements of volume are the beitzah, which was the volume of a large egg, and a kzayit, which is best translated as “like an olive.”

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