Talmudic Metrology IX: Back to the Talmudic Measurement Units of Volume and Capacity


  • J. Jean Ajdler


A significant challenge in modern Jewish history research is the precise knowledge of the Talmudic measurement units of length, capacity, weight, and currency. Such knowledge is indispensable for the faithful to fulfil their religious, social, and economic obligations and to govern the Jewish society in the case of a lawsuit about agreed quantities. This problem was raised recurrently throughout history for two reasons. First, the same denomination is used in neighboring countries with different values, and second, the standard used in each country is unstable. It evolves frequently for political and military and economic reasons (debasement, change of the weight of currency). In a former paper (B.D.D. 19, January 2008) we showed that the Talmudic standards of length measurement units were presumably not based on natural values of breadth of thumb or of cubit but were based on the Roman mile equal to the Talmudic mile of 1481.5 m corresponding to 2000 military steps (or 2000*√2 cubits) and meeting the definition of the furthest distance one may walk on the Sabbath (tehum shabbat). In the present paper we examine the standard of Talmudical measurement units of volume and capacity. We find in the Talmud Bavli a rule defining the relation between the units of length and the units of capacity. Therefore, the Talmudic standard of length measurement units plus this relation allows defining the standard of capacity measurement units considered in the Talmud Bavli. However, we find in the Talmud Yerushalmi two different and contradictory rules which, added to the standard of length measurement units, allow defining two other standards of capacity measurements units. We are now faced with the existence of three independent standards of capacity measurement units, which seem genuine and existed already around 200 C.E., at the time of the completion of the Mishna and the Tossefta. We can define them as respectively a standard of tall, average, and small units of volume. This would prove that the capacity denominations had a different value in different areas in Palestine. Apparently, the standard of the small units of volume of the Talmud Yerushalmi was still, in the eighth century, the only standard known by R. Eleazar Kalir, but later in the twelfth century, it was misunderstood by Tossafot, neglected, and practically completely forgotten. Similarly, the standard of the large units of volume was misunderstood, exaggerated, and probably therefore neglected and forgotten. Only the standard of the average units survived in Babylonia but the notion of the Roman mile and therefore the standard of the length measurement units was quickly forgotten in Babylonia. Finally, the only thing that remained was the relation between the Talmudic units of length and capacity. All the rabbinic standards of measurement units, generally based on the emulation of the natural sizes of the breadth of thumb or the hen’s egg volume, respect this rule, known as the rule of Rav Hisda (see below note 10). We analyze four rabbinic standards of rabbinic measurement units, the standards of Rambam and Rashi and the standards defined recently in the former generation, by R. Naé and R. Avraham Isaiah Karelitz (Hazon Ish). The last one is a standard of tall units of length and volume. It corresponds to a late tendency expanding from the eighteenth century onwards and which experienced a lashing acceleration in the twentieth century, to privilege the natural value of the breadth of thumb. The two last standards are considered today as the authoritative halakhic standards. This is quite surprising because it appears that they were constructed on very imprecise and even incorrect assumptions and their authority can only be understood because the former standards were still insufficiently known. Their only merit is to put the faithful on the side of the security but at the price of significative exaggerations.




How to Cite

Ajdler, J. J. (2024). Talmudic Metrology IX: Back to the Talmudic Measurement Units of Volume and Capacity. BDD, 37, 43. Retrieved from https://biupress.org/index.php/bdd/article/view/118



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