Biblical and Talmudic units of measurement were used primarily by ancient Israelites and appear frequently within the Hebrew Bible as well as in later rabbinic writings, such as the Mishnah and Talmud. These units of measurement continue to be used in functions regulating Jewish contemporary life. The specificity of some of the units used and which are encompassed under these systems of measurement (whether in linear distance, weight or volume of capacity) have given rise, in some instances, to disputes, owing to the discontinuation of their Hebrew names and their replacement by other names in modern usage.
Note: The listed measurements of this system range from the lowest to highest acceptable halachic value, in terms of conversion to and from contemporary systems of measurement.
While documentation on each unit's relation to another's is plentiful, there is much debate, both within Judaism and in academia, about the exact relationship between measurements in the system and those in other measurement systems. Classical definitions, such as that an etzba was seven barleycorns laid side by side, or that a log was equal to six medium-sized eggs, are so indefinite and vague as to be nearly useless. Nevertheless, the entire system of measurement bears profound resemblance to the Babylonian and to a lesser extent the ancient Egyptian systems, and is currently understood to have likely been derived from some combination of the two. Scholars commonly infer the absolute sizes based on the better-known Babylonian units' relations to their contemporary counterparts.
The original measures of length were clearly derived from the human body — the finger, hand, arm, span, foot, and pace — but since these measures differ between individuals, they are reduced to a certain standard for general use. The Israelite system thus used divisions of the digit or fingerbreadth (Hebrew: אצבע, etzba; plural etzba'ot), the palm or handbreadth (Hebrew: טפח, tefah/tefach; plural tefahim/tefachim), which is equal to four fingerbreadths, the span (Hebrew: זרת, zeret), the ell or cubit (Hebrew: אמה, Amah, plural Amot), the mile (Hebrew: מיל, mil; plural milin), and the parsa (Hebrew: פרסה, parasa). The latter two are loan words into the Hebrew language, and borrowed measurements - the Latin mille, and Iranian parasang, respectively; both were units of itinerant distance, and thus varied according to terrain and stride length, and, in the case of the parasang, also on the speed of travel.
The Israelite measurements were related as follows:
The biblical ell is closely related to the cubit, but two different factors are given in the Bible; Ezekiel's measurements imply that the ell was equal to 1 cubit plus 1 palm (Tefah), while elsewhere in the Bible, the ell is equated with 1 cubit exactly. Ezekiel's ell, by which he gave measurements in his guided vision through a future Jerusalem Temple, is thus one sixth larger than the standard ell, for which an explanation seems to be suggested by the Book of Chronicles; the Chronicler writes that Solomon's Temple was built according to "cubits following the first measure", suggesting that over the course of time the original ell was supplanted by a smaller one. The Egyptians also used two different ells, one of which — the royal ell — was a sixth larger than the common ell; this royal measurement was the earlier of the two in Egyptian use, and the one which the Pyramids of the 3rd and 4th Dynasties seem to be measured in integer multiples of.
The smaller of the Egyptian ells measured 17.72 in (45 cm), but the standard Babylonian ell, cast in stone on one of the statues of King Gudea, was 49.5 cm (19.49 in), and the larger Egyptian ell was between 52.5 and 52.8 cm (20.67 and 20.79 in). The Books of Samuel portray the Temple as having a Phoenician architect, and in Phoenicia it was the Babylonian ell which was used to measure the size of parts of ships. Thus scholars are uncertain whether the standard Biblical ell would have been 49.5 or 52.5 cm (19.49 or 20.67 in), but are fairly certain that it was one of these two figures. From these figures for the size of a Biblical ell, that of the basic unit — the finger-breadth (Etzba) — can be calculated to be either 2.1 or 2.2 cm (0.83 or 0.87 in); Rav Avraham Chaim Naeh approximates at 2 cm (0.79 in); Talmudic scholar Chazon Ish at 2.38 cm (0.94 in). The mile (Mil) is thus about 963 or 1146 meters (3160 or 3760 ft) — approximately six or seven tenths of a mile, and significantly shorter than the modern statute or land mile of 5280 ft or 1760 yd (approximately 1.6 km).
The precise width of the etzba (finger) has been a subject of controversy among halakhic authorities. The best known are those of the Rav Chayim No'eh and Chazon Ish.
|Name (plural)||Hebrew name (plural)||Translation||English equivalent||SI equivalent||Notes|
|Etzba (Etzba'ot)||(אצבע (אצבעות||thumb-breadth||0.79–0.94 in[a 1]||2.0–2.4 cm||The latter value is Chazon Ish's. Since all other units are multiples of the etzba, they vary accordingly.|
|Tefach (Tefachim)||(טפח (טפחים||hand-breadth||3.16–3.76 in||8.02–9.55 cm|
|Melo Heseiṭ||מלוא הסיט||the distance between the thumb and index finger when outstretched (little span)||---||---|
|Zeret (Zarot)||(זרת (זרות||span||9.48–11.28 in||24.08–28.65 cm|
|Amah (Amot)||(אמה (אמות||cubit||18.96–22.56 in||48.16–57.30 cm|
|Ris||stadium||421.3–501.3 ft||128.4–152.8 m||A ris is 2⁄15, or about 0.13, of a mil. According to Rashi (Baba Kama 79b, s.v. שלושים ריס), thirty ris is equivalent to 4 mil. Maimonides concurs in his commentary on Mishnah yoma 6:4, where 90 ris is put at 12 mil.|
|Mil (Milin)||mile||0.598–0.712 mi (in case of Talmud opinion referencing a Roman mile: 0.919 mi)||0.963–1.146 km (in case of Talmud opinion referencing a Roman mile: 1.481 km)||Time to walk a mil is 18–24 minutes.|
|parasa (parsa'ot)||parasang||2.41–2.85 mi||3.87–4.58 km||Distance covered by an average man in a day's walk is 10 parsa'ot. Time to walk a parasa is 72–96 minutes.|
See also Rabbi Chaim P. Benish's "Midos V'Shiurei Torah" where he brings an alternative view in understanding the rambam and therefore suggests that the etzba, according to the rambam, is 0.748–0.756 in (1.90–1.92 cm). This would affect the other measurements in the following ways: tefah 2.99–3.02 in (7.59–7.67 cm); zeret 8.98–9.07 in (22.81–23.03 cm); amah 17.95–18.14 in (45.59–46.08 cm).
Alternatively, according to some early authorities a zeret is two tefahim instead of three.
To the somewhat simple system of distance, the Talmud adds a few more units, namely the double palm (Hebrew: חסיט, hasit), the pace (Hebrew: פסיעה, pesiah), the cord (Hebrew: חבל, hebel), the stadium (Hebrew: ריס, ris), the day's journey (Hebrew:דרך יום, derekh yom), and an undetermined quantity named the garmida (Hebrew: גרמידא). The stadium appears to have been adopted from Persia, while the double palm seems to have been derived from the Greek dichas. The relationship between four of these additional units and the earlier system is as follows:
The other two additional units are more ambiguous. The garmida is mentioned repeatedly but without its size being indicated; it is even sometimes treated as an area, and as a volume. The cord is given two different definitions; in the Mishnah it is 50 ells, but in the Gemara it is only 4 ells.
The Israelite system of measuring area was fairly informal; the biblical text merely measures areas by describing how much land could be sown with a certain volume measure of seed, for example the amount of land able to be sown with 2 seahs of barley. The closest thing to a formal area unit was the yoke (Hebrew: צמד tsemed) (sometimes translated as acre), which referred to the amount of land that a pair of yoked oxen could plough in a single day; in Mesopotamia the standard estimate for this was 6,480 square cubits, which is roughly equal to a third of an acre.
"Amah al amah" (Hebrew: אמה על אמה) - (pl. amot) square cubit 0.232 to 0.328 m2 (2.50-3.53 ft2)
"Beit rova" (Hebrew: בית רובע) - (pl. batei rova) space of 10.5 cubits x 10.5 cubits for sowing 1⁄4 of a kav. Area varies between 24 to 34.5 m2 (258–372 ft2)
"Beit seah" (Hebrew: בית סאה) - (pl. batei seah) space for sowing a seah 576 to 829.5 m2 (689-992 yd2)
"Beit kor" (Hebrew: בית כור) - (pl. batei kor) space for sowing a kor of seed, or what is 30 seah in volume; the area needed is appx. 1.73 to 2.48 hectares (4.27-6.15 acres), or about 23,000 m2 in area.
The Israelite system of powder/liquid volume measurements corresponds exactly with the Babylonian system. Unlike the Egyptian system, which has units for multiples of 1, 10, 20, 40, 80, and 160 of the base unit, the Babylonian system is founded on multiples of 6 and 10, namely units of 1, 12, 24, 60, 72 (60 plus 12), 120, and 720. The basic unit was the mina, which was defined as 1 sixtieth of a maris, which itself was the quantity of water equal in weight to a light royal talent; the maris was thus equal to about 30.3 litres, and hence the mina is equal to about 0.505 litres. In the Israelite system, the term log is used in place of the Babylonian mina but the measurement is otherwise the same.
Although they both use the log as the basic unit, the Israelites differentiated their systems of volume measure between dry and liquid states.
For dry measurement, or what is simply a measure of capacity rather than of weight, the smallest unit of which is the egg (Hebrew: Beitza), followed by the Log (לג), followed by the Kab (קב), followed by the Se'ah (סאה), followed by the Ephah (איפה), followed by the Lethek (לתך), and finally by the Kor (כור). The Lethek is mentioned only once in the masoretic text, and the Septuagint translates it by the Greek term nebeloinou, meaning wine-skin. These measurements were related as follows:
The smaller unit the Ke'zayit is, by different sources, considered equal to 1⁄2 a beitza, 1⁄3 of a beitza, or not directly related to the other units of volume.
The Omer, which the Torah mentions as being equal to one-tenth of an Ephah, is equivalent to the capacity of 43.2 eggs, or what is also known as one-tenth of three seahs. In dry weight, the omer weighed between 1.560 kg to 1.770 kg, being the quantity of flour required to separate therefrom the dough offering. In the Torah, it is the Priestly Code which refers to the Omer, rather than to the Se'ah or Kab; textual scholars view the Priestly Code as one of the later sources of the Torah, dating from a period when Egypt and Assyria had much more direct influence over Israel.
According to Ezekiel 45:11 both the eipha and the bath were one tenth an omer (הומר HOMeR). Boadt notes the word homer comes from the Hebrew for an "ass." "It is one ass-load."
For liquid measure, the main units were the Log, Hin, and Bath, related as follows:
The Bath, equal to 72 Logs, is thus the liquid equivalent of the Ephah, also equal to 72 Logs. The liquid equivalent of the omer, which appears without a special name, only being described as the tenth part of a bath, is as much of an awkward fit as the omer itself, and is only mentioned by Ezekiel and the Priestly Code; scholars attribute the same explanation to it as with the Omer — that it arose as a result of decimalisation. The Omer is mentioned as a tenth of an ephah in Exodus 16:36, before the Priestly code.
According to Herbert G. May, chief editor of two classic Bible-related reference books, the bath may be archaeologically determined to have been about 22 liters (5.75 US gal) from a study of jar remains marked 'bath' and 'royal bath' from Tell Beit Mirsim.
In Talmudic times many more measures of capacity were used, mostly of foreign origin, especially from Persia and Greece, which had both held dominance over Judea by the time the Talmud came to be created. The definitions for many of these are disputed. Those that were certain (disputed) fractions of the Kab include, in increasing order of size, ukla (עוכלא), tuman (תומן), and kapiza (קפיזא). Those that were larger, in increasing order of size, included the modius (מודיא), geriwa (geriwa), garab (גרב). Of unidentified size were the ardaba (אדרב), the kuna (כונא), and the qometz (קמץ); the latter two of these were said to equate to a handful.
In the Israelite system, the ratio of the giru to the shekel was altered, and the talent, mina, and giru, later went by the names kikkar (ככר), litra, and gerah (גרה), respectively; litra is a loan word from Latin - libra, meaning pound. The Israelite system was thus as follows:
There were, however, different versions of the talent/kikkar in use; a royal and a common version. In addition, each of these forms had a heavy and a light version, with the heavy version being exactly twice the weight of the lighter form; the light royal talent was often represented in the form of a duck, while the heavy royal talent often took the form of a lion. The mina for the heavy royal talent weighed 1.01 kilograms (2.23 lbs), while that for the heavy common talent weighed only 984 grams (2.17 lbs); accordingly, the heavy common shekel would be about 15.87 grams (0.56 oz). According to Josephus, it was the heavy common talent, and its mina and shekel, that was the normal measure of weight in Syria and Judea; Josephus also mentions an additional unit – the bekah – which was exactly half a shekel.
Gradually, the system was reformed, perhaps under the influence of Egypt, so that a mina was worth only 50 shekels rather than 60; to achieve this, the shekel remained the same weight, while the weight of the standard mina was reduced. Moses mandated that the standard coinage would be in single shekels of silver; thus each shekel coin would constitute about 15.86 grams (0.51 troy ounces) of pure silver. In Judea, the Biblical shekel was initially worth about 3⅓ denarii, but over time the measurement had enlarged so that it would be worth exactly four denarii.
The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar synchronised with the seasons by intercalation, i.e. a lunisolar calendar. There are thus 12 ordinary months plus an extra month that is added in (intercalated) every few years. Some months vary in length by a day, as well. The months originally had very descriptive names, such as Ziv (meaning light) and Ethanim (meaning strong, perhaps in the sense of strong rain - i.e. monsoon), with Canaanite origins, but after the Babylonian captivity, the names were changed to the ones used by the Babylonians. With the Babylonian naming, the intercalary month has no special name of its own, and is merely referred to as Adar I, the following month being Adar/Adar II (in the Babylonian calendar, it was Adar II that was considered to be the intercalary month).
The Israelite month was clearly broken up into weeks, since the Genesis creation (and biblical references to Shabbat) describe a seven-day week. The seven-day cycle is not seen as a cycle in nature and is rather a custom biblically originating from Genesis 1:3-2:3.
The modern Hebrew calendar follows a seven-day weekly cycle, which runs concurrently but independently of the monthly and annual cycles. The origin of Hebrew seven day week and the Sabbath, as well as the true meaning of the name, is uncertain. The earliest Biblical passages which mention it (Exodus 20:10 and 24:21; Deut. 5:14; Amos 8:5) presuppose its previous existence, and analysis of all the references to it in the canon makes it plain that its observance was neither general nor altogether spontaneous in either pre-exilic or post-exilic Israel. It was probably originally connected in some manner with the cult of the moon, as indeed is suggested by the frequent mention of Sabbath and New-Moon festivals in the same sentence (Isa. 1:13; Amos 8:5; H Kings 6:23).
The names for the days of the week are simply the day number within the week. In Hebrew, these names may be abbreviated using the numerical value of the Hebrew letters, for example "Day 1, or Yom Rishon".
In addition to "tomorrow" (machar) and "yesterday" (etmol), the Israelite vocabulary also contained a distinct word for two days ago (shilshom). Maḥaratayim ("the day after tomorrow"), is a dual form of machar, literally "two tomorrows". In the Bible, the day is divided up vaguely, with descriptions such as midnight, and half-night. Nevertheless, it is clear that the day was considered to start at dusk.
By Talmudic times, the Babylonian system of dividing up the day (from sunset to sunrise, and sunrise to sunset), into hours (Hebrew: שעה, sha'ah), parts (Hebrew: חלק, heleq, plural halaqim), and moments (Hebrew: רגע, rega, plural rega'im), had been adopted; the relationship of these units was:
To complicate matters, Halakha, speaking of the relative hour, states that there are always 12 hours between the break of dawn and sunset, so these measurements are averages. For example, in the summer, a day time hour is much longer than a night time hour.