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The ancient Israelites used a distinct system of measurements, which appears within the Hebrew Bible as well as in later Jewish writing, such as the Talmud. There is much debate, within Judaism, as well as by outside scholars, about the exact relationship between measurements in the system and those in other measurement systems, such as the International Standard Units system used in many parts of the modern world, and in modern scientific writing. Classical statements, 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 corresponds almost exactly with the Babylonian system, and in all probability the Israelite measurement system was derived from the Babylonian, with some lesser level of influence from the Egyptian system.[1] It may therefore be assumed that the relationship between the Israelite measurements and SI units is the same as the relationship between the Babylonian system and SI Units.[1]

Length and distance

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 must be reduced to a certain definite standard for general use. The Israelite system thus used divisions of the fingerbreadth (Hebrew: אצבע, Etzba; plural etzba'ot), palm (Hebrew: טפח, Tefah/Tefach; plural Tefahim/Tefachim), span (Hebrew: זרת, Zeret), ell (Hebrew: אמה, Amah, plural Amot), mile (Hebrew: מיל, Mil; plural milin), and parasang (Hebrew: פרסה, Parasa). The latter two are loan words into the Hebrew language, and borrowed measurements - the Latin mile, and Persian Parasang, respectively; the Persian Parasang was approximately (but not exactly) equal to 4 Roman miles. The Israelite measurements were related as follows:

  • 4 fingerbreadths (Etzba) = 1 palm (Tefah)
  • 3 palms (Tefah) = 1 span (Zeret)
  • 2 spans (Zeret) = 1 ell (Amah)
  • 2000 ells (Amah) = 1 mil (Mil)
  • 4 mils (Mil) = 1 parasang (Parasa)

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),[2][3] while elsewhere in the Bible, the ell is equated with 1 cubit exactly. Ezekiel's ell, by which he gave measurements of the 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,[4] suggesting that over the course of time the original ell was supplanted by a smaller one.[1] It seems not coincidental that the Egyptians also used two different ells, one of which - the royal ell - was a sixth larger than the common ell;[1] 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.[5]

The smaller of the Egyptian ells measured 450 mm, but the standard Babylonian ell, cast in stone on one of the statues of King Gudea, was 495 mm, and the larger Egyptian ell was between 525 and 528 mm.[1] 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.[1] Thus scholars are uncertain whether the standard Biblical ell would have been 525 or 495 mm, but are fairly certain that it was one of these two figures.[1] From these figures for the size of a Biblical ell, that of the basic unit - the fingerbreadth (Etzba) - can be calculated to be either 22 or 21 mm; Jewish rabbinical sources approximate it at either 20 or 25 mm, the latter being Chazon Ish's. The mile (Mil) is thus about 1050 or 990 m - approximately 1 km, and not equal to the modern land mile of 1760 yards (which is known as the London Mile).

To this somewhat simple system, the Talmud adds a few more units, namely the double palm (Hebrew: חסיט, hasit), the pace (Hebrew: פסיעה, pesiah), the chord (Hebrew: חבל, hebel), the stadium (Hebrew: ריס, ris), the day's journey (Hebrew:דרך יום , derekh yom), and an unknown 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.[6] The relationship between four of these additional units and the earlier system is as follows:

  • 1 double palm (hasit) = 2 palms (tefah)
  • 1 pace (pesiah) = 1 ell (amah)
  • 1 stadium (ris) = 1600 palms (2/15 mile) (tefah)
  • 1 day's journey (derekh yom) = 10 parasangs (parasa)

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,[7] and as a volume.[8] The chord is given two different definitions; in the Mishnah it is 50 ells,[9] but in the Gemara it is only 4 ells[10]


The Israelite system of measurements of 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.[11] The closest thing to a formal area unit was the yoke (Hebrew semed)[12] (sometimes translated as acre), which referred to the amount of land that a yoked oxen could plough in a single day; in Mesopotamia the standard estimate for this was 6480 square cubits, which is roughly equal to a third of an acre[13]

Liquid/powder volume

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 (which is 60 plus 12), 120, and 720.[1] 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.[1] In the Israelite system, the term log is used in place of the Babylonian mina but the measurement is otherwise the same.[1]

Although they both use the log as the basic unit, the Israelites differentiated their systems of dry volume measure and of liquid volume measure, from each other.

Dry measure

For dry measurements, the smallest unit was the egg (Hebrew: Bezah), then came the Log (לג), Kab (קב), Se'ah (סאה), Ephah (איפה), Letek (לתך), and Kor (כור). The Letek 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:

  • 6 Eggs (Bezah) = 1 Log
  • 4 Log = 1 Kab
  • 6 Kab = 1 Se'ah
  • 3 Se'ah = 1 Ephah
  • 5 Ephah = 1 Letek
  • 2 Letek = 1 Kor

The Omer, which the Torah mentions as being equal to one tenth of an Ephah,[14] is an awkward fit into this system (it constitutes 1.8 Kabs and 0.3 Se'ah), and it is evident that it wasn't originally present, but is instead a result of decimalisation, perhaps under the influence of Egypt or Assyria, which both had decimal systems.[1][15] In the Torah, it is the Priestly Code which refers to the Omer, rather than to the Se'ah or Kab;[1] 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.[16]

Liquid measure

For liquid measure, the main units were the Log, Hin, and Bath, related as follows:

  • 12 Logs = 1 Hin
  • 6 Hin = 1 Bath

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,[17] 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.[1]

Talmudic additions

In Talmudic times many more measures of capacity were used, mostly of foreign origin, especially from Persia and Greek, 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.


The Babylonian system, which the Israelites followed, measured weight with units of the talent, mina, shekel (Hebrew: שקל), and giru, related to one another as follows:

  • 24 giru = 1 shekel
  • 60 shekels = 1 mina
  • 60 mina = 1 talent

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.[13] The Israelite system was thus as follows:

  • 20 gerah = 1 shekel
  • 60 shekels = 1 litra
  • 60 litra = 1 kikkar

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 exacly twice the weight of the lighter form;[1] 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.[1] The mina for the heavy royal talent weighed 1.01 kg, while that for the heavy common talent weighed only 0.9824 kg;[1] accordingly the heavy common shekel would be about 16 g. 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;[18] 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 0.51 troy ounces of pure silver. In Judea, the Biblical shekel was initially worth about 3⅓ denarii, but over time the measurement was enlarged so that it would be worth exactly four denarii.[1]



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 intercalary month. 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 account(s) of creation in Genesis, and biblical references to Shabbats, clearly describe a seven-day week; this was probably adopted from Sumerian practice, where the week was given 7 days because there were 7 heavenly bodies visible with the naked eye (the sun, moon, and 5 planets).


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.[19][20][21] 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:

  • 76 moments (rega'im) = 1 part (heleq) (each rega is 0.04386 of a second; 22.8 rega'im is 1 second)
  • 1080 parts (halaqim) = 1 hour (sha'ah) (each heleq is 3 and 1/3 seconds)
  • 24 hours (sha'ah) = 1 day


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 Jewish Encyclopedia
  2. Ezekiel 40:5
  3. Ezekiel 43:13
  4. 2 Chronicles 3:3
  5. Peake's commentary on the Bible
  6. Jewush Encyclopedia
  7. Baba Batra 27a
  8. Erubin, 14b
  9. Erubin, 5:4
  10. Erubin, 58b
  11. 1 Kings 18:32
  12. Isaiah 5:10
  13. 13.0 13.1 Peake's commentary on the Bible
  14. Exodus 16:36
  15. Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
  16. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
  17. Ezekiel 45:14
  18. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, volume 14, 106
  19. Exodus 12:29
  20. Judges 16:3
  21. Psalms 119:62)

External links

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