“The omer is a tenth of an ephah” (Exodus 16:36)
This is also the measurement of dough which requires separatingchallah, as brought in Eiruvin 83b. We have come to clarify the quantities and measures of which is written in Tractate Sukkah 5b, “Measures, laws of interpositions, and laws concerning partitions for Sabbath purposes are halacha given to Moshe at Sinai.”
The Scripture defined the measure of the omer for us as a tenth of anephah. And what is an ephah? This the text does not explain, but Chazal in Menachot 77a do. And why did it need clarification? Because hundreds of years had passed between the times of Biblical measurements and the time of Chazal, and the Sages were not expert in the values of measurements as laid down in the Scriptures. Therefore they had to learn and fit measurements which they did not know to the measurements of their days.
We will explain the matter in terms which will make it clear to the reader: the names of measurements are the names of vessels which hold the specified volume. The measures (or vessels) which Chazal knew were the seah and thekur, as Rashi writes, “And the kur was well-known for the people of Babylonia as 30 seah, for they measured grain by the seah and the kur.” From this you learn that the measurements of the ephah and the bat were not known to them aside from the mentions in the Scriptures, in Ezekiel 45:14, “The tithe shall be abat of a kur, as 10 bat make a chomer, so 10 bat make a chomer.” And so we learn that the bat is three seah, (for a kur is 30 seah), and that the chomer and the kur are the same measure. It is also said, in verse 11: “The ephah and thebat shall comprise the same volume,” so the ephah and the bat are a single measure of three seah.
We find, from here, that the volume of the ephah is known only from the volume of the bat, but for the measure of the bat itself two Scriptural verses contradict each other! The Sea of Solomon’s measurements are brought in I Kings 7:23 — the circumference is 10 amah and the height five amah, and it is written in I Kings 7:26, “It will contain 2000 bat.” But II Chronicles 4:5 says, “It will hold 3000 bat.” However, the Gemara in Eiruvin 14b, settles the contradiction, “it is to heaping,” that is, when one fills the vessel to heaping it holds half again as much as when filled until the brim. But aside from the fact that this requires thorough investigation and study (anyone who seeks truth will quickly calculate that for the “filled to heaping” to be half again as much as the capacity of the Sea, it would have to be a cone 7.5 amah high, meaning the “heaping” is 1.5 times the height of the Sea itself! This isn’t a “heap,” it’s a veritable mountain), it is puzzling why the author of Chronicles felt compelled to use a measure for the volume of the Sea of Solomon which was not clear and to imply that it includes heaping without specifying this; this is one of the strangest things. The “Chavot Yair,” in Response 172, wrote: “Why did Ezra [who wrote Chronicles] make this minute change, without any real implications, to the measurements and volume at heaping? It seems to me it is as Rashi and the other commentators wrote several places in Chronicles, that this whole book was written to honor the kings of the Davidic dynasty, and therefore it glorified their actions and their incidents.” Similarly, in Tractate Shabbat 56a, “Anyone who says that David sinned [in the issue of Batsheva] is mistaken…Rav said: ‘Rabbi, who is descended from David, seeks to defend him, and expounds in David’s favor’.”
In general, the “Chavot Yair” settles the textual contradiction differently than do Chazal by determining the volume of a bat to be two seah and not three. Even with everything written above we have not found our way in this issue of measurements of a tenth of an ephah which is the omer and which is the measurement for the separation of challah as written in this week’s portion.
For this is the way of Halacha – even if it is said in the Torah or is an halacha given to Moshe at Sinai, it is given to the sages in each generation and on their opinion we rely. This is what we say over and over again, that Halacha is a human creation and we do not live according to the Torah or Chazal, but according to the sages in each generation. And this time we will bring proof for this awesome thing from the honorable Chazon Ish himself, who is certainly not suspect of doubting the belief in sages, as he wrote in one of his letters: “It is one of the foundations of faith that all things written in the Talmud, whether in the Mishna or the Gemara, in Halacha or in Aggadah, are the words revealed to us by the prophetic power, which is the power of the Noble intellect touching the intellect placed in the body.” (The compilation “Letters of the Chazon Ish,” 15)
But before we quote his words, which agree with our opinion, from his work “Koontress HaShiurim” (Pamphlet on Measurements), which appears as section 39 of his book, we will first explain the problem which faced him. How amazing — it is the same issue of measurements with which we began.
The Torah gave us two measurements: one is the amah, which is a measurement of length, and the second is the ephah, which is a measurement of volume. For each of them Chazal determined a basic unit of measurement. The amah is 24 thumbs (‘agudal’, or thumbs, is the Chazal’s equivalent of the inch), and a tenth of an ephah is the volume of 43 and a fifth eggs, as brought in Eiruvin 83b. A strict correspondence was determined between these two measures, as is written by the Rambam in the Laws of the First Fruits, chapter 6, halacha 15, “What is the measure of dough for [separating] challah?…We learn that the measure which contains seven thumbs less two-ninths of a thumb by seven thumbs less two-ninths of a thumb by seven thumbs less two-ninths of a thumb in height is the measure of the omer, and the two measurements match each other. And how much does this measurement contain? The same as 43 and a fifth medium eggs.”
Something happened during the Enlightenment period. For the first time the sages decided to check these measurements empirically and see, through a practical experiment, whether they match or not. These are the words of the Chazon Ish on this matter (in section five): “And it happened at the time of the great rabbis – the Noda BiYehuda and the Gaon of Vilna – that they found the measurements of thumbs and of eggs did not match, and the measurement of dough for separating challah, based on eggs, is half the same measurement based on fingers.” A most difficult issue! The measurements which were given at Sinai fell into some hole and were not handed down from teacher to student, but they got confused. And what do we do now? Scholars in our generation should come and determine, according to their knowledge and opinion, as the Chazon Ish humself wrote: “And since it is does not seem to make sense that our fingers are longer than those of generations past, they decided that eggs had gotten smaller and determined for all of Israel that the measurement shall be according to the thumb.”
And in one more issue did the Chazon Ish determine in favor of the thumb measurement over the egg measurement. “And if it turns out that any two measurements, based on each of the calculations, give different results, one must use the thumb measurement as the main one, for the measurements of amah and tephach are mentioned in the Scriptures.” We find these words of the Chazon Ish amazing, for the measures of the ephah and omer are mentioned in the Scriptures just as are the amah and tephach, so why should he prefer one over the other? But this question doesn’t much matter; the important fact is that measurements are determined by the scholars of the generation. This is what the Chazon Ish wrote in section two: “And when the sages had determined…it is for all the time they [the measurements] are known to them [the Jews], but when they are not known, the sages in coming generations have permission to determine measurements for all of Israel according to the average size [of eggs etc.] as it seems in their time.” Similarly, in section six: “Even though we have not found eggs in the Torah, only in the words of the sages, the words of the sages were also given at Sinai, and there are things which the Torah gave to the sages and this, too, was given to the sages: to determine the measurements using eggs and fruits…And so we learned from his words [in the Responsa of the Gaon], that the name of a measurement or weight determines nothing, for they [the sizes of the objects which gave those names] are all changeable.” After these words, which completely agree with our opinion, the Chazon Ish was correct when he ruled that one shoudl rely on the thumb measurement even if it leads to less stringency about the commandments of Torah, as he wrote in section six: “After the Halacha has been determined by the Noda BiYehuda and the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi E.Z. Margaliot and the Chatam Sofer, and the instruction spread over, it is as though a beit din determined the measurement for all of Israel based on their deductions and the competence of a beit din.”
We have cited the words of the Chazon Ish despite their length, for he wrote words of sense, and you, the student, argue and see how halachic instructions are determined based on the judgement of the generation’s scholars, and yet we are required to treat them as though they were given at Sinai. It is one of the foundations of the Jewish belief that our Torah is a human creation and the sages of each generation determine Halacha based on their own viewpoint, even on matters of capital laws, such as taking something the volume of a dried fig into the public domain on Shabbat, the eating of an olive’s worth of forbidden animal fat which requires the bringing of a sin-offering, and the issue of how much dough requires the separation of challah.
Words of True Knowledge.