When we last left Moses, he was ascending Mount Sinai at the request of the people that he would be the exclusive representative of the people, and he would then teach the laws to them. Moses thus begins the Forty-day period of receiving the Torah. God starts with the design plan of the Mishkan, the portable temple that will be the center of Israelite practices until the time of Solomon. This week Moses receives the plans in rather interesting detail of the items found in the Mishkan, such as the ark and the altar, and ending with the Mishkan itself.
Trying to write a Drash about the construction of the Mishkan, something that will never be built again is difficult at best. It is the more permanent Temple that will be built in the time of the Messiah, as described in Ezekiel. After reading the portion, I sat there with a totally blank mind and completely clueless about what to do. But as the saying goes, When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. So it was off to Ikea to buy a new hamper. Of course, for anyone who has ever walked into that hosewares and furniture store, no one walks out with just one thing. In my case I ended up not buying the hamper but a car full of furniture.
There are three words about most Ikea purchases: Some assembly required. After putting together the first half of the drawers irrevocably backwards, I finally sat down and read the directions. And I began to wonder something about the Mishkan. We read in the text:
1. And you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet; with cherubim of skilful work shall you make them. 2. The length of one curtain shall be twenty eight cubits, and the breadth of one curtain four cubits; and every one of the curtains shall have one measure. [Ex. 26:1-2]
Some thirty time in this week;’s portion we have the word cubit, Amah in Hebrew. While putting together my furniture with all its screws and parts, I was amazed it all fit together, it all measured correctly and the parts came together, even the ones I did wrong. Of course the parts were in metric and I had to use the included tools, not my own. And that is particularly in those passages above that got me thinking – while going between metric and American systems are a headache, using cubits are a nightmare.
Most sources define cubit as the length between the top of one’s middle finger and the elbow. The problem is that no one’s forearm or hand is exactly the same, so the length of a cubit changes from person to person. This is far from a standard measure, yet it was used first by the Egyptians in their massive building projects with success, and here too by the Israelites. The rabbis had lots of uses and problems with it, since it is one of the standard units of length measurement not only in the bible but in the Talmud as well. There were, however subunits of a cubit to make things more interesting, known as a handbreadth, in Hebrew Tepach. Between the cubit and the handbreadth there are 1189 times such measurements are used in the Talmud. There was a lot of measuring indeed, all of it derived from the dimensions of the Temple or Mishkan.
Sometimes however the conversion from handbreadth to cubit was not easy. Take the arguments in the Gemara over three passages of Mishnah, the first about the dimensions of a sukkah:
A sukkah which is more than twenty cubits high is not valid, R. Judah, however, declares it valid. One which is not ten hand breadths high, or which has not three walls, or which has more sun than shade, is not valid. [Sukkah 1:1]
The second is the height of a cross beam to determine if a courtyard or enclosed alley is considered public or private, in order to determine if one can carry an item on Shabbat in that space:
[A cross-beam spanning] the entrance at a height of more than twenty cubits should be lowered. [Eiruvin 1:1]
The third relates to the required distances between crops to prevent the mixing of seeds known as kil’ayim. One example from that Mishnah is:
If one's field is sown with grain, and he wishes to plant within it a row of gourds, the latter is to be provided with a service-border of six handbreadths, and if it overgrows [into the border] he must pull up that which is within it. [Kilayim 3:7]
The question is how does one define these units? Abaye starts a heated argument:
Abaye stated in the name of R. Nahman: The cubit [applicable to the measurements] of a sukkah and that applicable to an ‘entrance’ is one of five [handbreadths]. The cubit [applicable to the laws] of kil'ayim is one of six [handbreadths]. [Eiruvin 3a]
There is a difference of a hand breadth between cubit measures which again is not a standard unit. There is no good way of measuring here, and thus if we really use body parts, this would be a mess, a lot like that first cabinet that I put together where no drawers fit into it. Trying to regulate these Talmudic rulings and say what is a permissible field or construction would become impossible. Yet we have a rather interesting, almost Zen answer from a rather interesting source, Shammai.
On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. [Shabbat 31a]
As most know the story ends with Hillel’s famous quote: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” While the story is part of a much longer passage, written by the students of Hillel, extolling Hillel’s Patience and Shammai’s impatience I think the use of a builders cubit, a standard measuring device that keep s all builders with the same measure, point to something.
As we’ve seen, if we let everyone use their own forearm and hand for a measuring device things are chaotic. On the other hand, if we set a standard measurement which everyone uses, then everyone can give measurements and mean the same thing. Shammai whacked the heathen with the standard measurement intentionally as the lesson. What is the lesson to be taught on one foot? Torah is the standard to measure behavior; the rest is commentary; now run off and study. Hillel, on the other hand gave a relative answer, based on subjective measurement. While seemingly morally correct, Taking Hillel’s argument to an extreme, an anorexic or ascetic person, who hates food, would not give a meal to a starving stranger, widow or orphan, yet we are told in Torah repeatedly not to oppress the stranger widow or orphan.
The use of the cubit biblically shows up most often in construction plans. There are a few times for Noah’s ark, and Goliath was said to be six cubits, but the vast majority are the measures of the Temple and Mishkan here in Exodus, in I Kings, and Ezekiel. All of these are an amazing interlocking series of constructions, which could only do well if their measurements were standardized. Current scholarly opinion usually sets the cubit at 18 inches, and the rabbis, despite the arguments, did come to the opinion that six handbreadths made up a cubit, so three inches made a handbreadth. Using eighteen inches we get each side curtain to be 42 by 6 feet, and as the text continue: and every one of the curtains shall have one measure. They are to follow the standard.
Coming off the ethics and social laws of Last week’s portion Mishpatim, the detailed construction plans for the Mishkan are more than just a building plan. They are a lesson in standardization in having one measure not multiple ones. The Mishkan could not be built otherwise. So too with Torah – it is one measure, one standard. The Torah is not principles where everyone makes up their own opinion. It is the rules, the ruler if your will, to measure against. But just like I can use an cubit to measure spaces in agriculture, determine if I can carry a watering can across a courtyard on Saturday because of the height of the entrance to my garden, or know I’m fulfilling the mitzvot of living in a valid Sukkah for seven days, how I use that measurement can vary. And sometimes standards isnt completely absoulte, given accuracy, and calibration of my standrds. Thus to six handbreadths, Raba added a fudge factor for accuracy, to stop the arguing over five or six, though this just started another one [Eiruvin 3b].
Hillel and Shammai were both right and both gave sage advice to the heathen, whether he believed either of them or not. The standardization is necessary to have some common measure to work from, yet the principles help when there is change, and one need to apply the rules differently. Fundamentalism often enforces not one rule but one application of rules, standardizing so much so change, variation and growth is not acceptable. It is the case of having a hammer and thus thinking everything is a nail. The Temple would not have been constructed if we believe the Torah is absolute and cloth and not stone and wood was to be the only construction material of any holy space for the Ark, as we read this week. But that change did happen in Solomon’s time of unification and peace. God didn’t explicitly tell Solomon the building materials, Solomon told others what to build.
As I’m building some thing much simpler, like an office chair I’ll remember standards and instructions. When I find one less screw in the box, I’ll find another way to do the same thing. In our religious and moral lives, may we do the same.