Weights and Measures

views updated May 08 2018


From the earliest period of their history the Jews were alive to the necessity of an accurate system of weights and measures, and an honest handling of them. The first legislation in the interest of economic righteousness in general is found in Leviticus 19:35 and Deuteronomy 25:13–16, and the prophets constantly denounced the use of false measures (Amos 8:5; Hos. 12:8; Micah 6:10; see also Prov. 11:1; 16:11; 20:10). Rabbinic legislation went so far as to demand the periodic cleaning of weights, scales, and measures lest their true standard be impaired by dirt (bb 5:10; see also bb 89a-b).

Metrological Systems in the Bible and the Ancient Near East

An authoritative and accepted system of weights for buying and selling, building, measuring areas, and the like is a necessity of civilized life. Therefore even in very ancient periods fixed measurements were established, initially for barter, estimation of distances, etc., and later for more complex needs such as building, the division of land, the digging of canals, and others. For that reason, most of the first measures were natural or common physical phenomena, such as the palm of the hand, a day's journey, seeds of grain, and simple utensils. As time progressed, the measures were improved and made more precise, but they were still called by their ancient names. Various systems of measurement developed in the large cultural centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia from a very early period. There, even complex reckoning was carried out to determine the equivalence between the different categories, that is, to reckon volume in terms of weight or area, and the like.

This type of reckoning is not found in the Bible though it was certainly known in Israel. An allusion to a similar reckoning is found in the Bible in a verse which expresses acreage in terms of volume of seed requirement: "And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed" (i Kings 18:32; see also Jer. 27:16; Isa. 5:10b (see *Targum), and later sources down to modern Palestine Arab usage).

The weights and measures in the Bible are in large part based upon the weights and measures which were accepted by the ancient peoples, the names of the measures also being the same. In Israel, measures of several peoples were used simultaneously: from Mesopotamian measures, the kor, se ʾ ah, shekel, and others; from Egyptian measures, the ephah, hin, and others; and measures whose names were borrowed from the Canaanites such as letekh and kikkar. Apparently the Israelites adopted the measures from the Canaanites, who lived in the land before them, along with the names which were originally Egyptian and Mesopotamian. For this reason Egyptian measures have been found that have Mesopotamian names. Some measures, since they are not found among the neighboring countries, were apparently established in Israel.

In biblical measures, it is customary to distinguish between natural measures (measures established in reference to parts of the human body, utensils, average sizes of burdens loaded on animals, etc.) and between measures established by reckoning which were fixed and precise. In some cases the Bible explains the relationship between measures, but it is difficult today to establish their absolute values because as early as the days of the Second Temple the biblical measures were abolished, and later translators and commentators were inclined to identify them with their contemporary measures without being precise as to their values.

In the metrology practiced in the Ancient Near East, there were measures which differed in their absolute value but were identical in name, for example: in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the short cubit was in use along with the long cubit, and there were also different weights, light and heavy, called by the same name, such as the mina. Double weights of this sort were in use also in Palestine, as has been proven from the Bible and from archaeological finds, and were in use there almost until modern times.

Aside from these, there were measures confined to specific localities. Ancient documents provide evidence of weights named for cities: "Alalakh weight," "Carchemish weight," and the like. This custom, too, was practiced in Palestine. In addition to the already-mentioned difficulties, there is the problem of the durability of these weights, since it is likely that with the passage of time many changes took place in them. The ascertaining of biblical measures and the determination of their values in terms of present-day measures is done mainly on the basis of archaeological finds. In the excavations carried out in Palestine, many weights have been uncovered and also fragments of vessels upon which measurements of volume have been written. Linear measure can be reckoned according to ancient structures whose measurements are marked. In the neighboring countries – mainly Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia – actual measuring rods of wood and stone were uncovered, along with weights and economic documents, all of which are valuable aids in determining the biblical measures. However, it still cannot be known whether these measures are identical with biblical measures and which of the various standards the Bible used. The Bible demands the use of correct measures and promises long life to one who is careful in this matter (Deut. 25:13–16; Amos 8:5, et al.).

Linear Measure

The units of length mentioned in the Bible, as well as those used by other ancient peoples, are derived from average measures of the length of human limbs. Names of measures based on the limbs of the body are in use in some languages even to this day.

It appears that in the early period it was customary to measure with the limbs themselves: the part of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger is the "standard cubit [lit. by a man's forearm]" (Deut. 3:11); the span (zeret) was the distance between the tip of the little finger and the tip of the thumb with the fingers straddled. The measurement of the handbreadth was the width of the four fingers, and the fingerbreadth was measured according to the width of the finger. As time progressed, absolute and more precise values and relationships were established for these natural measures, though these were still named according to the parts of the body.

The large measures mentioned in the Bible are based upon crude estimates such as the range of the bowshot (Gen. 21:16), i.e., the distance which the bow is able to shoot the arrow. In several places in the Bible, the expression kivrat ʾ erez, "a short distance," is mentioned (Gen. 35:16; 48:7; ii Kings 5:19) which seems to mean a journey of two hours. Greater distances were measured by days' journey (Gen. 30:36; 31:23; et al.).

Among the instruments used for measuring small units of length, the Bible mentions: ḥut, "thread" (Jer. 52:21); ḥevel, "rope" (Amos 7:17); ḥevel middah, "measuring line" (Zech. 2:5 [1]; kav (qav) ha-middah, "measuring line" (Jer. 31:38 [39]; petil pishtim… u-qeneh ha-middah, "line of flax… and measuring reed" (Ezek. 40:3). It is likely that all or some of these instruments were used regularly for linear measure and it should be noted that the rope served as a standard measurement of length among several ancient peoples.

Five small units of length are mentioned in the Bible. Their exact length is not explicit but their interrelations are generally established: kaneh (qaneh), "reed"; ʾammah, "cubit"; zeret, "span"; ṭefaḥ/ṭofaḥ, "handbreadth"; and ʾeẓbaʿ, "fingerbreadth." The most important and basic measure was the cubit. It appears that there were two values for the cubit which were in use in different periods: the short cubit is implicit in ii Chronicles 3:3 in the description of the Temple, "in cubits of the old standard," and the meaning of the verse is that the measurements of the Temple are given in terms of the ancient cubit and not the longer royal cubit which was in use in this time. In the description of the future sanctuary in Ezekiel 40:5 (see also 48:13), the second or long cubit is mentioned: "and the length of the measuring reed in the man's hand was six long cubits, each being a cubit and a handbreadth in length." The cubit in this description exceeds the normal cubit by one handbreadth and thus contains seven handbreadths and not six like the short cubit. Ezekiel uses the long Persian cubit, which was in use also in Mesopotamia, and which may have come into use in Palestine during the time of the Return. (See Table: Units of Length-Bible.)

According to the short cubit
According to the long cubit

Attempts have been made to learn the value of the cubit in terms of present-day measures by comparisons with ancient structures whose measurements are noted, such as the tunnel of Siloam dating to the reign of Hezekiah; or on the basis of the measurements of buildings which, in the opinion of their excavators, were built in whole cubits, such as the walls of Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer from Solomon's time (i Kings 9:15); or by estimating the volume of "the molten sea" which stood in the Temple (i Kings 7:23 – 26; ii Chron. 4:2). However, all of these calculations are unreliable. Various scholars (e.g., R.B.Y. Scott) – some on the basis of comparisons with Egyptian and Mesopotamian standards, and some according to parallels from Hellenistic sources – established the values shown in Table: Value of the Cubit.

long cubit (28 fingerbreadths)521.0 mm.
short cubit (24 fingerbreadths)446.0 mm.
handbreadth (4 fingerbreadths)74.0 mm.
fingerbreadth18.6 mm.

These figures probably approximate the actual values of the measures, but they cannot be considered precise.


As was the case with linear measures, human limbs were initially used to measure volume. The small units were: komeẓ (qomeẓ, "handful"; Lev. 2:2; 5:12), which is the measure of the grasp of three fingers and perhaps is the shalish mentioned in Isaiah 40:12; ḥofen (Ex. 9:8, et al.), which is the entire palm of the hand; and ḥofnayim, which is two handfuls. They were also accustomed to measuring with receptacles which the farmer used at home and in the field; the omer (ʿOmer) is a bundle of ears of corn; a quantity of wine in the measure of a skin (jar) is also mentioned (i Sam. 1:24). The values of these measures cannot be established, for it is certain that they were not precise; later on some of them did become fixed, their previous names being preserved. It is likely that various foods used to be prepared in fixed portions, and therefore the Bible notes quantities of food, liquid and dry, in numbers of portions without designating the volume (i Sam. 25:18; ii Sam. 16:1, et al.).

The units of volume mentioned in the Bible are the following:

homer (Lev. 27:16; Isa. 5:10; Ezek. 45:11; 13:14; Hos. 3:2);

kor (Ezek. 45:14);

letekh (Hos. 3:2);

ephah (Ex. 16:36; Ezek. 45:11, 13; 46:14, et al.),

bath (Ezek. 45:11, 14; ii Chron. 2:9);

se'ah (Gen. 18:6; i Sam. 25:18; i Kings 18:32; ii Kings 7:1, 18, et al.);

hin (Ex. 29:40; Ezek. 45:24; 46:11, 14, et al.);

omer (Ex. 16:16, 36; Lev. 23:10 – 14, et al.);

ʿissaron (Ex. 29:40; Lev. 14:21; Num. 15:4, et al.);

qav (ii Kings 6:25);

log, which is the small liquid measure (Lev. 14:10, 12, 15, 21, 24).

(See Table 3: Measures of Volume and Their Ratios).

Homer – korletekhephah – bathseʾahhinomer – ʿissaronqavlog
homer – kor1
ephah – bath1051
omer – ʿissaron10050103 1/21 ⅔1
qav1809018631 ⅘1
log7203607224127 ⅕41

It is worth noting the mixture of the decimal system which was used in Egypt and the sexagesimal system of Mesopotamia which is most characteristic of the scale of weights and measures in Palestine. Also the names – as was noted – are in part from Egyptian measures and in part from Mesopotamian measures.

If a distinction is made between liquid and dry measures, the following tables can be set up as seen in Table: Dry and Liquid Measures.


Scholars no longer attempt – as in previous generations – to equate these measures with Greek and Roman measures and thereby determine their absolute values, because this was based on conjecture only. The only method by which modern scholars can determine the values of these weights is to measure the volume of vessels discovered in excavations in Palestine whose capacity is marked on them, such as fragments of vessels with the words bt, "bath," or bt lmlk, "royal bath," written upon them. According to W.F. Albright's calculations, which are accepted by most scholars today, the "royal bath" has a capacity of 22 liters. (See Table: Scale of Measures of Volume.)

homer-kor220.0 liters
letekh110.0 liters
ephah-bath22.0 liters
seʾah7.3 liters
hin3.6 liters
omer-ʿissaron2.2 liters
qav1.2 liters
log0.3 liters

Aside from the inscriptions "bath" and "royal bath," some potsherds were discovered during excavations with inscriptions which in general designate the type of goods and the quantity; however, for the most part, the names of the units of volume are missing from these inscriptions (a common practice in the Bible also; see i Sam. 25:18; ii Sam. 16:1). A shard was found at Tell Qasileh bearing the inscription (according to the reading of B. Mazar), "To the king, 1,100 [measures of] oil, from Aḥiyahu." The liquid measure is not explicit: in the opinion of Mazar, the log is intended. Another inscription, discovered in Kadesh-Barnea, reads 51, and according to M. Dothan, it designates five measures of oil and the hin is intended. Also discovered in Samaria were tens of ostraca upon which measures of oil and wine are mentioned by the nbl, "skin" (biblical, nevel, cf. i Sam. 1:24; 25:18; ii Sam. 16:1, et al.). The units of volume mentioned in the Elephantine papyri from the fifth century b.c.e. are seʾah and qav, the measure being designated by the first letter only. This way of designating measures continued in Palestine until the end of the Second Temple, as a vessel uncovered in the ruins of Qumran reveals. Upon it is inscribed: "two seʾah and seven log." This vessel has the capacity of 35.65 liters.

Area Measure

The main measure of area in the Bible is the ẓemed (i Sam. 14:14; Isa. 5:10), which refers to the area which a pair of oxen can plow in one day. This method of measuring area persists into the Mishnah and the Talmud Ancient Near East and later passed on to the Romans. In Rome the unit of area used was called jugerum from jugum, "yoke" (Pliny, Naturalis Historia, 18:9), while the modern measures feddan and acre have similar meanings. These measures, which in the beginning were not precise, in time became more clearly defined.

There was also another system of measuring area mentioned in the Bible, based upon the quantity of seeds sown in it (Lev. 27:16; i Kings 18:32; Isa. 5:10b (see *Targum)); and, needless to say, this measurement was not precise. This system was especially prevalent in Mesopotamia, and a formulation of this measure there reads: bīt 1 imēru, "property measuring one homer." This method of measuring area persists into the Mishnah and the Talmud (bb 7:1; 2:5, et al.) and is also attested in a deed from the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt. The Bible uses more precise measurement in its description of a rectangular area, noting the measure of the length and width in cubits or parts of cubits, and also adds the adjective ravuʿa, "square" (Ex. 27:1; 28:16, et al.). Ezekiel also notes the areas of the entire complex of buildings in the Temple in cubits (Ezek. 40).


WEIGHT IN THE BIBLE. The verb shql ("to weigh") is shared by all Semitic languages; and generally the system of weights used by Semitic peoples is the same. Weights, for the most part, were made of stone, hence the Bible refers to weights generally as "stones" (ʾeven). In Akkadian, weights are called also aban kīsi, "stones from the bag," which consist of stones placed in a cloth bag (Micah 6:11; Prov. 16:11, et al.). In Ugaritic too the word ʾ a bn, "stone," signified weights; but there have also been found many cast metal weights from the biblical period. During the Persian period, the metal weight became a coin and indication of this process can be seen in the Septuagint where the word for shekel, σίκλος, is changed to the word for the coin didrachm, δίδραχμον. Similarly they translated beka (beqaʿ), δραχμή, and gerah, ὸβολὸς.

In some ancient countries, especially in Mesopotamia, the old unit of weight was a seed of grain. Although the Bible used the names of early Mesopotamian weights, it does not mention this particular weight since the reciprocal relationship between Israel and Mesopotamia in weights, as in measures of volume, appears only in a relatively late period (apparently the Neo-Babylonian; see below).

Seven weights are mentioned in the Bible: talent, mina, shekel, beka, gerah, pim, and kesiṭah. A scale of the relationships between the first five weights mentioned can be established on the basis of the Bible and other sources; the absolute and relative value of the pim can be determined from archaeological finds (see below). The seventh weight, the kesiṭah (Gen. 33:19; Josh. 24:32; Job 42:11), seems to be an archaic weight and the origin of its name and its metrological value are not known. (Some believe it means rather "a sheep or goat.")

The basis of the biblical system of weights becomes clear by investigating the interrelationships of the three most important weights, the talent, shekel, and gerah.

The talent (kikkar), was the largest unit of weight in the Bible, and was already known by the same name in Ugaritic. In Ugaritic it was pronounced kakaru, as has been shown from Akkadian documents from Ugarit and Alalakh where the Canaanite name appears in the forms qaq (q) aru (m), kakaru (m). The very name kikkar testifies to the round shape of the weights. The relation between the talent and the shekel becomes clear in Exodus 38:25–26. The half shekel brought by 603,550 men amounted to 100 talents and 1,775 shekels. Thus the following calculations can be made as seen in Table: Shekel and the Talent.

603,550 half-shekels= 300,000 + 1775 shekels
300,000 shekels= 100 talents
3,000 shekels= 1 talent

This system of dividing the talent into 3,000 shekels differs from the Mesopotamian system which divides the talent into 3,600 parts, and is the same as the Ugaritic system where the talent is also divided into 3,000 shekels. From this it follows that the biblical division is based upon an ancient Canaanite tradition.

The shekel (Akk. šiqlu; Ugaritic, ṯ~ql; early Aram. shql; late Aram. tql) is the most basic weight, as its name, which means simply weight, testifies. Since the shekel is the definite weight, an expression such as "1,000 silver" (Gen. 20:16) can be explained as 1,000 shekels of silver, and the name of the weight is omitted since it is self-explanatory. Abbreviations like these are also found in other Semitic languages. The fundamental nature of the shekel can also be seen in the fact that all weights which the Bible explains are explained only in terms of the shekel.

The gerah is known in Akkadian as girû. The basic meaning of the Akkadian word is a grain of carob seed. The value of the gerah is the 20th part of a shekel (Ex. 30:13), unlike the Akkadian girû which is the 24th part of a šiqlu. S.E. Loewenstamm noted that the ratio 24:20 is identical with the ratio 3,600:3,000, and therefore he holds that the division of the shekel into 20 gerah is based upon the same ancient Canaanite tradition according to which the talent was divided into 3,000 shekels.

The mina (Heb. maneh; Sum. mana; Akk. man –; Ugaritic, mn), which designates a weight of approximately 50 or 60 shekels (see below), is found in the Bible primarily in the late books (Ezek. 45:12; Ezra 2:69; Neh. 7:70, 71). In the period preceding the destruction of the First Temple, the mina is mentioned only once, in the verse about Solomon's shields (i Kings 10:17). From this it is reasonable to assume that in ancient times in Israel reckoning was done in shekels and talents only, and the mina was not used except in unusual situations. It appears that this practice too had its roots in an ancient Canaanite tradition, for in Ugaritic writings many calculations are found involving shekels and talents and very few involving the mina. The value of the mina is defined in Ezekiel 45:12. From this verse it follows that the mina is equivalent to 60 shekels like the Akkadian man –. However, there is reason to assume that Ezekiel's definition was influenced by his Mesopotamian environment, and that the Canaanite-Israelite mina was equivalent to only 50 shekels. First, it appears that there are two systems intertwined in Ezekiel's words. Portions of 15 and 20 shekels are appropriate for a mina of 60 shekels, as they equal a fourth and a third of it. Not so a portion of 25 shekels which is appropriate only for a mina of 50 shekels, of which it would comprise half. F. Thureau-Dangin found support for the existence of a Canaanite mina of 50 shekels in Ugaritic weights which contain 50 Ugaritic shekels. He regarded these as weights of a mina. According to this, the ratio of the Mesopotamian weight to the Canaanite weight would be 60:50, like the ratios 3600:3000 and 24:20 which were dealt with above. Support for this system can also be found in the passages which speak of payment of 50 or 100 shekels (Deut. 22:19, 29, et al.), which probably refer to payments of one or two minas. Moreover, there are signs that the Mesopotamian system of Ezekiel did not succeed in supplanting the Canaanite system. The Septuagint (lxxa) reads for Ezekiel 45:12: "five shekels shall be five shekels, and ten shekels shall be ten shekels, and your mina shall be fifty shekels"; and although Borrois advanced proofs to show that this version should not be preferred over the Masoretic Text, this version is significant. It provides evidence that at the time of the translation, the mina consisted of 50 shekels.

The beka is mentioned twice in the Bible (Gen. 24:22; Ex. 38:26) and its value is explicitly determined as one-half a shekel. Its name is derived from the root bqʿ, "to break, to divide," and its basic meaning is "a part." According to the reckoning of a mina as 50 shekels, the Table: Weight and their Ratios 1 may be set up:

talentminashekelbekagerah talent

However, on the basis of Ezekiel 45:12 according to which the mina contains 60 shekels and on the assumption that Ezekiel divided the talent (kikkar) into 60 minas, the Table: Weight and their Ratios 2 may be set up.

talentminashekelbekagerah talent

This table is arranged according to the Mesopotamian system and contains nothing from the Canaanite-Israelite system except the division of the shekel into 20 gerah instead of 24.

In addition to being divided into the beka and gerah, the shekel is also divided into a fourth and a third (i Sam. 9:8; Neh. 10:33). There is support for this division both inside and outside Palestine. From Assyrian documents found at Calah it is evident that the shekel was very often divided there into many more subunits, but there is no proof that this was so in Israel as well.

Also mentioned in the Bible is the peres (Dan. 5:25, 28), and C. Clermont-Ganneau has suggested that it is half a mina. This weight is mentioned also among bilingual weights (Akkadian-Aramaic) from the Persian period and its written form is פרש. The peres is also mentioned in the Mishnah (Pe'ah 8:5; Ḥul. 11:2) and its value there is half a zuz.

In establishing the value of the shekel there is an additional complication in that the Bible mentions at least three kinds of shekels: in Genesis 23:16, a shekel of silver "at the going merchant's rate [ʿover la-soḥer]," which is similar to the Akkadian expression ina manê ša tamkari, "in the merchant's mina"; in Exodus 30:13, "shekel by the sanctuary weight [ha-qodesh]"; and in ii Samuel 14:26, "shekels by the king's weight [be-ʾeven ha-melekh]," that is, shekels stamped by the royal treasury as proof that they are perfect. Also in the Elephantine papyri from the Persian period it is said "royal weight" (באבני המלכא or במתקלת מלכא). It cannot be determined whether these shekels were equivalent in value, but on the basis of evidence from external sources, it appears that there were differences between them.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL FINDS. In excavations carried out in Palestine many weights have been uncovered – some with the weight marked on them, but most without any notation. The shape of the weights, for the most part, is semicircular (dome-shaped). There are also some cast metal weights that are rectangular and cube-shaped, and some that are oval or in the shape of animals. Most of the weights found in Palestine are from the end of the period of the monarchy (the seventh to sixth centuries b.c.e.).

Very few weights and inscriptions with the word shekel written explicitly have been found in strata from the Israelite period. A bronze weight in the shape of a turtle was found in the coastal plain; on its reverse side it bears the inscription (according to the reading of A. Reifenberg) פלג שקל, and on the front, פלג רבעית, and its weight is 2.63 gm. And in fact, a weight of this sort (one-quarter shekel) is mentioned in i Samuel 9:8. Another bronze weight from Samaria, also in the shape of a turtle, bears the inscription חמש ("five"), and this has been interpreted to mean five gerahs, that is one-quarter of a shekel, and its weight is 2.49 gm. Another weight from Samaria is marked on one side ל[ק]רבע ש and on the other רבע נצף, and its weight is 2.54 gm. (see below). At Tell Qasileh an ostracon was found with the following inscription engraved upon it: ז]הב אפל לבית חרן] and here too, B. Mazar interprets the letter sin to mean shekels. Two ostraca containing calculations in shekels were also found in Yavneh-Yam. Many weights found in excavations bear a special mark in the form of ש, with another sign next to it which in general designates the number of units. These weights have for some time been considered shekels. They were discovered for the most part at localities in the Kingdom of Judah, in the following places: Gibeon, Jerusalem, Ramat-Raḥel, Gezer, Tel Zechariah, Tell Jedideh, Lachish, En-Gedi, Tel Malḥatah, and Arad; and others in the coastal plain; Tel Jemmeh, Nebi Rubin, Yavneh-Yam, and Ashdod. Only one weight of this type is known from the area of Samaria, and it was discovered at Shechem. Many others of unknown provenance are in private collections.

Scholars have been greatly divided as to the interpretation of the sign x which appears on the weights. Thompson thought that this sign was taken from the Egyptian nb ("gold") weight which weighs approximately 12 gm. On the basis of a bronze weight of 12.28 gm. which was discovered at Gezer and upon which is written the number two and next to it lmlk, Diringer and Borrois maintain that the purpose of this sign is to designate the royal shekel which was fixed at 11.3 gm.; and this was the accepted opinion among scholars in the past. Recently the debate was revived when R.B.Y. Scott suggested that the sign be interpreted as a schematic drawing symbolizing the word ẓeror, that is, a cloth bag, tied at the top, in which precious metals were wrapped. Y. Yadin, basing his opinion on these weights from Gezer and upon the image of a scarab found in the Elephantine Papyri upon which the word למלך, lmlk, also appears, maintains that this sign is merely a schematic drawing of the well-known royal scarab which is found on common lmlk seals. In his opinion, in every case where this sign is written, it serves as a recognized sign designating the word lmlk, that is, the official royal standard.

Alongside this sign is usually written an additional sign which all scholars interpret as a number which notes the quantity of royal shekels contained in each weight. By examining the average weight of all the weights of this kind which have been discovered up till now, it becomes evident that they were clearly divided into weights of one unit (11:3 gm.); two units (22.6 gm.); four units (45.5 gm.); eight units (91.2 gm.); 16 units (188.5 gm.), and 24 units (268.24 gm.). In line with this, Yadin assumes that the numerical signs are Hebrew and signify parallel units (that is, they designate the numbers 1, 2, 4, 8, etc.). Against this, Aharoni, following Scott, conjectures that these numbers are actually Egyptian-hieratic which were copied on weights of the Judahite kingdom and stand for the values 5, 10, 20, and 30. The contradiction between the division of the weights into units of 4, 8, 16, and 24 and the values of the Egyptian numbers he explains by saying that the basic weight, that of eight shekels, is identified with the Egyptian dbn which was chosen by Josiah for international trade. Since the dbn weight is divided into 10 qdt, it means that Judahite weights of 4, 8, 16, and 24 units are equivalent to 5, 10, 20, and 30 qdt. The hypothesis of Scott and Aharoni that the signs on the large units are Egyptian is reasonable, all the more so since much important evidence has been gathered concerning the use of hieratic numbers in Israel during this period (from an ostracon from Arad, among other sources). However, in spite of this, it is difficult to assume that the Egyptian system itself was adopted in Israel, since the basic unit in the shekel system – as Aharoni also notes – is a weight of eight shekels. This division, different from that practiced in Egypt (division by tenths) or Mesopotamia (division by sixths), and which is evidence of Phoenician-Israelite local distinctiveness, is the same phenomenon which was found in the biblical system of weights. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine that they used one system for weighing and actually meant a different system (an uncommon situation in the metrological systems of the Ancient Near East). Another suggestion which Aharoni himself raised, and then rejected, is more reasonable; it is that the Egyptian numbers were carved on the weights because of their simple form (it is difficult to carve complex numbers on small stone weights) without paying attention to their original values, and that the Egyptian number five was understood to be four in Israel. Support for this interpretation is found on an ostracon from Yavneh-Yamon which, according to the reading of J. Naveh, is inscribed "the weight of four [shekels of] silver" and next to it is the common sign for the unit of four shekels, which is to say that they did not read this number five and intend four, but rather also read the number as four.

Weights with Designations Discovered in Israel. Three other types of weights, also from the end of the Kingdom of Judah, have been discovered in Israel and their names are inscribed on them in full: nẓp, pym, and bqʿ.

The word nẓp does not appear in the Bible and is known only from the inscriptions on these Hebrew weights, and also from Ugaritic. The word nẓp is explained on the basis of the Arabic nisf, "half." If this interpretation is accepted, the weight of the nẓp unit is half of 19.75 gm. since the average weight of the nẓp is 9.8 gm. This unit of weight is not known in Israel. In R. de Vaux's opinion, the nẓp is half the weight of the Ugaritic shekel, which is known as the "heavy shekel" and weighs from 18.7 to 23.4 gm. It is also possible that the nẓp does not belong at all to the metrological system based on the shekel but rather to a different and unknown system. At least one weight which is a subunit of the nẓp was found in Samaria. On it is written רבע נצף, "one quarter," and it weighs 2.54 gm. According to this, the whole nẓp weighs 10.16 gm. However, on the second side of the weight is written ל[ק]רבע ש, "one-quarter shekel," and some see this as additional proof that two standards existed side by side in Israel, and one weight could be at the same time one-half shekel according to one standard and a whole shekel according to the other. Seventeen nẓp weights have been discovered.

The pim is mentioned once in the Bible (i Sam. 13:21). Pim (pym) weights which were uncovered in excavations helped to clarify the obscure verse i Samuel 13:21, but not to explain the name. Several scholars tried, unsuccessfully, to explain it. Clermont-Ganneau suggested: pi (shenayi) m (according to Zech. 13:8), that is two portions, i.e., two-thirds. E.A. Speiser held that its source is from the Akkadian šinipu, that it means two-thirds (of a shekel), and that in Canaan they borrowed the last part of the word from Mesopotamia, interpreted it as a third, and made it dual. Diringer and Borrois also think that the pim is two-thirds of a standard shekel but that Speiser is correct that the source of the word is foreign and that it has no meaning in Hebrew. Twelve such weights have been discovered, and their average weight is 7.8 gm.

The beka is the one unit of weight mentioned in the Bible whose value has been determined. It is half a shekel (see above). However, this value does not correspond to the beka (bqʿ) weights found in excavations. In Israel, seven weights have been found with the name beka written on them. On some the name is written in full, and on some only the letter ב (beth) appears. Their average weight is 6.03 gm. more than the value of the half-shekel of 11.3 gm. The heaviest one is 6.65 gm. and the lightest 5.55 gm. Petrie believes that the beka is an extremely ancient unit of weight which was used in Egypt and has been discovered in pre-dynastic graves of the Amration period (the fourth millennium b.c.e.). In his opinion, the beka was the common weight used in Egypt for gold and its weight was 12.28–13.90 gm. If Petrie's opinion is accepted the Israel beka would be half the weight of the Egyptian weight which Petrie established as the Egyptian beka. Reifenberg publicized a coin from the Persian period bearing the inscription beka; its weight is 3.88 gm. Weights Marked with Numbers. In addition to the aforementioned weights, some 20 weights marked with numbers (either letters or numerals) have been uncovered in excavations, and their weights range from 1.52 to 7.05 gm. Recently, Scott has gathered all the above-mentioned finds, sorted them into groups, and tried to determine their precise relationships to the perfect weights mentioned above. However, all attempts – those of Scott as well as his predecessors – to determine the exact value of these small weights, are very unreliable since there are no written sources about the detailed division of the Israelite shekel into small subunits.

A large number of weights have been discovered which contain no inscription, no number, and no sign whatsoever. Examination of these weights has not led, in general, to sufficient clarification. Among them, it is worth noting in particular two weights. One was found at Tell Beit Mirsim, weighing 4,565 gm., and in W.F. Albright's opinion has the value of eight minas of 50 shekels each (that is, the weight of 400 shekels). The second is a basalt stone weight from the area around Taanach which weighs 4,780 gm. This weight is decorated with the relief of a winged lion and in addition bears the personal name Šmʿ. In N. Avigad's opinion, the value of this weight is eight minas of 50 shekels, that is, 400 shekels, which, he believes, is a standard weight (compare "four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchant's rate," Gen. 23:16). Scott's explanation as noted above is that the shekel weights were established according to the Egyptian standard and interprets the unit of 400 shekels as 50 dbn. In his opinion, that is the reason for the special Israelite system of weights which contains only 50 shekels in a mina. However, we have already found this division at Canaanite Ugaritic and it is more plausible that the special Israelite system was based upon the ancient Canaanite system and not the Egyptian system.

[Eliezer Bashan (Sternberg)]

In the Talmud

After a long and complex development (cf. Jos., Ant., 14:105; 3:144), the talmudic system emerges. In it the Italian mina was equated with 100 denarii (tj, Shek. 2:4, 46d; mina = litra = Roman libra originally; tj, Ter. 10:7b), thus equaling 1 1/24 Roman pounds (Tanḥ. B., Ex. 109). However, the Talmud mentions yet another maneh of 40 shekels (160 denarii; Ḥul. 137b–138a), and there were also regional variations (Ḥul. 12b). The biblical gerah was identified with the current me'ah ("obol" = ⅙ drachma; Bek. 50a). The syncretist system was linked to the Tyrian standard and conveniently dovetailed with the monetary system. (See Table: Syncretist System in the Talmud.)

Besides the rough and ready measures, e.g., komeẓ ("three-fingers full"; Lev. 2:2), or ḥofen ("handful"; Ex. 9:8, etc.), a carefully graduated system, primarily of Mesopotamian origin, was used from earliest times both for dry and liquid measures. The relationships between the various denominations are amply attested, revealing the system. (See Table: Measures of Volume in the Talmud.)

Kikkar ("talent")minaItalian minatartimar (=⅓)Unkiyyah "uncia")sela ("hetra-drachm")Shekel ("biblicalshekel")zuz ("denar-ius")
Kikkar ("talent")137601207501,5003,0006,000
mina1 1/21 ⅖3 ⅕204080160
Italian mina1212 1/22550100
tartimar16 1/412 1/22550
Unkiyyah ("uncia")1248
sela ("hetra-drachm")124
Shekel (" 1/2 biblical shekel")12
zuz ("denar-ius")1
A. Dryhomerletekhephahseʾah-omerqav-
B. Liquidkor-bath-hinʿissaron-log
1 homerkor12103060100180720
2 letekh-1515305090360
3 ephahbath136101872
4 seʾah-123 1/2624
5 -hin11 ⅔312
6 omerʿissaron11 ⅘7 ⅕
7 qav-14
8 -log1

The table shows the influence of the sexagesimal system with a parallel decimal subdivision, while philological analysis shows the terms to be derived from Mesopotamian (e.g., 1ab, 4), Egyptian (3a, 5b), and Canaanite (2) sources. In rabbinic times the log was further subdivided as follows: 1 log = 2 toman = 4 revi'it = 6 beiẓah ukl a = 36 mesurah = 64 kurtov. According to Eruvin 83a there were at least three standards current (with a 30% variation; cf. Jos., Ant., 3:197, 321; 8:57; 9:86), but the basic standard was probably linked to the Roman one (Kelim 17:11), so that the log equaled the sextarius (Gr. xestes), giving a se'ah of 1½ modii -16 sext. = 1 mod. -(but cf. tj,

Ter. 5:1, 43c). For cubic equivalents see tj, Pesaḥim 10:1, 37c, where 1 revi'it = 7⅓ cu. eẓba ("digit"), while Eruvin 14b states that a mikveh containing 40 se'ah is 3 cu. ammah. However, in view of the differing standards of length (see below), it is difficult to reach any absolute value for these measures.

Alongside this developed system of exact measures, the rabbis introduced a series of "rule of thumb" measures, readily recognizable by all. Thus one was punishable for eating (most) forbidden foods only after having had an amount equal to a medium-sized olive (ke-zayit). The standard for (transgressing the stricture on) leavened bread on the Passover and for eating on the Day of Atonement was a (large) kotevet (a certain species of date), while that for carrying on the Sabbath was a gerogeret ("dried fig"). These measures bore no easy relationship to the established metrological system. They themselves were at most ready and approximate, and their relationship to the exact measures likewise. Thus the ke-zayit was probably about half a beiẓah, the gerogeret larger than the ke-zayit but smaller than the kotevet, and the kotevet larger than the gerogeret but still smaller than a beiẓah. In recent years the size of these measures has been the subject of considerable controversy.

Length. The most common metrical denominations are measures of length derived from parts of the human body: the finger-breadth (digit), handbreadth or palm, cubit (from cubitum, elbow) or length of the forearm. It is this latter, in Hebrew ammah, which appears to be the basic unit of the Palestinian system (Kelim 17:9–10). Normally the ammah consisted of handbreadths (tefaḥ, pl. tefaḥim); however, Ezekiel 40:5 and 43:13 suggest that there was also an ammah of seven tefaḥim. This seems to be paralleled by the Egyptian system, which had a "short" cubit of six handbreadths, and a "royal" one of seven. The Mishnah too tells of different ammot (Kelim, ibid.). There is considerable discussion as to the precise length of the ammah (or ammot), as different sources yield varying results, and much has been written on the subject. All that can be stated with real certainty are the relationships between the different units:

1 ammah = 3 zeret = 6 tefaḥ = 24 eẓba. The only multiple of the ammah mentioned in the Bible is the kaneh ("reed") of Ezekiel 40:5, which according to Menaḥot 97a equals six ammot. Longer measures were approximate, e.g., a bowshot (Gen. 27:16), day's journey (Gen. 30:36, etc.; see also Gen. 35:16). In the Greco-Roman period there was a syncretistic system for the longer measures, in which the mil (Roman mile, milion in Matt. 5:41) of 2000 ammah was reckoned at 7½ stadia (Heb.ris, Yoma 6:4), giving a convenient division of the parasang (Heb. parsah) into 30 stadia.

Surface. In biblical times the concept of area was expressed by squaring the length, i.e., "x ammot squared" (ravu'a, passive participle from arba, "four"). In the Mishnah it is expressed in the form "x ammot by [al] × ammot." In antiquity two methods were used to measure land:

(a) a standard was based on the area plowed by a yoke of oxen in a given time (cf. Roman jugum, jugerum);

(ii) an area was judged by the amount of seed required to sow it (a method of Mesopotamian origin).

Both methods were known and practiced in biblical times, the former being alluded to in Isaiah 5:10, the latter in i Kings 18:32 (cf. Lev. 27:16). In the Mishnah the size of a field is uniformly calculated by the second method. The whole series of dry measures (see above) was employed in this system. The size of these surface measures may be in terms of ammot from certain talmudic equations. Thus from Eruvin 96a it emerges that a "beit se'atayim" (2 se'ah plot) equaled the area of the Tabernacle's court, 5,000 sq. ammot. Hence, a "beit se'ah" = 2,500 sq. ammot (bb 26b). The obscure ma'anah of i Samuel 14:14 is identified with a four se'ah plot (= beit haperas; Oho. 17:1), and said to be 10,000 sq. ammot. (See Table: Measures of Surface.)

The ammah varied between the approximate limits of 45.75 and 53.34 cm. (18 and 21 in.), but the upper limit may be even higher (21½ in., for example). The beit se'ah, which was 2,500 sq. ammot would therefore be equal to 1,143 – 1,333.5 sq. m. However, the variation in se'ah measures would affect this calculation.

The basic measure of capacity is the log:

1 log midbarit = 503.5 cc. = grm (= 30.7 cu. in.)

1 log yerushal mit = 699.4 cc. = grm (= 39.6 cu. in.)

1 log sepphorit = 777.4 cc. = grm (=47.4 cu. in.)

The basic weights were the sela = 224 grains and the mina (40 selas) = 8,960 grains. All other measures may be calculated from these, according to the ratios given. However, the resultant calculations will only have a "probability truth-value," as the range of variation grows in the higher multiples.

As measures (shi'urim) are of great halakhic importance, there were throughout the ages constant attempts to reevaluate them in current terms. There has thus grown up over the years a considerable body of halakhic material dealing with metrology, which affords much valuable information.

[Daniel Sperber]

Criminal Law. The biblical injunction, "You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller; you shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller; you must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures" (Deut. 25:13–15) was interpreted not as prohibiting any fraud by means of false weights and measures (which is dealt with in Lev. 19:35–36), but as applying to the manufacture or possession of any weights or measures, including utensils (such as pots or pitchers), which might be used for weighing or measuring and cause false weighing or measuring (bb 89b; Maim. Yad, Genevah 7:3; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 231:3). While the manufacture of false weights and measures may be punishable with *flogging, the mere possession thereof is not, the violation of a negative injunction being so punishable only where an act is committed, as distinguished from the omission to get rid of the prohibited utensils. In order effectively to enforce the prohibition, courts in talmudical times appointed market inspectors charged with the control of all weights and measures even in private houses (bb 89a). There are detailed provisions for the manner in and the materials with which weights and measures are to be manufactured or repaired so as to be and remain accurate (Maim. Yad, Genevah, 8:4–11; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 231:4–11). It is said that the crime of false measures is graver than even those crimes (like incest) which are punishable with karet (*Divine Punishment); the latter can be expiated by repentance and flogging, whereas in the case of the former repentance is of no avail, since neither the damage caused or the persons to whom restitution has to be made can be ascertained (bb 88b and Rashi ad loc., Maim. Yad. Genevah 7:11).

[Haim Hermann Cohn]

The Approach in Jewish Law

The dominant approach in Jewish law to the subject of weights and measures is the insistence that any doubt be resolved by the merchant in favor of the customer. Where the price is established by weight according to a scale, the merchant compares the two sides of the scale – the weight as opposed to the merchandise. However, if it is difficult to be certain of the comparison, the merchant must make his estimation in favor of the customer. Where the custom was not to make such a

beit-korbeit-letekhbeit-perasbeit-zemedbeit-se'ahbeit-kavbeit-rovasquare ammot
beit-kor127 1/2103018072075,000
beit-letekh13 3/45159036037,500
beit-peras11 ⅓4249610,000
beit-kav14416 ⅔
beit-rova1104 ⅙
square ammot1

determination, the merchant must add an additional amount of merchandise for which he does not charge, and there is also a minimum amount that is required to be added. This law is derived from the verse in Deuteronomy 25:15: "A perfect and just weight…" and, as explicated in the Talmud, "'just' – [take] of yours and give him" (bb 88b; Sh. Ar., Ḥm, 231:14). Due to the stringency of the requirements, the question arises as to whether imprecision in weights and measures may be pardoned. Tosefta bb 5:4 states: "…one sells to another one log [liquid measure or dry measure] and a half [log], a quarter [log], an eighth [log]: when he calculates the bill he may not say fill up this measure and say, sell me this (kortov) (1/64 portion) for the science of measures is not dependent on people, and it is God who has set his name upon them, because the verse ends with 'I am the Lord your God' [Lev 19:36]." Some commentators are of the opinion that agreeing to pardoning inexactitude is not effective, insofar as it may mislead people into thinking that this is the local custom, from which they will learn to cheat. Others are of the opinion that pardoning is effective, based on the Mishna in bb 7:2 (bb 103b), regarding one who sells a bet kor (area of land in which one can sew a particular amount of produce) and says to the buyer that the measure is "more or less." Even if he sold less or more, up to a certain percentage of the quantity a deviation of certain amount is permitted, and the transaction is valid (see Sh. Ar., Ḥm 231:1 and Kesef Kedoshim; ibid; 209.1, Sh. Ar., Ḥm 209:1; Teḥumin 3, p. 338).

The question arises today in the context of factories requesting a certain acceptance of imprecision on their part. The term for this is "scale tolerance." For example, a factory packages a line of products on a production line; each box or bag is stopped at a particular point on the line for a predetermined number of seconds, is filled with a predetermined amount from a container that is poured into it, is automatically closed, and continues on the line. The manufacturers claim that on occasion, unpredictably, the measurements in this process will be imprecise, as in the case where some of the product is spilled or the bag's progress is off schedule on the production line by a second more or less. They therefore demand that they not be checked on the basis of a single bag, but rather according to the average of a number of bags. The European Market has approved this arrangement – one which seems to require an act of pardoning imprecision in advance. If, on the other hand, we were to require the manufacturers to take into consideration the "determination" in favor of the consumer, they would raise the price of the product accordingly. It may be that an arrangement could be used whereby the labeling states that the package contains 98 to 102 tea bags, as in the case of the declaration of "more or less" cited above, or perhaps 98 to 103 tea bags, in order to fulfill the obligation of the determination in favor of the customer (see Tehumin 3, supra).

[Itamar Warhaftig (2nd ed.)]


general bibliography: G. Cardascia, Les Archives des Murash – (1951), 199; S. Moscati, Epigrafia ebraica antica (1935–50), 83–98; A.E. Berriman, Historical Metrology (1953); D.J. Wiseman, Alalakh Tablets (1953), 14–15; A. Goetze, The Laws of Eshnunna (1956), 186; C.F. Nims, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 44 (1958), 56–65; J.B. Pritchard, Hebrew Inscriptions and Stamps from Gibeon (1959), 29–30; R.B.Y. Scott, in: ba, 22 (1959), 22–40. measures of length: Clarke-Engelbach, Ancient Egyptian Masonry (1930), s.v.measurements; C.L. Wodley, Ur of the Chaldees (1954), pl. 10b; R.B.Y. Scott, in: jbl, 77 (1958), 205–14. volume measurements: K. Sethe, in: Zeitschrift fuer aegyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 62 (1926), 61; F. Thureau-Dangin, in: Revue d'assyrologie et d'archéologie, 25 (1928), 115–8;27 (1930), 65–71;28 (1931), 109–19; 29 (1932), 189–92; 32 (1935); 1ff.; 34 (1937), 80–86; C.H. Gordon, in: basor, 78 (1940), 10–11; E.L. Sukenik, in: Kedem, 1 (1942), 32–36; H. Lewy, in: jaos, 64 (1944), 65–73; D. Diringer, in: ba, 12 (1949), 76 86; N. Avigad, in; iej, 3 (1953), 121–2; V.R. Grace, in: S. Weinberg (ed.), The Aegean and the Near East (1956), 86–109; R.T. Hallock, in: jnes, 16 (1957), 204–6; B. Parker, in: Iraq, 19 (1957), 125–38; J.T. Milik, in: Biblica, 40 (1959), 985ff.; P.W. Lapp, in: basor, 158 (1960), 11–12. area measurements: K. Baer, in: jnes, 15 (1956), 113ff.; S.E. Loewenstamm, in: iej, 6 (1956), 221–2. weights: Cowley, Aramaic; F. Thureau-Dangin, in: Revue d'assyrologie …, 24 (1927), 68–75; A. Reifenberg, in: jpos, 16 (1936), 39; idem, in: Matbe'ot ha-Yehudim (1948); 7–10; idem, in Yedi'ot, 15 (1950), 70; M. Narkiss, Matbe'ot ha-Yehudim (1936); A.S. Hemmy, in: jea, 23 (1937), 39ff; D. Diringer, in: peq, 74 (1942), 82–103; J. Friedrich, in: Wiener Zeitschrift fuer die Kunde des Morgenlandes, 49 (1942), 17–9; A.J. Sachs, in: basor, 96 (1944), 29–39; idem, in: jcs, 1 (1947), 67–71; H. Lewy, in: basor, 98 (1945), 25; W.F. Albright, ibid., 110 (1948), 74, n. 21; S.R.F. Glanville, The Legacy of Egypt (1953), s.v. weights; E.G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri (1953); J.J. Finkelstein, in: Anatolian Studies, 7 (1957), 137; N. Glueck, in: basor, 153 (1959), 35–38; R.B.Y. Scott, ibid., 32–35; Y. Yadin, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 8 (1960), 1–17; J. Naveh, in: iej, 12 (1962), 27–32. in the talmud: et, 1 (1951), 343, s.v.Eifah ve-Eifah; em, (1950), 272f., s.v.Eifah ve-Eifah; 4 (1962), 846–78, s.v.Middot u-Mishkalot; M. Bloch, Das mosaisch-talmudische Polizeirecht (1879), 35ff.; Y. Gilat, Mishnato shel R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus (1968), 11–20; idem, in: Tarbiz, 28 (1958/59), 230ff.; A. Segré, Metrologia (It., 1928), 55–93; S. Ganzfried, Kiẓẓur Shulḥan Arukh, ed. by D. Feldman (1927), 169–208 (second pagin.); A. Naeh, Shi'urei Torah (1947); B, Naeh, in: Shanah be-Shanah (1962), 89–99; Sperber, in: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 8 (1965), 266–71. add. bibliography: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:558, 560, 567, 584, 592, 610ff., 701, 821; 2:846, 879, 881, 1000, 1223; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 2:679, 681, 689, 719, 732, 754ff., 865, 1006; 3:1034, 1074, 1210, 1465; I. Wahrhaftig, Haganat ha-Ẓarkhan le-Or ha-Halakhah, Teḥumin, 3 (1982), 334–82.

Weights and Measures

views updated May 23 2018


WEIGHTS AND MEASURES. Weights and measures throughout Europe during the early modern period were characterized by complexity and confusion and dominated by customary practices. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they arose originally from Greek, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and other roots and multiplied on local, regional, and state levels at a rapid pace after 1450. Among the principal causes for this proliferation were economic development, commercial competition, population growth, urbanization, taxation manipulations, territorial expansion, and technological progress. Contributing also were ineffective governmental decrees and legislative acts, the paucity and inferior workmanship of the physical standards manufactured to serve as prototypes, and the overwhelming number of poorly trained officials entrusted with inspection, verification, and enforcement duties.

Central governments contributed to weights and measures proliferation by promulgating multiple state standards for individual units, depending on where they were used and by whom. Sizes of units in capital cities were often different from those in the provinces or in rural areas. They even differed among social classes. On the other hand, common local units occasionally became so popular that they gained unit standardization. They then competed with state units, producing further confusion.

With the rapid growth of cities, weights and measures frequently separated into different standards depending on whether they were employed within the cities or outside their walls. A sharp division arose between urban and suburban measures. Similarly, some measuring units differed according to their use on land or on sea. A general rule throughout Europe was that measures always increased in size or distance once land was no longer in sight.

Product variations were the most important source for metrological proliferation. Those based on quantity measures varied by number or by an odd assortment of human, animal, and other capabilities. Even when these measures had standardized counts, capacities, or weights, the actual sizes depended on the characteristics of the products involved. Compounding this situation was the centuries-old practice of dividing existing units into halves, thirds, and fourths or into an irregular assortment of diminutives. Similar problems were assigning the same name to different units, basing one unit on a multiple or submultiple of another, bestowing more than one name on the same unit, and authorizing various methods of submultiple compilations for a given unit.

Further examples were units of account that were simply computational units for record keeping and other business purposes. Similarly, there were measures reserved for wholesale trade that referred to any number of other better-known units without any correlation to existing standards. Measures were also based on the monetary values of coins, on units of income derived through production, on crop yields and tax assessments, and on work functions, dimensions, and time allotments of humans and animals. The sizes of such units rested on a myriad of imprecise factors.

Regardless of such conditions, Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced a climate of change ushered in by the age of science and the Enlightenment. During this critical period, a number of developments occurred that altered metrological history profoundly, and eventually led to the creation and implementation of the metric system in France in 1793 and the imperial system in England in 1824.

First, there was the dynamic of scientific and technological invention and innovation that overthrew the rigid reliance on past traditions. The introduction of numerous new concepts, instruments, and procedures linked theoreticians with craftsmen for the first time and led to profound advancements in lenses, magnification glasses, microscopes, navigational, astronomical, and triangulation instruments, and clocks. These and hundreds of other breakthroughs, spearheaded chiefly by English, French, and Italian scientists, played a critical role in the reformation of weights and measures.

Second, many of these successes received stimulus and support from the European scientific societies that developed rapidly during the 1600s. By the end of the century, most serious scientists in Europe had become members of these societies, and their journals disseminated knowledge of new discoveries and inventions. In Italy the Roman Accademia dei Lincei and the Florentine Accademia del Cimento made significant scientific strides, the latter especially in its technological apparatus.

The most important societies for the future development of metrology, however, were the Royal Society of London and the Academy of Sciences of Paris and their offshoots, the Greenwich and Paris observatories. The English organizations cast their scientific net far and wide and made giant advancements in physics, astronomy, chemistry, and natural science which, coupled with their pioneering work in technological instruments, helped create a new era in weights and measures. Even more important were the Parisian groups whose scientists introduced the practice of using telescopes in conjunction with graduated circles for the precise measurement of angles. This led to measurements of the meridian arc and the computation of the radius of the Earth. This seminal work provided metrologists with possibilities for a natural physical standard that eventually became the basis for the metric system.

These and other advances led to the creation of hundreds of metrological reform proposals. In England the pendulum was given special emphasis. Since the second unit (of time) is determined by the motion of the earth, it was believed that the length of the second's pendulum in a given latitude would be an invariable quantity that could always be recovered or duplicated. Others proposed altering the existing system to conform to a decimal scale, eliminating all units except for a select few, and coordinating all units to a strict series of ratios. Unfortunately, the revamped English system of 1824 excluded any natural standard and opted only for streamlining the old system and establishing more accurate physical standards. The French proposals concluded far more successfully. After numerous experiments, France settled on a standard determined by the triangulation measurements of that portion of the meridian arc that ran from Dunkirk through Paris to Barcelona. In the process they established a new measurethe meteras one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. Even though there eventually were some problems with the final measurements, a new era in world metrology had begun.

See also Enlightenment ; Mathematics ; Scientific Instruments .


Berriman, Algernon E. Historical Metrology. London, 1953. An excellent study of the major issues in European metrological history.

Daumas, Maurice. Scientific Instruments of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century. New York, 1972. Shows the impact of technology on numerous metrological developments.

Kula, Witold. Measures and Men. Translated by Richard Szreter. Princeton, 1986. Important for the historical correlation between metrology and society.

Zupko, Ronald E. Revolution in Measurement: Western European Weights and Measures since the Age of Science. Philadelphia, 1990. Extensive coverage of medieval and early modern European weights and measures with a comprehensive bibliography on all issues.

. "Weights and Measures." In Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. Vol. 6. New York, 1999. Tables of principal European units of measurement.

. "Weights and Measures: Western European." In Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 12. New York, 1989. Europe-wide in scope with tables of equivalents; see also author's metrological articles in the other eleven volumes.

Ronald Edward Zupko

Weights and Measures

views updated Jun 11 2018


The colonists who came from England, carrying with them to North America their language, religious beliefs, and culture, also brought their system of weights and measures. This system had developed in an organic, unregulated fashion for centuries, some of the units and their names dating from before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Examples included the rod (16 1/2 feet), furlong (40 rods), and acre (160 square rods). By the time of the first settlements in the early seventeenth century, the system of length measures had become stable and well-defined for the purposes of commerce, with its units close to those used four hundred years later. The official English standard yard bar made in 1588, for example, is only 0.01 inch shorter than the yard of the twenty-first century. The statute mile of 5,280 feet was so defined in England in 1593 and seems to have been adopted readily in the colonies.

Two parallel systems of weight were brought over. Troy weight, the older one, was used only for gold and silver and, with somewhat different subdivisions (apothecaries' weight), for drugs. For all other commodities, the avoirdupois system came into wide use in the fourteenth century and remains the customary system. Like the length units, the weight units were relatively stable and well-defined, both the colonial and the U.S. standards being in principle based on official standards of the English exchequer until 1893.

The system of capacity in England was less orderly. There were several gallons and bushels, originating from old statutes that defined them with insufficient precision or clarity. The legal definitions often did not agree with the measures actually in use, and it was difficult to make the latter with sufficient accuracy. There was confusion between dry measure and liquid measure. Furthermore, in the case of dry measure, a bushel of wheat, for example, might in some cases be measured heaped and in others "struck" (with a flat upper surface).

standards in america

The individual colonies generally adopted as the legal standard for liquid measure the Queen Anne wine gallon, defined by British law in 1706 as 231 cubic inches. The beer gallon (282 cubic inches) was used concurrently, but it seems to have gradually yielded to the wine gallon and by 1821 was going out of use. For dry measure, the usual unit was the Winchester bushel (legally defined in 1696–1697) of 2,150.42 cubic inches (the contents of a cylinder 18 1/2 inches in diameter and 8 inches deep). But there were anomalies. Connecticut, until 1850, maintained its legal bushel equivalent to 2,198 cubic inches. Kentucky's was in 1798 defined to be 2,150 2/3 cubic inches.

By the mid-eighteenth century the individual colonies had laws making the exchequer standards their own. They had acquired official copies of them, and had ordered their counties and towns to obtain their own copies for testing the weights and measures of merchants. Although there is no evidence of conflict or dissatisfaction with these provisions, as soon as the colonies united, the Articles of Confederation transferred to the national government "the sole and exclusive right and power of … fixing the standard of weights and measures throughout the United States." The Constitution likewise gave Congress the power to "fix the Standard of Weights and Measures."

Jefferson's proposals. The new nation promptly adopted an innovative decimal money system worked out by Thomas Jefferson, but the federal government hesitated in dealing with weights and measures. At its request, Jefferson in 1790 developed two proposals "for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures" of the nation. The first was to define the foot already in use in terms of the length of a special pendulum; fix the gallon arbitrarily at 270 cubic inches, with all the other capacity units to correspond; and define the ounce as the weight of one-thousandth that of a cubic foot of water. Except for the abolition of troy weight and the adjustment of the capacity measures, this plan in practice would have involved minimal change.

Jefferson's more radical second plan was to extend the decimal principle that had already been successful in the coinage. All the units, would be changed, although they would retain the names of the closest old ones. (See sidebar.) The new foot, for example, one-fifth the length of Jefferson's pendulum, would be 0.978728 old feet, and the new inch, one-tenth of the foot, would be 1.174 old inches. A few new terms would be introduced, such as the "decad" (10 feet), the "metre" (1 cubic inch), and the "kental" (100 pounds). By a very slight adjustment in the silver content of the dollar, Jefferson was able to make his system combine elegantly with the existing decimal money system, so the dollar coin would weigh exactly one new ounce.


Thomas Jefferson's 1790 "Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States" proposed that the standard of length be based on "a uniform cylindrical rod of iron" making one-second swings. The more radical proposal in his plan defined a new foot as exactly one-fifth the length of the pendulum, with a new system of other units based on it, all subdivided and multiplied in a strictly decimal fashion. In the table below, each unit in a section is ten times as large as the one preceding. Equivalents in the second column are given in terms of the customary system (unchanged since Jefferson's time), slightly rounded from his figures.

Point0.01174 inches
Line0.1174 inches
Inch1.174 inches
Foot11.74 inches
Decad9.787 feet
Rood97.87 feet
Furlong978.7 feet
Mile9787 feet
Hundredth95.69 square feet
Tenthy957.9 square feet
Rood9579 square feet
Double acre2.199 acres
Square furlong21.99 acres
Metre (cubic inch)1.62 cubic inches
Demi-pint16.2 cubic inches
Pottle162 cubic inches
Bushel0.9375 cubic feet
Quarter9.375 cubic feet
Last or double ton93.75 cubic feet
Mite0.04102 grains
Minim or demi-grain0.4102 grains
Carat4.102 grains
Double scruple41.02 grains
Ounce (weight of one cubic inch of water)410.2 grains = 0.9375 ounces avoirdupois
Pound0.58596 pounds
Stone5.8596 pounds
Kental58.596 pounds
Hogshead585.96 pounds
Dollar (weight: 1 ounce)410.2 grains total
(11/12 silver alloy)

Roger E. Sherman

Congress adopted neither proposal, setting a pattern of reluctance to exert its power to fix weights and measures that has continued ever since. One reason, no doubt, was that France at this very time was developing the metric system and in Great Britain, too, reforms were being discussed. American legislators waited to see the results. The metric system progressed slowly and was adopted by few other countries, and the British did nothing. For a quarter-century after Jefferson's report, the American states awaited action by Congress, but in the meantime they passed their own laws, mostly setting standards for the size of barrels. In 1814 Louisiana abolished its old French measures and adopted the English ones; six years later, though, the transition was still incomplete.

Up to this time the government had been concerned with weights and measures exclusively in their relation to trade and commerce. But when Ferdinand Hassler was sent to Europe in 1811 to buy precision instruments for the geodetic operations of the Survey of the Coast, scientific considerations became significant. Hassler obtained accurate copies of the British yard and the meter, and one of his meter bars became the de facto standard of the Coast Survey, not being supplanted until 1890.

John Quincy Adams's report. In 1817 the Senate and in 1819 the House asked Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to prepare "a plan for fixing the standard of weights and measures." After a thorough and thoughtful investigation that duly appraised the advantages of the metric system, Adams in 1821 recommended even less change than Jefferson's conservative plan. The government, Adams declared, should specify the standard of length to agree with the British one, define the avoirdupois pound according to the existing relation that thirty-two cubic feet of water weigh two thousand pounds, keep the corresponding troy weights, and keep the existing wine and ale gallons and bushel.

But Adams went beyond Jefferson in several important respects. He recommended that physical standards of the units be made and that official copies be distributed to the states. The government should consult with foreign governments to work toward a universal system and correlate the meter to the foot, he suggested. Finally, Adams collected data showing that the standards used in the customhouses varied significantly from each other.

Government response. For several years, Congress failed to act on Adams's straightforward suggestions. The Treasury, however, concerned about the standard of weight for coinage, obtained a certified copy of the British troy pound, and in 1828 an act of Congress made it the official standard for the U.S. Mint. This was the first true exercise of Congress's power to fix standards and a sign that the legislators were at long last ready to grapple with the entire problem.

Disturbed by the evidence of discrepancies in the customhouse standards such as had been revealed by Adams, the Senate in 1830 ordered an investigation. Hassler was called in to carry it out. He duly reported embarrassing irregularities and, with the support of the Treasury department, began working energetically to correct the situation. Hassler's efforts—resulting in the establishment in 1836 of the Office of Weights and Measures, the fixing of standards based on those he had brought from Europe, and the dissemination of accurate secondary standards to the customhouses and states—marked the beginning of a new era in the story of the weights and measures of the United States.

See alsoArithmetic and Numeracy; Science .


Adams, John Quincy. Report of the Secretary of State upon Weights and Measures. Foreword by A. Hunter Dupree. New York: Arno, 1980.

Cochrane, Rexmond C. Measures for Progress. A History of the National Bureau of Standards. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1966.

Connor, R. D. The Weights and Measures of England. London: H.M.S.O.,1987.

Hallock, William, and Herbert T. Wade. Outlines of the Evolution of Weights and Measures and the Metric System. New York: Macmillan, 1906.

Jefferson, Thomas. "Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States." In Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1984.

Judson, Lewis V. Weights and Measures Standards of the United States: A Brief History. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1976.

Roger E. Sherman

weights and measures

views updated Jun 08 2018

weights and measures. The history of weights and measures in Britain is dominated by efforts at standardization, nationally and locally, for many variations existed for measures in the different countries of the British Isles.

In England, Saxon weights and measures, based roughly on the standards prescribed by Offa, king of Mercia, were used for centuries, being confirmed after the Norman Conquest by William I and subsequently in 1215 by Magna Carta. The ounce was approximately 450 grains, i.e. slightly heavier than the modern one. An ordinance of Henry III in 1266 defined both coinage and commercial weights for the first time. There was some effort to relate English weights to those of the cities of the Hanseatic league, the principal market for wool, the country's major export. This act established a 16-ounce pound for commercial weight.

A new standard of bulk weight was enacted by Edward III in 1340, when the treasury at Winchester became the repository for weights with denominations of 7, 14, 28, 56, and 91 lbs. The standard corresponded roughly with that of Florence, another major market for English wool, indicating that one stone should weigh 14 lbs. During the reign of Henry VII, weights and measures were put on a statutory basis by an Act of 1497 and later under Elizabeth I a series of ordinances culminated with that of 1588 aimed to standardize bulk and precious metal weights. The hundredweight and the ton were standardized at 112 lb. and 20 cwt. (2,240 lb.) respectively. These Acts also set standards for liquid and linear measures, which were distributed to all the main cities and boroughs in England and Wales, though adoption was gradual and inspection difficult.

North of the border, despite similar attempts to disentangle the confusing system of Scottish weights and measures, there was no serious attack on the problem until the Restoration. In 1661 a parliamentary commission proposed the introduction of national standards with certain burghs having custody of particular weights and measures. Accordingly, Edinburgh would keep the ell for linear measure, Linlithgow the firlot for dry measure, Lanark the troy stone for weight, and Stirling the jug for liquid capacity.

The Union of 1707 should have brought standardization throughout Great Britain but in reality it was not until an Act of 1824 that the uniformity recommended by the Carysfort parliamentary inquiry in 1758–60 was statutorily established. British standards then became known as imperial measure. More precise instruments, particularly for use in scientific experiments and in cartography, led to greater standardization of both weights and measures.

While many attempts have subsequently been made to substitute metric for imperial measure, the former, though widely used in industry, and scientific and professional spheres, has not yet replaced traditional standards. A further step towards standard metrification with Europe was taken in 1995, though, as an act of kindness, the British people were allowed to continue to drink pints of milk or pints of beer, and to travel, if they wished, in miles.

Ian Donnachie

Weights and Measures

views updated Jun 11 2018


A comprehensive legal term for uniform standards ascribed to the quantity, capacity, volume, or dimensions of anything.

The regulation of weights and measures is necessary for science, industry, and commerce. The importance of establishing uniform national standards was demonstrated by the drafters of the U.S. Constitution, who gave Congress in Article 1, Section 8, the power to "fix the Standard of Weights and Measures." During the nineteenth century, the Office of Standard Weights and Measures regulated measurements. In 1901 it became the National Bureau of Standards, and in 1988 it was renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The states may also regulate weights and measures, provided their regulations are not in opposition to any act of Congress. Legislation that adopts and mandates the use of uniform system of weights and measures is a valid exercise of the police power, and such laws are constitutional. In the early twentieth century the National Bureau of Standards coordinated standards among states and held annual conferences at which a model state law of weights and measures was updated. This effort has resulted in almost complete uniformity of state laws.

Though U.S. currency was settled in a decimal form, Congress has retained the English

weights and measures systems. France adopted the metric system in the 1790s, starting an international movement to make the system a universal standard, replacing national and regional variants that made scientific and commercial communication difficult. thomas jefferson was an early advocate of the metric system and in an 1821 report to Congress, Secretary of State john quincy adams urged its acceptance. However, Congress stead-fastly refused.

Despite hostility to making the metric system the official U.S. system of weights and measures, its use was authorized in 1866. The United States also became a signatory to the Metric Convention of 1875, and received copies of the International Prototype Meter and the International Prototype Kilogram in 1890. In 1893 the Office of Weights and Measures announced that the prototype meter and kilogram would be recognized as fundamental standards from which customary units, the yard and the pound, would be derived.

The metric system has been adopted by many segments of U.S. commerce and industry, as well as by virtually all of the medical and scientific professions. The international acceptance of the metric system led Congress in 1968 to authorize a study to determine whether the United States should convert. Though the resulting 1971 report recommended shifting to the metric system over a ten-year period, Congress declined to pass appropriate legislation.

further readings

Bartlett, David F., ed. 1980. The Metric Debate. Boulder: Colorado Associated Univ. Press.

Weights and Measures

views updated Jun 11 2018

Weights and Measures

Europeans used a great variety of systems for weighing and measuring during the Renaissance. Even within the same kingdom or territory, standards could vary widely. The ancient Romans had imposed a single system of measurements throughout their empire, but when the empire collapsed, the Roman system fell by the wayside. Many localities developed their own systems, and by the Renaissance hundreds of thousands of different weights and measures were in use.

Most units of measurement were based on quantities people used in their daily life. For example, people might measure area according to how much land they needed to produce income for the year or on the amount of land they could rent for a certain fee. Other measurements depended on the physical qualities of humans and animals. Human body parts, such as the foot and palm, formed the basis for some units of length. Ale could be measured by the hogshead, which held about 63 gallons. Some units of volume depended on units of length, as in the case of units based on the length of string required to bind up a certain volume of a product. People also based units of capacity on the amount that a ship or pack train could carry.

Some units of measure had several applications. The French aissin, for instance, could measure areas of land or volumes of grain or wood. In other cases, a single unit had more than one name. The English measures pint, jug, and stoup were used interchangeably for the same volume of liquid. In Italy, the grosso, dramma, and quarro were equal units of weight.

Central governments laid out the standards for units of measurement, but they did not always define them in precise terms. In France, for instance, there were many different ways of calculating such measures as the pied for length and the corde for firewood. Also, local variations of measures sometimes became popular and replaced the national standard. The standards used inside a town might vary from those applied outside the town walls, and units of measurement often differed at land and at sea. The French lieue (league) ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 toises (3,900 to 5,850 meters), with the greater length being used at sea.

Governments also failed to produce enough physical prototypes (uniform models) to allow people to check the accuracy of their own measuring devices. Furthermore, these prototypes were not all made in the same place. Instead, individual manufacturers created models that often varied from the original, or master, measure. Local craftsworkers further confused the issue by creating their own copies from the masters. In addition, measuring devices made of wood, lead, iron, and bronze could change with weather conditions and constant handling, further reducing their accuracy. Finally, standards of measurement changed over time. Europe did not develop a single unified system of measurement until the creation of the metric system in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

(See alsoEconomy and Trade. )

weights and measures

views updated Jun 11 2018

weights and measures Agreed units for expressing the amount of some quantity, such as capacity, length or weight. Early measurements were based on body measurements and on plant grains. The French introduced the metric system in 1799, in which the unit of length, the metre, was taken as one ten millionth of the distance from the Equator to the North Pole. A litre was the volume occupied by one kilogram of water. SI units, proposed in 1960, have expanded and replaced the metric system for scientific purposes. The British system of imperial units, has almost entirely been replaced by the metric system for everyday measurements, but not in the USA.