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In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ Talmudic scholars grapple with the number of sacrificial measuring cups in the First Temple

Adam Kirsch
November 13, 2018
Inset image: New York Public Library
Inset image: New York Public Library

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

As we have seen over the course of Tractate Menachot, sacrifices made in the Temple involved exact measurements. This does not present a difficulty when it comes to animal sacrifices, where the unit of sacrifice is a whole sheep, bull, or bird. But with meal offerings, it’s necessary to deal with measurement of liquids and dry ingredients by volume. A standard meal offering, for instance, requires one-tenth of an ephah of flour and a log of oil.

And as we saw in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, other sacrifices had different requirements. A meal offering accompanying the sacrifice of a bull used three-tenths of an ephah of flour, while a ram used two-tenths. The High Priest’s daily griddle-cake offering was made from a tenth of an ephah divided in half, with one part offered in the morning and the other in the evening. Likewise, the amount of oil could vary, with multiples of a log being used for different animal sacrifices. And sometimes fractions of a log were needed: The holy water used in the ritual of the sota, a woman accused of adultery, was half a log.

Exactly how to translate these ancient terms into modern measurements is disputed, and most scholars give only rough estimates. An ephah is defined by some sources as equivalent to 23 liters, while others say 36 liters; this means that the measure of flour used in a standard sacrifice would be anywhere from 2.3 to 3.6 liters, or between 0.6 and 0.9 gallons. A log is equal to about 0.3 liters, or 10 ounces.

In Chapter Ten of Menachot, the rabbis ask how these precise measurements were actually made in the Temple. It stands to reason that there must have been measuring bowls or cups—but how many, and in what denominations? This is one of those prosaic questions that brings home the magnitude of what was lost with the destruction of the Temple. Precisely because measuring cups were such humble, ordinary tools, there is no record of them anywhere for the rabbis to rely on. Instead, here as with many other facets of Temple ritual, they must recreate the past using the only resources available to them: oral tradition, which is full of disagreements and contradictions, and the text of the Torah, which is often silent about matters of detail. Finding or inventing an answer out of these meager resources is what the Talmud is all about.

In Menachot 87a, the rabbis ask about dry measurements. Since most sacrifices involved multiples of a tenth of an ephah, it stands to reason that there must have been a measuring vessel of that size. There was also, the mishna says, a vessel that held a twentieth of an ephah, to use for the High Priest’s griddle-cake offering. But there were no larger vessels to match the requirements of the bull or ram sacrifices; instead, the priest would measure out the flour one-tenth of an ephah at a time.

How many such vessels were used in the Temple? The rabbis assume there was only one, but Rabbi Meir disagrees, saying that there must have been two. His opinion is grounded not in pragmatic reasoning but in the text of Numbers, which in one place repeats the word “tenth”: “And a tenth, a tenth for every lamb.” This repetition, according to Meir, signals that there were two vessels measuring a tenth of an ephah in the Temple. And what was the difference between them? Meir explains that one held that amount when it was filled level to the top, while the other, slightly smaller, held that amount when the flour was heaped up.

The rabbis disagree, not seeing the necessity for two different vessels of the same size. But Talmudic hermeneutics are based on the idea that every word of the Torah is there for a reason, to teach a principle of law. So how do they interpret the repetition of the word “tenth”? The rabbis propose that this refers to the vessel that measures half a tenth, the one used for the griddle cake. This is a little slippery—after all the Torah doesn’t say, “And a tenth, a twentieth for every lamb”—but it’s enough to satisfy the rabbis.

Now the ball is back in Rabbi Meir’s court. The rabbis have explained where they find the textual basis for the vessel measuring half a tenth of an ephah; where, then, does Meir find it? Ingeniously, he seizes on the only other stray word in the verse, the “and.” This “and,” he says, is there only to teach that there is a third vessel, in addition to the two vessels measuring a tenth of an ephah; and this third vessel must be the one that measures a twentieth. The rabbis, on the other hand, “do not derive anything from ‘and’: A mere conjunction, in this case, is too minor to hang a point of law on it.

It might seem that the same principle should apply to liquid measurements as to dry measurements. Since most liquid measurements in sacrifices are made in multiples of a log, there would only have to be one vessel measuring one log, just as there is one vessel measuring one-tenth of an ephah. But the mishna in 87b explains that this is not correct: “There were seven measuring vessels for liquids in the Temple,” one for each denomination used in a ritual. Thus, in addition to the one-log vessel used for the oil of meal offerings, there was a six-log vessel used for the oil that accompanied a bull offering, a four-log vessel for a ram, and a three-log vessel for a lamb. Then there was a half-log vessel for the water of a sota, and even a quarter-log vessel for the water used in the purification of a leper.

But this is only six vessels: What about the seventh? The mishna states that it was a large vessel holding one hin of liquid, which is equivalent to 12 log, or about 3.5 liters. But in the Gemara, Rabbi Shimon asks what such a vessel would have been needed for, since no sacrifice requires a hin of oil. The rabbis respond by returning to the Torah, where it is written that Moses actually did use a hin of oil to anoint the Tabernacle and the priests for the first time, during the wandering in the desert.

Maybe, then, the hin-size vessel in the Temple was the very one that Moses used. But, Rabbi Shimon objects, why would it have been kept for so long in the Temple if it was never used again? Surely it would have been “sequestered,” stored away somewhere. The rabbis take the contrary view, saying that the vessel was indeed kept in the Temple, even though it wasn’t used.

There is, of course, an easier way of resolving this problem. Why is it that there have to be seven vessels in the Temple in the first place? Why not just six? In the Gemara’s words, “Is it not possible to not include a seventh?” But the rabbis rule out this possibility: “It is learned as a tradition that there were seven measuring vessels for liquids in the Temple,” and so seven there must be. Tradition, as always, is the rabbis’ trump card, their irrefutable argument. For once you start doubting the tradition, they knew, the very basis of Judaism could disappear.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.