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On Matza, Soccer Balls and Red Wine
How long is a piece of string?

When I was a little fellow, my father, like most Jews, made seder on Pesach. At our seder there were usually six or seven people: my father, my mother, my little brother, Erwin, sometimes Mr Greber, or Ilka, or another guest or two, and me. When it came time to eat the matza, my father divided up a sheet into a few pieces, passing out a piece to each participant to eat.

My father passed away when I was thirteen years old and I, in good Jewish tradition, continued his practices. Each year I made seder with my Uncle Armin -- we took turns, one day each -- and he too broke the matza up for each person. When my uncle also passed on five years later, I continued making seder for the family.

As I grew up I became more "educated". More self-help handbooks were published. I studied in Yeshivas. Suddenly it was not OK to eat a seventh or an eighth of a matza. There were now two dominant opinions, one of Rabbi Naeh and one of the Hazon Ish. According to these two learned gentlemen, the requisite amount of matza, the shiur in Hebrew, was either half a standard machine matza or a full one respectively. A machine matza, I should point out, has a volume of about 50 cc.

And why is it necessary to have a shiur? Because the Torah commands us to eat matza. We need to define the act of "eating", or define what constitutes a "normal" portion. Clearly licking a crumb or two is not eating, nor can consuming a slice over an hour be considered a singular act of eating. A shiur is the minimum amount that must be consumed to be called "eating". And of course must be just that, not gluttonous consumption.

So my father was wrong. Or more precisely, so my father was wrong?!? How could that be? My father comes from a religious family, in fact a very religious family, from Slovakia, in a town not far from the capital of Hungarian and Slovak Jewry, Pressburg (also know as Bratislava). The famous rabbi of Bratislava was the Hatham Sofer. His influence was great over a large area. He often took a very strict approach to Jewish Law as an antidote to the rise of Reform Judaism during his lifetime. I have no doubt if he saw the Jews were eating less than the required amount, he would forcefully point it out.

My father's grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Prager, was a favourite disciple of Kthav Sofer, son and heir to the Hatham Sofer. He was sent to Topolcany to head the Jewish community. Is it likely that my family lost an established custom of eating between 25 and 50 ccs of matza; or was matza so hard to come by that they had to do with less?

We are warned against mocking the generations that came before. This applies as much to our antecendents as to our rabbis. They were closer to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai then we. We may think we are taller than they. But we are not. Far from it. It's just that we sit on their shoulders. So what is going on here?

Many of the ideas I am going to express here, I heard from my friend and teacher, Rav Davidh Bar-Hayim who is one of the few able and prepared to explain many of our customs in respect to our return to our homeland.

When the rabbis of the mishna wanted to express a volume or other measure, they did this using something familiar to them, an olive, a date; when they wanted to describe a colour they used "the colour of Sharon wine", the colour of soil in a particular location, etc. Their assumption was that anyone, then and later, reading their formula, would understand what they meant. And why not? After all the Torah was given to be kept in the Land of Israel, so using local measures makes a lot of sense.

The problem, however, arose in the Jewish diaspora, something that either the rabbis of the mishna did not conceive, or if they did, intended to continue the centrality of the Land in the eyes of the people but keeping Israel alive in the minds of the nation. Israel is a land of agriculture, wine, farms, cities, etc.

The most common measure for food is based on the average size of an olive. There are two common species of olive in Israel, Suri and Nabali, with an average volume of 3 cc and 5 cc respectively. The accepted volume for the standard size of a portion of food is the latter, 5 cc.

Now that's all simple if you live in Israel. But what if you live in an area where there are no olives? In ancient times, olives grew only around the Mediterranean basin. This is still largely true today, though they have been successfully cultivated in the new world, specifically in California and in Australia. Olives do not grow today in Iraq, nor did they grow there when it was called Bavel, Babylon. Rabbi Yohanan, an Israeli sage, mocks the Babylonians who did not eat olive oil, an essential part of the Mediterranean diet, because they didn't have any. And they did not know exactly how an olive looked.

So how did they explain the mishna's definition? They needed to provide an alternate measure. They chose an egg. But either because they did not know exactly how big an olive really was, or because hens in Babylon varied in size from region to region, the Amora'im, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, were not in agreement on the exact ratio of olives to eggs. One rabbi said an egg equalled the volume of two olives, another said three and yet a third said three and a half. At least now, followers of each rabbi had something, perhaps not totally accurate, to uses as a rule of thumb.

The Jews of Israel eventually found their way to Europe, principally Germany and France, and later to Lithuania. In none of these countries are olives grown, let alone seen. But traditions continued, and each person, by following his father's actions, "remembered" the shiurim. As an aside, Spain was and still is the major olive grower in the world. And the Rashba, a thirteenth century Spanish rabbi, noted that the size of an egg was sixteen times that of an olive.

Fast-forward. The people of Israel are returning home. Once again we know what olives and dates are. So our rabbis do need to tell us what we really already know, perhaps they just need to quantify it for us.

It should be quite obvious what a olive looks like. Our land is covered in olive trees. They are ubiquitous.

But no, it's not so simple. Our rabbis tell us that our olives are much, much smaller than the olives of ancient times. They can't explain why, but they are certain. Because if you take today's [largest] eggs you find they are 65 grams. So if an egg is 65 grams, and the sages of the Babylonian Talmud tell us that this is double the size of an olive, an olive must be 32.5 grams. And, to be on the safe side, we should add a bit and round up, to perhaps, 40 grams. I've bought and eaten olives that are labelled "gigantic". Believe me these olives were not bigger than 10 grams, at a stretch. But the halacha refers to the average size.

So where's the mistake? It's not in the size of the olive. Trees of the same species of olives we plant today, existed around Israel from various times in history. Perhaps this is the reason our rabbis chose the olive tree as the standard. Olive trees are almost eternal, they live for a very long time. We know of over seventy olive trees, Suri and Nabali, which are between 1,800 and 2,000 years old, meaning these very trees were already providing fruit in the time of the rabbis of the mishna. And, to no-one's real surprise, the fruit of these trees is 3 or 5 cc respectively.

To take this a step further, there are five fruit bearing olives trees in Israel today, of both species, which are at least 3,000 years old. 3,000 years! That precedes the birth of King David. It's around the time Samson was beating up the Philistines. And, why would you expect otherwise, the fruit of these trees is 3 or 5 cc, depending on the species.

Thousands of olive pits were found on Masada. Both species. And their size? . . . you guessed it.

So the problem is the egg? Yes. There are many breeds of domestic foul, and they come in many sizes. In some Arab villages in our area you can still see breeds of small hens. Their eggs are around 15 or so grams. It is not far fetched to assume the Babylonians kept this or similar small breeds.

And it wasn't just in the size of an olive that our rabbis miscalculated. For liquids, the shiur is a revi'ith, the amount in your blown out cheek. The Rambam gives us an exact formula for determining this. It is the displacement of water by a certain number of standard Islamic coins. Easy.

Rav Naeh took the requisite number of coins (from Turkey) and made the calculation. 86 ml. The Hazon Ish's value however is 150! Rav Naeh wrote to the Hazon Ish telling him that he carried out the Rambam's instructions in order to arrive at his figure. The Hazon Ish replied, "that may be so, but how do you know the standard coins are the same size now in Turkey as they were then in Egypt?" So he doubled it?!

Since that correspondence, coins from Egypt have been found, dating back a thousand years. The Hazon Ish was correct. They are not exactly the same size as the Turkish coins. They are in fact marginally smaller!

But supporters of the Hazon Ish still insist on 150 ml!

To add weight to the "old" tradition, I have heard that some of the progeny of Reb Moishe eat an eighth of a sheet of matza and that Reb Moishe also broke the matza into a few pieces to pass out to participants. Why don't they publicise the opinion of this important modern day sage? I assume that, in today's crazy right wing orthodox world, they may be concerned at the reaction of the so-called followers of the Hazon Ish, so they keep the tradition to themselves.

My Uncle Leslie, who lives in London, likes to compare followers of rabbis to football fans. One guy follows Arsenal and another, Manchester City. They both love the same game, but each wears a different colour shirt.

The next time you think your ancestors weren't as good Jews as your rabbis today, please think again.

Postscript: It is worth noting that each stringency in halacha, such as overeating matza, usually has a corresponding leniency. The same portion of food, defined as the size of an olive, is also the amount that is prohibited to be eaten on Yom Kippur, and the amount of hamets that can be consumed before one has trangressed the Torah commandment.

Also I didn't mention the Hazon Ish's cubit, ama, measure which is far greater than measurements taken in various digs around Yerushalayim. Perhaps that will make a future story . . . .

Menachem Kuchar, 22nd February, 2010    

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