How long is a "cubit"?

For Jews, a cubit is a great deal

September 1, 2005

Defining that ancient measurement may seem a matter of mere Bible trivia, but in theory the answer could affect a potentially calamitous modern-day religious confrontation.

The term occurs in the Bible more than 100 times. Some well-known examples:

Cubit, from the Latin word for "elbow," is used in most English Bible translations when the Hebrew word for "elbow" refers to measurements.

In various ancient cultures, the cubit referred to the typical measurement between a person's elbow and the tip of the middle finger. Obviously, there was no fixed meaning because people come in different sizes. Scholars say the cubit became a more or less standardized measure but referred to different lengths in ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Israel.

As for biblical usage, scholars estimate the cubit at anywhere from 1.33 to 2.2 feet, says Joshua Schwartz, the dean of Jewish studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, writing in the current Biblical Archaeology Review.

The consensus appears to be the 1969 view of Arye Ben David that in Temple measurements, at least, a cubit was 1.84 feet.

However, Asher Selig Kaufman is a "cubit minimalist" who puts the length at only 1.43 feet. Historian Kaufman specializes in aspects of the Temple Mount, the sector where the Temple once stood (called the Haram as-Sharif or "Noble Sanctuary" by Muslims). His short cubit provides the basis for controversial calculations on the location of the ancient Temple.

During the past five centuries, most Jews have agreed with Rabbi David ben Zimra's belief that the ancient Temple stood at the exact site that's now occupied by the Dome of the Rock. This is one of Islam's holiest structures, commemorating what's believed to be the spot from which Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Some zealous Jews and Christians interpret the Bible as teaching that it's God's will for the Temple to be rebuilt someday at its original location. If the conventional location is correct, that would require demolition of the Muslim shrine -- and incitement to interfaith world war.

But the effect of Kaufman's short cubits is to undermine the old "central theory" for the Temple's location. His "northern theory" puts the Temple site northwest of the Dome of the Rock at a cupola known as the Dome of the Spirits or Dome of the Tablets.

(There's also a third or "southern theory" promoted by Tel Aviv architect Tuviah Sagiv.)

Kaufman set forth his case in Biblical Archaeology Review in 1983. He pursues the theme further in a 2004 book published in Israel, "The Temple Mount: Where Is the Holy of Holies?" the third in a series treating the Mount.

If Kaufman is right about cubits, it's possible Israel could someday rebuild the Temple without having to destroy Islam's Dome of the Rock -- not that Muslims would welcome such nearby construction, either.

Besides calculations based upon a short cubit, Kaufman argues based on the alignment of the Temple in relation to the Mount of Olives.

In Jewish tradition, a priest would burn a red heifer and mix the ashes with water to be sprinkled on worshippers for ritual cleansing. The ceremony took place on the Mount of Olives with the priest looking toward the entrance to the Temple sanctuary.

To Kaufman, the line of sight argues for the northern location. Schwartz's article says, "With all due respect to the calculations of the author, it is impossible to know where the priest stood."

Though Kaufman's views "have been accepted by very few scholars," Schwartz says, he is an acknowledged expert and his general contributions to Temple Mount scholarship "cannot be denied."

SOURCE: South Bend Tribune