Discovery Sheds Light on Size of a Tefach

L to Rt: Storage jars from Khiyife, Hippo, Lmlk, with the "tefach" inner-rim diameter outlined in red. (Hebrew University)

Archaeologists have found that the openings of all jars stored in Israel over 350 years have the diameter of an average man’s hand – a tefach – which has significant bearing in regards to tumah and tahara.

A study carried out by three Israel archaeologists publicized this week found a fascinating common denominator among storage jars in Israel over a period of 350 years – all the rims of the jars maintain the diameter of a man’s hand – a tefach. The finding holds true despite drastic changes in the shapes and volumes of storage jars over the centuries.

The storage jars all had an inner-rim diameter of 8.85 to 8.97 centimeters, a measurement that corresponds to the width of an average man’s hand. And according to the study, the size of an average man’s hand hasn’t changed in the past 3,000 years, citing 1980 data from the US Army, which found an average dimension of 8.67±0.48 centimeters when measuring male soldiers’ hands for the purpose of ordering gloves.

The study, which was published under the auspices of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, cited the two modern Rabbinical opinions of Rav Avraham Chaim Naeh and the Chazon Ish.

“According to Rabbi Chaim Naeh, one tefach = 8 centimeters, whereas according to the Chazon Ish one tefach = 9.6 centimeters,” the press release stated. “The uniform opening of the ancient storage jars, which falls between 8.85-8.97 cm, falls squarely in between these two opinions and may shed light on the dimensions of the biblical tefach. [YWN editor’s note: The opinion of Rav Moshe Feinstein on the measurement of a tefach corresponds to “squarely in between the opinion” of Chazon Ish and Rav Chaim Naeh.]

The Hebrew University press release also addresses a possible connection between the tefach measure of the storage jars’ rims and the laws of tahara and tumah, which can be read below. The archeologists’ findings were published in BASOR, the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

“It was natural for the ancient potters to adopt the handbreadth—tefach–standard. It was a unit of length that was widely used in ancient times, and is mentioned both in Assyrian and Egyptian sources and in the Torah, for instance: Numbers 25-25, Numbers 37-12,” the researchers shared.

“The team did 3-D scans of 307 Iron-Age jars found in Khirbet Qeiyafa (Judah Kingdom; early 10th century BC), “hippo” jars from northern Israel (Israelite Kingdom, 9th Century BC—nicknamed for their large size and loop handles which resemble hippopotamuses) and royal Judah Kingdom storage jars (8-7th Century BC). The researchers observed large variations between the jars—even those from the same time period and geographic region. Only one measure remained constant: the averaged inner-rim diameter which always measured, with a standard deviation, between 8.85 and 8.97 centimeters.”

“The distribution of this diameter is statistically identical to the hand’s breadth of modern man. To gain data on the standard measure of a modern man’s palm, the team tapped measurements taken by the USA Army when ordering gloves for their soldiers, the mean value being 8.67±0.48 cm, which is consistent with the measurements taken from the ancient jars. Though human heights and weights have changed over time due to improved diet and health, previous research has shown that palm dimensions have not changed much over the last 3,000 years.”

“As to why the inner rim remained consistent while the overall shape of the jar varied so much, our Israeli group of researchers has several theories. It was a natural choice for ancient potters to use their palms as the standard diameter for jar openings—it was easy to implement when working on the wheel: the potter could simply use her/his palm as a tool. Further, storage jars were multiuse items, which meant their openings had to be large enough to allow for cleaning between uses and this involves fitting your hand into the jar.”

“However, there is another, ancient aspect which may explain the connection between the uniform neck diameters. It is based on the highly-regarded and observed purity laws in the Torah. The Book of Numbers deals with the question: What is the status of jars that were left in the vicinity of a corpse—are they impure or pure?”

“This is the law, if a man dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent shall be unclean for seven days. Any open vessel which has no seal fastened around it becomes unclean.” (Numbers 19: 14-15)

“It is clear from this passage that the contents of a jar become impure—and therefore unusable– unless there is a special seal on its top. This ruling had serious economic ramifications. Imagine having to throw out valuable stores of grain and oil after Grandpa Ezekiel died in the family tent. Subsequent Jewish traditions quantified these rules of impurity, stating that the minimal opening size through which impurity may enter is the square of a hand’s breadth by hand’s breadth.”

“Impurity does not enter a shelter, nor does it depart from it if there is an opening less than a handbreadth [tefach] by a handbreadth [tefach].” (14.1)

“According to the Oral Tradition, it was taught that the verse is speaking only about a ceramic container, for it is a container that contracts impurity only through its opening.” (21.1) – Maimonides’s Code of Jewish Religious Law, Mishneh Torah.

“Here Maimonides brings down an ancient tradition vis a vis the laws of impurity, stating that a round opening with a maximum diameter of one hand’s breadth, or tefach, would ensure that the jar’s content would still be pure even if it were stored near a corpse. From here it would make sense that potters would create storage jars with a tefach, or hand’s breadth, opening.”

“For the purposes of storage and transport, a jar opening should be small. On the other hand, pouring, cleaning and easy manufacturing would dictate a large opening, at least a hand’s-width. Perhaps, the final convergence to a one handbreadth opening killed several birds with one stone and kept in mind the spiritual, legal traditions regarding the minimal window through which impurity could defile the contents of a ceramic vessel and thus make them unusable.”

“Over time, different rabbis attempted to provide conversions of the traditional biblical measurements to our modern measurement. The conversions for the tefach vary, with competing theories brought forth by Avraham Chaim Naeh and the Chazon Ish, both 20th century Orthodox rabbis who lived in pre-State Palestine. According to Rabbi Chaim Naeh, one tefach = 8 cm, whereas according to the Chazon Ish one tefach = 9.6 cm. The uniform opening of the ancient storage jars, which falls between 8.85-8.97 cm, falls squarely in between these two opinions and may shed light on the dimensions of the biblical tefach and, because we no longer hold by purity laws when it comes to the contamination of stored items, elucidate just how tall your sukkah can be, down to the last centimeter.”

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  1. Thats is not a proof. It could be at that specific period the Rabbis paskened that a tefach was a certain length. They (the Beis Din Hagadol) could have then changed their mind. The same would be true if Rabbenu Tam tefillin were found from the time of the beis Hamikdosh. That means at that specific (maybe shortish time) time they wore these tefillin, at another time the Rabbis could have changed the psak to say we should wear tefillin like Rashi.

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