Archaeologists May Have Deduced Exactly How Big a Biblical ‘Handbreadth’ Is

Based on over 300 biblical-era pottery jars with a surprising thing in common and U.S. Army orders for gloves, Israeli archaeologists solve ancient mystery

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Storage Jars from Khirbet Qeiyafa
Storage Jars from Khirbet Qeiyafa,Credit: Clara Amit
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

“And thou shalt make a table of acacia-wood: two cubits shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, and make thereto a crown of gold round about. And thou shalt make unto it a border of a handbreadth round about” (Exodus 25:23-25).

How big exactly is a “handbreadth,” a unit of measurement mentioned in the Bible and also in talmudic instructions? A tefach, the handbreadth, is equivalent to four fingers, the Talmud unhelpfully clarifies. It’s no more useful to know that the sages defined one “span” as three “handbreadths.” Now a team of Israeli archaeologists from the Hebrew University and Israel Antiquities Authority think they may have deduced the dimensions of the enigmatic biblical handbreadth, with the help of 307 ancient pottery jars.

The jars, from different places and times, turned out to have something completely unexpected in common.

Before the advent of plastic, people stored liquids and dry goods alike in ceramic jars, which came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. One would therefore expect their mouths to also come in all sorts of widths. But lo, they do not – at least in the case of jars manufactured in different parts of what is today Israel, over a period of 350 years during the Iron Age, claim Ortal Harush of the Hebrew University, Avshalom Karasik of the IAA and Uzy Smilansky of Weizmann Institute.

The inner rim of the necks of the jars, found in three different Iron Age sites, is of the same diameter. The archaeologists suspect that practically uniform diameter is the long-lost “handbreadth.”

That is mainly because the neck diameter is about the size of ye average male palm, the three explain in their paper published today in BASOR – the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Really. How do we know ye average male palm breadth? Based on U.S. Army glove orders. The mean size of ye American army glove is 8.67 centimeters (about 3.5 inches), give or take 0.48 millimeters.

Khirbet Qeiyafa, 30 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem.
Khirbet Qeiyafa, 30 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem.Credit: Yuval Gesser

The team adds that people may have increased in height as their nutrition improved in modern times, but hand size has not changed.

In fact there was some distribution in the neck diameters of the jars, which were measured by 3-D scanning at 8.85 to 8.97 centimeters. “The distribution of inner rim diameters is consistent with anthropometric measurements of the handbreadth of the human male,” they explain. In other words, they believe the potters strived to make the neck the breadth of their hand, but there was some difference between their hands.

Because they were there

Let’s start with why the researchers examined these specific jars and not from a wider range in time. Asked why they chose to focus on three groups of jars from the Iron Age (with a control group of Roman-period jars), Karasik explains that they simply took advantage of jars being studied for other purposes.

The oldest jars stem from a destruction layer at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a First Temple-period site in the Elah Valley 30 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem. Associated with the Kingdom of Judah in the 10th century B.C.E., Qeiyafa is famed for being the site of a ruined palace that some think associated with King David, and with a sort-of-anthropogenic figurine that one archaeologist, Yossi Garfinkel of Hebrew University, suggests may depict the face of Yahweh. (This suggestion was met with howls of criticism.)

“Most of the Qeiyafa jars were made of the same clay, suggesting that they were produced in one centralized pottery workshop,” the archaeologists write. The vessels ranged from 20 to 40 liters in volume, and had similar shapes and potter’s marks on their handles.

A Judean "LMLK" jar
A Judean "LMLK" jarCredit: Yael Yuluvitz / IAA

The second group of jars belonged to the so-called “hippo” type, because if you squint … anyway, these are shaped quite differently than the Qeiyafa pieces and dated to the ninth century B.C.E. Hippo jars, ranging from about 30 to 50 liters in volume, were typical of Iron Age northern Israel. Some bore potter’s marks.

The third group was storage jars from Judah, including “LMLK” jars – with imprints on their handles indicating that the vessel and its content belonged to the king (“lamelekh”). Others had rosettes stamped on their handles. In the eighth century B.C.E., these were standard storage jars, also of 30 to 50 liters in volume. Archaeologists tend to agree that the LMLK vessels in the eighth to seventh centuries B.C.E. attest to the existence of a powerful administrative system.

Furthermore, the archaeologists controlled the work with storage jars from an ancient Roman settlement near today’s Shoafat, which dated to the first century. “The neck widths of these jars were variable and tended to be smaller,” Karasik told Haaretz.

Long story short, these Iron Age jars (and Roman ones) have different shapes, sizes and one would expect them to have different maws – but the Iron Age ones don’t.

Asked why they didn’t look at jars from a wider span of time, Karasik answers that they did check some other jars. But for the sake of scholarly rigor and good order, they reported on the jars described above, and were astonished to discern that uniformity in neck breadth over a period of some 350 years in different parts of the country.

That leads to the thought that the neck breadth of the vessels had meaning.

Jar from Qeiyafa with Canaanite inscription written in ancient Canaanite scription “Eshba’al Ben Bada.’”
Jar from Qeiyafa with Canaanite inscription written in ancient Canaanite scription “Eshba’al Ben Bada.’”Credit: AFP

Enter the pig

Obviously, not all pots in the world have the same neck diameter, so that width is not an incidental artifact of the manufacturing process and couldn’t have been accidental.

The authors point out that storage jars need to be utile and cleanable, because they’re used more than once. So elegant slim necks would have been suboptimal. Again however, that doesn’t mean they need to be identical. Nor is it likely that over 350 years in different parts of Israel, they were all using some sort of standard cork (stopper).

But the archaeologists had another interesting postulation, having to do with the Jewish fixation on purity. Why did Jews in later times use stone kitchenware and tableware? Because according to tradition, if stone becomes contaminated it can be cleansed. Not so pottery. If it gets enfilthed by swine or any other foulness, one must shatter the precious vessel. Pottery jars, for instance, can’t even be left in the proximity of cadavers:

This is the law: when a man dieth in a tent, every one that cometh into the tent, and every thing that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. And every open vessel, which hath no covering close-bound upon it, is unclean” (Numbers 19: 14-15).

So, the contents of the storage jars could become unclean by things other than having pig bits put inside; and some two thousand years later, Maimonides and other sages would expound on opening sizes and impurities.

Storage jar handles from Khirbet Qeiyafa.
Storage jar handles from Khirbet Qeiyafa.Credit: Clara Amit

“Impurity does not enter a shelter, nor does it depart from it if there is an opening less than a handbreadth by a handbreadth,” Maimonides – the Rambam – wrote (14.1). He added that this verse refers to “a ceramic container, for it is a container that contracts impurity only through its opening” (21.1).

He also expounds on the nature of the coverings, yet again bringing up this important measurement, the handbreadth:

“A covering that is a square, a handbreadth by a handbreadth and a handbreadth high brings ritual impurity and intervenes between ritual impurity according to scriptural law.”

So there we have it: During the Iron Age, in the kingdom of Judah, storage jars differed in shape and size but had uniform neck widths that may have become standardized at one tefach, as an artifact of faith.

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