Question: What is the size of an olive, the standard unit of measurement, according to Halacha?
Answer: Measuring is central to any legal system. How fast is ‘speeding’? How much drink is intoxicating? Jewish law is also based on a system of measurements; some units of measurement, such as the cubit, go back to the bible. Some come from the Romans, such as the Parsa and some come from nature, such as the egg and the olive.
How big is an olive? An average olive is around 3 to 4 cubic centimeters but, but halachic olives are much larger. Most authorities consider the size of a halachic olive to be around 28 cc – some go as far as 56cc. How did this come about, and what is the real size of an olive in Jewish law?
There is no definition of the size of an olive in the Talmud, amongst the Geonim. (Babylon, 6th-10th century), or among the Spanish Rabbis. The Rabbis of Ashkenaz are the first to address the question in detail. Olives are not native to Ashkenazi countries and Ashkenazi Rabbis would never have seen an olive. The question of how to estimate the size of an olive was a serious question for them.
Although there is no direct discussion of the size of an olive in the Talmud, it is possible to deduce its size from places where it is mentioned. There are two such instances. In tractate Kritut the sages discuss how much food a person can swallow in one gulp. The sages stated that the throat cannot hold more than two olives. Elsewhere, the sages estimated that the throat cannot hold more than a chicken’s egg. From here we can deduce that an olive is half the size of an egg.
It is possible to deduce the size of an olive using a different method. Rambam, [MT, Hilchot Eiruvin 1:9] states that a dried fig is one third the size of an egg. The Talmud [BT Shabbat 91a] states that an olive is less that the size of a fig. From here we can deduce that an olive is no bigger than one third the size of an egg.
Based on these calculations, the Ashkenazi Rabbis adopted two different standards. R. Yitzchak of Dampierre (France, 12th century) ruled that an olive is the size of half an egg. Rabbeinu Tam of Remerupt (France, 12th century) ruled that it is the size of one third of an egg. The Shulchan Aruch simply states: “The size of an olive – some say it is around half an egg”. [OH 486:1] This odd wording indicates that he is not expressing his own opinion, but the strict view of others. Finally, R. Yechezkel Landau (Prague, 18th century), trying to reconcile measurements that were given in eggs and in fingers, came to the conclusion that in biblical times eggs were much larger than the eggs of our time. He writes “It is clear to me [that] a whole egg of our day is only half the size of an egg that was used for the Torah quantities. Thus the size of an olive grew from 3 to 28 and then to 56 cubic centimetres.
There is no reason to believe that olives today are any different from the olives in the time of the bible or the Talmud. There are 2000 and 3000 year old trees still living in Israel that testify to this fact. Based on this, the size of a halachic olive is the average size of a common olive today – roughly 3 to 4 cc. All other measurements are based on a misunderstanding and are not the original intention of the Torah.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Based on: The Evolution of the Olive. Rabbi Natan Slifkin
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