We are justifiably proud in England of the legal principles laid down in Magna Carta in 1215, but less supportive of its command, “Let there be one measure …”. However, weights and measures laws are as old as civilisation. In this article, Ronnie Cohen looks at a unit of length from 3000 years ago, and makes a comparison with today.
Every week, the Jews read a portion of the Pentateuch in their sabbath morning services in the synagogue in an annual cycle of readings. On Saturday 21 February 2015, they read the portion about the construction of the Tabernacle. This portion can be found in chapters 25 to 27 in the book of Exodus, which describes the construction in great detail and involves a large number of measurements. The unit of length used throughout this section is the cubit.
The objects involved in constructing the Tabernacle included:
- 1 Altar
- 1 Ark
- 1 Cover
- 1 Table
- 21 Curtains
- 48 Planks of Wood
The dimensions in cubits used for the objects of the Tabernacle are shown in the following table:
|Ark of Acacia Wood||2½||1½||1½|
|Cover of Pure Gold||2½||1½||N/A|
|Table of Acacia Wood||2||1||1½|
|Curtains for the Tabernacle||28||4||N/A|
|Curtains for the Tent over the Tabernacle||30||4||N/A|
|Planks of Wood for the Tabernacle||10||1½||N/A|
|Altar of Acacia Wood||5||5||3|
The curtains for the tent were slightly longer than the ones for the Tabernacle. The text specifies that the overhang of the tent curtains over the Tabernacle should be one cubit on each side. There are some other measurements for the lace-hangings of the Courtyard on all sides, as described in the following list:
- North Side: 100 cubits long with 1 pillar at each 5-cubit interval.
- South Side: 100 cubits long with 1 pillar at each 5-cubit interval.
- West Side: 50 cubits long with 1 pillar at each 5-cubit interval.
- East Side: 50 cubits long. This section was subdivided into Shoulder 1 (15 cubits), Shoulder 2 (15 cubits) and the Screen (20 cubits). For all of these sections, there was 1 pillar at each 5-cubit interval.
This account was written about events that took place around 3000 years ago. It describes the requirements of a portable dwelling place for the divine presence to accompany the Israelites in the period between the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan, and it reminds us of the importance attached then to a standard measure for length and to consistency in the use of measures in construction.
So what was the length of a cubit?
It was based on the distance from the elbow to the fingertip, so it varied between different peoples and cultures, as this table shows:
Culture cubit (mm)
Hebrew 445 (short cubit)
Egyptian 447 (short cubit)
Ancient Greek 462
Babylonian 503 (long cubit)
Egyptian 523 (long cubit)
Thus, the ancient world foreshadowed a problem that would appear in Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire, namely the absence of consistent measures. By the middle of the eighteenth century, there were, for example, many different versions of the mile, the foot and the pound. This was a cause of considerable frustration to scientists like James Watt as they tried to compare their experimental results with those from elsewhere in Europe. The problem was solved, as we know, by the universal adoption of the metric system in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Not quite universal, unfortunately. The UK still uses a mixture of ancient and modern, feet and metres, for length (and height), and is the only country in Europe that has not adopted metric measures for its road traffic signs. But whereas the different cultures of the ancient world had practical reasons for inconsistency, the same can not be said of us.