“A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.”
Today’s reading harkens back to what I learned in Berakhot, the first book of this Daf Yomi cycle, which created through measurement a connection with the earth. I feel like an anthropologist as I make my way through the readings, with insight into how people who lived at the time of the Talmud found order in their lives despite not having clocks, standard calendars, and universal measurement systems. The Rabbis provided a lot of direction on basic life necessities.
In today’s reading, the Rabbis examine a phrase in Deuteronomy for guidance on units of measure. It is an elegant connection between the spiritual and the earthly. We are told that measures can be found in the promise that God transmitted to Moses that his people would settle in “a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” This is the promise that resides in the heart of many who were born to this land, have found their way there or who live somewhere else but have a deep connection to its roots.
Rav Hanan said that this entire verse “was stated for the purpose of teaching measures with regard to different halakhot in the Torah.” We are told that wheat is used to calculate the time required for one to become ritually impure when visiting the house of someone with leprosy. He becomes ritually impure if he stays in the house long enough to eat a loaf of wheat bread. We are told that “this is a Torah measurement connected specifically to wheat.” A loaf of barley bread is not to be used for this purpose because one would enjoy it a little too much and would take too long to consume it. Instead, barley is used as a measurement to determine ritual impurity of contact with a bone from a corpse.
The relevant measurement determined by a vine is a quarter-log of wine. The dried fig-bulk is the measure that determines what can be carried out on Shabbat and the pomegranate is used as a measure to determine impurity in a wooden vessel that is broken by an “ordinary homeowner.” If a broken vessel has embedded holes the size of a pomegranate it cannot consequently be considered impure. And finally, date honey is the measurement for determining if one has violated the prohibition against eating on Yom Kippur. We are told that one is only liable if he eats a large date-bulk of food.
Today’s passage with its protracted discussion of measures provides insight into how difficult it must have been to create standards when a handbreadth could vary if one’s fingers were spread wide apart or tightly clenched together. And of course, hands come in different sizes. What resonated with me is how the Rabbis parsed the passage from Deuteronomy to establish some common measures. And through the measures of wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey is a connection to the promised land, which would have been strengthened every time someone used one of these morsels of food as a unit of measure. It is a reminder, a promise, a hope, intertwined with some of the most mundane acts of everyday life.