Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden
Psychology, Medicine, Science, Politics, Oppression, Integrity, Philosophy, Jews

The religious ramifications of finding the historic Jewish handbreadth

The news is elating. After thousands of years, some very clear indication is finally found about the size of the Biblical measures of a handbreadth. It turns out to lie between 8.85 and 8.97 centimeters. Gasp! Cherry on the cake: a hand’s width doesn’t vary much with era, body type, or height.

The Value of Tradition

Truth and Common Sense play enormous roles in Jewish life. But all of our religion centers around and is based on Tradition. Therefore, things that 99.99999995% of all Jews don’t understand enough to explain (like Free Will or Morality), we still trust in, defend, and live by.

So, when-3,000-year old Phylacteries, 2,000-year-old holy texts, or equally old residues of the Biblical Royal Blue are found, we don’t hurry to adjust Jewish Law of life. Maybe the prayer artifacts were discarded, because they were done wrong? Maybe the text was copied wrongly or done by a sect that left the standard Judaism of their days. Maybe the ink was still obtained or certified differently than we now deduce from the finding.

Western thought often idolizes progress. Jews acknowledge that we may all be dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of giants, allowing us to see further than the ones before us. But we’re still dwarfs. Humility is crucial. We assume that the Jewish standing of previous generations generally was on a so much higher level than ours. So, not so quickly will we throw out aspects of the Tradition we inherited from those greater than us.

Jewish life is based on Tradition and we need very very good grounds to break the chain of tradition that connects our lives to way-way-back.

The Value of Mistakes Even

Even mistakes in Jewish Lore and Law are often honored. Not popular mistakes, called ‘nonsensical habits.’ But rabbinic rulings in error or that were taken wrongly will often stand if no one gets hurt by them.

So, Portuguese Jews have a tradition not to eat cheese together with fish, though they’re the first to admit that this is based on a historic misreading.

There are things written in the Talmud that scientific findings now tell us to be untrue. So we say: But on some spiritual-symbolic level this is still true, and so, something we can learn from.

On the other hand, people enjoyed smoking tobacco, so that was allowed on the Jewish Festivals. But when it was found to be a slow killer, it was immediately outlawed for any day.

The Value of Stringencies

The Sages understood long ago that they have two jobs that seem contradictory. On the one hand, they must look for ‘loopholes’ to make Jewish life as livable and nice as possible. On the other hand, they must set wider borders to prevent that Biblical limits would be accidentally crossed.

And, going beyond the minimum may stand for our love and dedication.

The Value of Common Sense

While Judaism does acknowledge the supernatural, it does not diminish the natural world with its laws and facts. Some Jewish learning goes against popular opinion but it never should clash with evident truth.

Jews should not say such obvious nonsense as Evolution doesn’t exist or G^d doesn’t want homosexuals to have sex or marry each other.

However, Measure for Measure

We are not to say the Morning Prayer beyond a certain time, measured in seconds. And we only start the Afternoon Prayer half an hour later than that, because in that half-hour, we can’t be exactly sure when is Midday.

Did you read the previous paragraph? Ridiculously, we determine, accurate to the split second, what half-hour period we’re not sure about!

Perhaps, this is a result of Western Jews dominating the debate about Jewish Law. Precision about imprecision went beyond any reasonableness.

What could anyone assume that a handbreadth means in the Torah and Jewish Law in mm? How about the obvious: the breadth of an average hand from a man. Unless you’re clearly not an average-sized man, the measure of a handbreadth is clearly … your handbreadth. Duh.

And these things archeologists could never find: the supernatural and the obvious. But our mind can grasp it. That we might have begun to regulate what doesn’t need a rule at all. That over-precision is a late aberration.

About the Author
MM is a prolific and creative writer and thinker, a daily blog contributor to the TOI. He is a fetal survivor of the pharmaceutical industry (, born in 1953 to two Dutch survivors who met in the largest concentration camp in the Netherlands, Westerbork, and holds a BA in medicine (University of Amsterdam). He taught Re-evaluation Co-counseling, became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three wonderful kids. He wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. He's a strict vegan since 2008. He's an Orthodox Jew but not a rabbi. * His most influential teachers (chronologically) are: his parents, Nico (natan) van Zuiden and Betty (beisye) Nieweg, Wim Kan, Mozart, Harvey Jackins, Marshal Rosenberg, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and, lehavdil bein chayim lechayim: Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, Rav Zev Leff, and Rav Meir Lubin. * Previously, for decades, he was known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. For a couple of years, he wrote hasbara for the Dutch public. His fields of attention now are varied: Psychology (including Sexuality and Abuse), Medicine (including physical immortality), Science (statistics), Politics (Israel, the US and the Netherlands, Activism - more than leftwing or rightwing, he hopes to highlight Truth), Oppression and Liberation (intersectionally, for young people, the elderly, non-Whites, women, workers, Jews, LGBTQIA, foreigners and anyone else who's dehumanized or exploited), Integrity, Philosophy, Jews (Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust and Jewish Liberation), Ecology and Veganism. Sometimes he's misunderstood because he has such a wide vision that never fits any specialist's box. But that's exactly what many love about him. Many of his posts relate to affairs from the news or the Torah Portion of the Week or are new insights that suddenly befell him. * He hopes that his words will inspire and inform, reassure the doubters but make the self-assured doubt more. He strives to bring a fresh perspective rather than bore you with the obvious. He doesn't expect his readers to agree. Rather, original minds must be disputed. In short, his main political positions are: anti-Trumpism, for Zionism, Intersectionality, non-violence, democracy, anti the fake peace process, for original-Orthodoxy, Science, Free Will, anti blaming-the-victim and for down-to-earth optimism. Read his blog how he attempts to bridge any discrepancies. He admits sometimes exaggerating to make a point, which could have him come across as nasty, while in actuality, he's quite a lovely person to interact with. He holds - how Dutch - that a strong opinion doesn't imply intolerance of other views. * His writing has been made possible by an allowance for second-generation Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands. It has been his dream since he was 38 to try to make a difference by teaching through writing. He had three times 9-out-of-10 for Dutch at his high school finals but is spending his days communicating in English and Hebrew - how ironic. G-d must have a fine sense of humor. In case you wonder - yes, he is a bit dyslectic. November 13, 2018, he published his 500th blog post with the ToI. If you're a native English speaker and wonder why you should read from people whose English is only their second language, consider the advantage of having a peek outside of your cultural bubble. * NEW: To see other blog posts by him, his overspill blog you can reach by clicking on the Website icon next to his picture at the head of every post. There you may find precursors to later TOI blog posts, addition or corrections of published TOI blog posts, blog posts the TOI will not carry, and some thoughts that are too short to be a TOI blog post. Also, the TOI only allows for one blog post per blogger per 24 hours. Sometimes, he has more to say than that. * To send any personal reaction to him, scroll to the top of the blog post and click Contact Me.
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