Erica Brown

The Yid Bit

Jewish life is dependent on accurate weights and measures. We have minimum and maximum sizes that determine the height of a sukkah, the appropriate amount of matzah to constitute the mitzvah and the length of a Shabbat enclosure that ensures it’s kosher. We believe that articulating and being honest about weights and measures helps us have a life that is more rewarding and satisfying because it is quantifiable and, we hope, more honest. This is straight from Deuteronomy: “You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (25:15).

I’m all about measurements right now. I don’t know how many of you reading this are wearing a Fit Bit right now. It’s a small device that attaches to pockets, waistbands or socks or comes as a bracelet and measures steps, water intake and sleep patterns. It also sends progress reports and reward messages to your computer. As of this writing, I’m on 3,645 steps and I’m hoping to get to 10,000 by tonight, the recommended daily number of steps to keep us fit. I have been known on occasion to walk around my dining room table many times in the attempt to get in another 800 or so steps to reach my daily fitness goal. And I am not alone.

I bought the Fit Bit about 13 months ago, inspired by a woman I met who told me it changed her life. She now takes the stairs regularly to get her steps in and parks further away in store parking lots to increase her steps. I bought the cheapest Fit Bit on Amazon Prime, not sure I was ready to convert but also knowing that I wasn’t exactly honest about my fitness regime.

The first week I wore it, I learned the horrible truth about myself. I told my high-energy self that I was getting enough exercise. But by noon on one of the first days I wore it, my Fit Bit registered 352 steps, approximately the number of steps between my desk and my refrigerator. Here’s the terrible thing about numbers: They don’t lie. Here’s the greatest thing about numbers: They don’t lie. I was trying to pay more attention to my health, but in order to get the results I sought, I needed to amplify my intensity and do more than I had planned. The numbers told the truth I was denying.

What we measure, we get done. It’s true in our personal lives. It’s true in our professional lives. It’s true in our spiritual lives. Money is the easiest thing to measure, so we tend to focus on it — what we make, what we give, what other give. But it’s an incomplete dashboard. How many people does our work touch and how deeply? Which target populations are we missing? What does significant transformation look like? It’s not easy to measure things that seem intangible, but it’s not as hard as you think. It requires robust conversation around what you want to know and experimenting with different methods to glean information.

Let’s move to the metrics of Jewish life for a minute. Let’s make a Yid Bit. It can tell you how many times you went to synagogue or the duration of your stay. It offers a daily mitzvah count for the day: how many times you visited the sick, helped the needy or invited guests to your table. It might measure how many blessings you said in a day [the Talmud recommends 100] or how many hours you studied.

I tried a variation of this. With help from an accountant, I created a charity form that looked like a tax document to tithe income when tax season rolled around. Giving a tenth of one’s income is from our sacred texts but has been more successful with Mormons and evangelical Christians. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Utah is the most giving state in the U.S. I approached the leader of a Jewish organization about using my tzedakah tax form to move charity from a do-us-a-favor-approach to a this-is-my-responsibility-so-let’s-get-it-right stance. The response: nice idea. Too Jewish.

What we measure, we do. Or if we don’t do it, we at least know we’re falling short. We may even feel a little guilty when the numbers don’t match our best aspirations. We may realize what my Fit Bit taught me: If you really want to change something, be honest about what you’re doing and not doing. Ramp up the intensity. Stop thinking small. Ask yourself what it really takes to make a transformation now. Let the numbers speak.

Go ahead. I dare you. Make your own Yid Bit. Set your own metrics. What would your Yid Bit measure?

Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).