Pesach is hard upon us! And those of us honored with the opportunity to lead seders are brushing up on our seder skills once again.
Sure, we drink four cups of wine. But, every year I forget: When do we “mix” them prior to drinking? When do we raise them up and lower them? And this year, like every year, I’ll review the crucial matter of what our Sages call the shi’ur — the minimum amount of wine that must be drunk or matzoh that must be consumed in order to properly fulfill the commandments to drink wine and eat matzoh on seder night.
It won’t do, for example, to make kiddush with cup #1, take a polite sip, and nurse it along during what seems — at least to the kids — like the “40 hours of wandering” that extends from the first hand-washing (without a blessing!) up through the conclusion of the first part of Hallel, when the second cup is finally blessed and drunk. No, for that first cup and all its companions, you should drink the major portion of your goblet containing at least a revi’it (that is, anywhere from 3 fluid ounces to 5.3 fluid ounces, according to the current rabbinic opinions).
For my money, the most daunting shi’ur of the seder is the so-called “olive’s bulk” (kezayit) of matzoh. During seder night you are expected to eat no fewer than four of these, distributed at various intervals of the ritual. Sound simple? Not so fast!
By an “olive’s bulk” we are not talking about your garden variety martini-sized green olive and pimiento; and not even a jumbo California black olive. According to the seder guide distributed in my shul, a kezayit of matzoh is a piece of matzoh that measures — get this — 5 inches by 4 inches! Which is to say that by the time you’ve choked down your afikomen (the last of the four kezaytim), you’ll have loaded into your system the equivalent of a chunk of matzoh 20 inches by 16 inches!
Then there are those who insist that a kezayit is no less than 2/3 of a handmade shmura matzoh (itself the size of a normal eight-slice pizza at Island Crust). Do the math.
Is Bromo kosher for Pesach? I’ll have to check my Pesach handbook!
You may ask: Where do the Sages get these measurements from?
According to the Talmud, “all measurements are procedural guidelines given to Moses on Sinai” (e.g., Yoma 80a). That is, they are part of a larger heritage of divinely revealed mandates not explicitly found in the written Torah at all. Rather, they form the oldest layer of memorized tradition that makes up the oral Torah transmitted from biblical times (see Mishna Avot 1:1-2:8).
In fact, the seder’s revi’it and kezayit are only the tip of a vast iceberg of shi’urim that prescribe the parameters of the major and minor observances that make up the substance of daily Jewish life — from dietary laws to calendrical calculations to the times for offering prayer.
Sometimes things can get pretty complex. According to the Mishna, for example, you are free from punishment for eating treif meat as long as you eat less than a kizayit. But eating the same measure of kosher food will not make you guilty of breaking the fast of Yom Kippur. In order to violate the fast of Yom Kippur you must eat food equivalent to the size of “a large date and its pit”(kakotevet vegar’inatah) or drink “a full cheekful” (melo lugmav) of liquid (see Mishna Yoma 8:2; compare Tosefta Yoma 4:4)!
But what if on Yom Kippur you eat several times, but each time less than the size of a large date and its pit? Have you violated the fast by eating in toto more than the prohibited minimum? Or are you in the clear since at no point did you actually eat the minimum in one swallow?
The Tosefta covers this problem elegantly with yet another shi’ur: “If there elapses from the first ingestion of food to the last sufficient time to eat a half of a loaf of bread (keday akhilat pras: about 18 minutes), all the food combines to constitute the prohibited quantity.” (Tosefta Yoma 4:3).
If, by contrast, the elapsed time between two or more tiny snacks is great enough to scarf down a whole baguette with sweet butter (yum! But not on Pesach!), they don’t add up to the date-sized shi’ur, and you can eat molecular bits of food from Kol Nidrei to Ne’ilah without penalty!
But don’t over-do the Al Het with ostentatious breast-beating. A fresser like you is nobody’s definition of a baal teshuvah!
In fact, contemporary halachah about eating on Yom Kippur often differs from the oldest sources; so, to be on the safe side, consult your rabbi before you graze during any fast!
Many “enlightened moderns” wonder about the Sages’ shi’ur mania: “Isn’t the high-minded thought or the sincere emotion more valuable to God than all this obsessive bean counting? Are Sages in the pocket of the CPA lobby?”
Well… the Blessed Holy One, I’m sure, values the pure heart as much as anyone; but that purity must be effected through deeds, and deeds happen in time and space through the body. In fact, the halachic shi’urim are Judaism’s way of bending time, space, and the human body to the Torah’s command to embody holiness — ”make me a Sanctuary in their world so that I may dwell among them!” (Ex.25:8)
And what is the shi’ur of a “Sanctuary?” Enough so that “the whole world is filled with His Glory”(melo kol ha-aretz kevodo: Is.6:3)!
My all of our seders this Pesach season “measure up” to our anticipations!