Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tissa 5763/ February 22, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ki Tissa 5763/ February 22, 2003

A hin of Olive Oil

Prof. Cyril Domb
Department of Physics

One of the components of the sacred anointing oil, as we learn in this week's reading, is a hin of olive oil (Ex. 30:22-25). This was a liquid measure which equaled 6.06 liters. This piece, however, will not deal with measurements but with Talmudic scholarship and erudition. The different sorts of knowledge which come into play when analyzing a rabbinic text-linguistic, logical, even bibliographic-will be illustrated in the following exposition of a single mishnah (Eduyot 1.3) in which the term hin is used. The exposition of the mishnah was the focal point of a lecture by my mentor, Rabbi Ephraim Yehuda Wiesenberg of blessed memory.[1] Since this speech was never published, I shall attempt to summarize here.

Mishnah Eduyot 1.3 states: "Hillel says that a full hin of drawn water [Heb. melo hin mayim she'uvin] makes a mikveh (ritual bath of purification) unfit; except that a person must use the style of expression employed his teacher; and Shammai says 9 kabs." Commentators on the mishnah discussed what was meant by "a person must use the style of expression employed by his teacher." Some of their views are presented below.

Maimonides, in his commentary on the Mishnah (according to the Vilna edition of the Talmud), wrote:

Shemaiah and Avtalion were the teachers of Shammai and Hillel, as is made clear in Tractate Avot. Being proselytes, their speech retained some pronunciations used in their former gentile language, and they would say 'in instead of hin. [Ed. Note: In Greek, their mother tongue, the word is ein, see BDB biblical dictionary, p.228] So Hillel used to say "a full 'in," as he had heard them say. That is what the Sages meant when they said "a person must use the style of expression employed by his teacher." This I [Maimonides] learned from my father and teacher, who learned it from his teacher, and he from his teacher.

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura cites the above passage from Maimonides, but before doing so, he offers his own explanation of the mishnah:

Regarding the words, "a person must use the style of expression employed by his teacher," hin is not a mishnaic term, rather an expression used in the Torah; but this was how he heard it from his teachers Shemaiah and Avtalion [in other words, Hillel used the term hin, which is Biblical Hebrew, instead of the term kab, which is the mishnaic term, because that is the term he heard his teachers using]. Maimonides cites a tradition from his father, that since Shemaiah and Avtalion were proselytes they were unable to pronounce the word hin, like those people who to this day cannot pronounce the guttural letters (aleph, heh, het, ayin). Thus Hillel, too, said "in," as he had heard his teachers, the proselytes Shemaiah and Avtalion.

In the commentary attributed to the Vilna Gaon on Maimonides commentary on the Mishnah,[2] a serious question is raised regarding Maimonides' interpretation. If they said "in" because they were unable to pronounce the letters, would Hillel say it the same way, when he was fully capable of pronouncing the sounds? Is this called 'preserving the style of one's teachers'? The answer is then given as follows:

The Gaon of blessed memory said that the question at issue was why Hillel said melo hin mayim sheuvim "a full hin," a word which appears redundant, for he should have said, "a hin of drawn water, etc," since obviously it is a full measure. The answer is, that Shemaiah and Avtalion said "'in," being unable to pronounce "hin," and therefore they had to add "a full hin," for otherwise one might think that drawn water does not make the mikveh unfit, since the word 'in, written as aleph-yod-nun might be read with a tzereh under the aleph [and be misread as the negative ain mayim sheuvim poslin..., "drawn water does not render the mikveh unfit"]. That is why they added the word "full." Now no one could read the aleph-yod-nun with a tzereh, i.e., as "does not render the mikveh unfit," for how could anyone make such an error, reading hin as ain, if it says "a full hin of drawn water"?... Hillel himself used to say hin, pronouncing it with a heh; nevertheless, he used the expression of his teachers, meaning he added the word "full," even though in Hillel's speech the word was pronounced hin, leaving no room for error.[3] [In other words, according to the commentary attributed to the Vilna Gaon, Maimonides focused on explaining the seemingly superfluous word, "full," and not on the word hin, which Hillel pronounced with a heh, and therefore could have foregone adding the word "full." However, he used the expression employed by his teachers, retaining it as they had said.]

My teacher, Rabbi Wiesenberg, argued that although this explanation attributed to the Vilna Gaon is sophisticated, he was skeptical that the Vilna Gaon actually wrote it. The Vilna Gaon's interpretations were characteristically fundamental, not sophisticated. This prompted Rabbi Wiesenberg to search for the true origins of this interpretation.

First, he discovered that not everything in the Likkutim came directly from the Vilna Gaon himself; rather, some things were second-hand. In the Preface to the Likkutim, the Vilna Gaon's son-in-law, Rabbi Menashe b. R. Yehudah Leib, wrote: "I shall write in his name words which are sweeter than honey, and contained herein are things that were heard from his holy mouth and things that I heard in his name." Secondly, Rabbi Wiesenberg came upon a totally different source for the same explanation. In Hiddushei R. Yoel Hassid on Mishnah Eduyot it says:

I could not resist writing what I heard from the marvelous Rabbi, the Maggid of Mohilev, Rabbi Abraham, citing something fine which he said: how could one suppose that if a person's teacher had a speech impediment, the disciple would speak the same way himself? For it would be seen as not respecting, rather as making fun of his teacher. The above-mentioned rabbi said that this is the explanation: why the word "full" was included, for he should have said simply "a hin of water." His rabbi, however, who pronounced the word as 'in, had to say "a full hin," for if he did not say "a full hin," his students would think he was saying drawn water does not render the mikveh unfit at all. Therefore his teacher had to say the word "full" (melo); then, even if he said 'in, his students would understand that he meant a hin renders it unfit. His student Hillel surely said hin and not 'in. That being so, why did he need to add the word "full"? It is on this that the mishnah comments that one must employ the expression used by one's teacher, ... and his lips should be kissed for such a marvelous explanation.

This explanation of R. Yoel Hassid appeared first in 1802, in the Dubrovno edition of the Mishnah, apparently only a short while after the death of R. Yoel Hassid.[4] In the book, Ha-Gaon he-Hassid mi-Vilna,[5] R. Yoel Hassid is portrayed as one of the rabbis in the Vilna Gaon's circle (p. 272). Since the Vilna Gaon passed away in 1798, here we have reliable evidence from a person who was well-acquainted with the Vilna Gaon that this interpretation belongs to R. Abraham Mohilev and not the Vilna Gaon.

Hence we must ask what actually was the Vilna Gaon's interpretation of the mishnah in Eduyot? To help establish this we can avail ourselves of his commentary in Eliyahu Rabbah on mishnah Nega'im (1.2), which deals with a red variegation in a white patch of leprous skin:

The patuh (reddish variegation) in the snow-like white [leprosy] is like red wine mingled with snow; the patuh (reddish variegation) of the lime-like white [leprosy], like blood mixed with milk. This is the view of R. Ishmael. R. Akiva says: In both cases adamdam (reddish variegation) is like wine mixed with water, except that the snow-like white is intensely bright, and the lime-like white is duller than that.

The Vilna Gaon commented on this mishnah in Eliyahu Rabbah:

'R. Akiva says: Both the one and the other are adamdam.' But he did not use the word patuh, as did R. Ishmael, since a person must use the expression employed by his teacher. R. Ishmael's teacher used the expression patuh, whereas R. Akiva's teacher used the term adamdam; as in the mishnah where 'Hillel says that a full hin of drawn water makes a mikveh unfit, and Shammai says nine kabs. Except that a person must use the expression employed by his teacher.' This last sentence refers to Rabbi Judah the Prince [editor of the Mishnah], who presented the views of Hillel and Shammai using different expressions, not the same term, e.g. 'Hillel asserted [that the rule was] three kabs and Shammai said 9 kabs'.

This indicates that the Vilna Gaon explained, similar to the interpretation presented by R. Ovadiah of Bartenura (cited above), that it was a question of vocabulary, not pronunciation.[6]

As for the word melo (full), which still seems superfluous, we may note that the translation of the biblical verse from this week's reading (ve-shemen zayit hin - and a hin of olive oil), is rendered in Targum Onkelos as meshakh zeita melo hina (a full hin of olive oil). Likewise, everywhere throughout the Bible where the word hin appears, the Targum says melo hina, a full hin.

We conclude by noting that this study of the commentaries was made by Rabbi Wiesenberg before the publication of R. Joseph Kappah's new translation of Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah. The new translation provides strong substantiation for his view:

Shemaiah and Avtalion were the teachers of Shammai and Hillel, as is made clear in Avot. They were proselytes (may their memory be blessed), and their speech retained pronunciation of the gentiles, so instead of melo hin they used to say mela hin; Hillel would say mela hin,[*] as he heard them say; and that is why they said that a person must use the expression employed by his teachers. Some people read the text as melo hin (het yod nun instead of heh yod nun), claiming that the variation was between hin with a heh and hin with a het. But the first reading is the one that I [Maimonides] received from my revered father z"l, who received the tradition from his teacher, and he from his teacher of blessed memory.


[1] He passed away in London, about three years ago. He was a gifted scholar and Professor in London College (Department of Hebrew). Upon reaching retirement he delivered this exceptional lecture on the well-known mishnah in Tractate Eduyot (1.3).
[2] Likkutim me-ha-Gra, cited at the end of Shenot Eliyahu in the order Zeraim.
[3] This interpretation is found in quite a number of other commentaries, where it is attributed to the Vilna Gaon. For example, it is cited in Tiferet Yisrael's commentary on the mishnah and in Hiddushei Maharitz Hayyut on the gemara in Shabbat 15a.
[4] Shemaryahu, the son of R. Joel Hassid, says in his preface to this book that his father worked on it for thirty years of fasting and abstinence. R. Avigdor ben Meir ha-Kohen, a student of R. Joel Hassid and editor of the book, also describes the author's extreme devotion and notes that he died on the first of Nisan; this date, however, is inaccurate. Also the year given for his passing - 1744 - (Otzar ha-Rabbanim, R. Nathan Tzvi Friedman) is apparently erroneous.
[5] I am indebted to R. Arye Munk for this information.
[6] Accordingly, the criticism of this commentary which followed in Likutim me-ha-Gra (not cited above), likewise is not truly from the Vilna Gaon.
[*] The printed edition says 'in instead of hin, and that Hillel used to say melo 'in; but all this is a corruption of the text.