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Biblical mile (Hebrew: מיל / mīl) is a unit of distance on land, or linear measure, principally used by Jews during the Herodian dynasty to ascertain short distances between cities and to mark the Sabbath limit, equivalent to about of an English statute mile, or what was about four furlongs (stadia).[1] The basic Jewish traditional unit of distance was the cubit (Hebrew: אמה), each cubit being roughly between 46–60 centimetres (18–24 in)[2] The standard measurement of the biblical mile, or what is sometimes called tǝḥūm šabbat[3] (Sabbath limit; Sabbath boundary), was 2,000 cubits.[4]


The word mīl, as used in Hebrew texts between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE, is a Roman loanword, believed to be a shortened adaptation of the Latin mīliarium, literally meaning, "milestone,"[5] and which word signifies "a thousand" [passuum <paces> of two steps each]; hence: Roman mile. The word appears in the Mishnah, a compendium of Jewish oral law compiled by Rabbi Judah the Prince in 189 CE, and is used to this very day by religious Jews in the application of certain halachic laws.

Halachic originsEdit

Occupying a prominent position in the Sabbath legislation is the regulation of one's movement on the Sabbath day. These laws first date back to the Mosaic law, "...Let every man abide in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:29). Taking Israel's encampment in the wilderness as a prototypical model, some scholars view one's "place" as initially being within the radius of 12 biblical miles, corresponding to the encampment of the Israelites when they pitched their tents from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim.[6] During Israel's encampment, it was permissible to walk the entire length and width of the camp on the Sabbath day. Later, by the conflation of multiple biblical passages which employ in them the words "place" (Exodus 21:12), "border" (Numbers 35:26), and "two-thousand cubits" (Numbers 35:5), the Sages found the basis on which to limit the movement of the people of a town on the Sabbath day to a mere 2,000 cubits,[7][8] a boundary that would extend in any of the four cardinal directions, and which is measured from the last house built in the town's periphery.[9] This limit of not proceeding beyond 2,000 cubits, or one biblical mile, is termed the "Sabbath limit." In ancient times, roads leading from the town were usually marked off with rock cairns at the extent of the Sabbath limit, so as to be easily distinguishable by those traversing the roads.[10]

Although the Scriptural verse clearly states, "...Let every man abide in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:29), the Aramaic Targum of the same verse renders its interpretation as follows: "...Let a man abide in his place, and do not carry any object from one domain to another domain beyond four cubits, neither let a man depart out of his place to venture beyond two-thousand cubits on the Sabbath day."[11] Rabbi Yehudai Gaon (ca. 761) and R. Achai Gaon (ca. 680–752) explain the verse (ibid.), "let every man abide in his place," as meaning that if he were uprooted from his place beyond the 2,000 cubits' Sabbath limit, either by a gentile or by an evil spirit, he is not permitted to move beyond four cubits of that place until the Sabbath has departed.[12] Of these, R. Meir said that three cubits are for his body, and another cubit for him to stretch out his arms and his legs, while R. Yehuda says three cubits are for his body, and another cubit for him to retrieve an object from beneath his head and to place it beneath his feet, or vice versa.

The Sages of Israel permitted an Israelite to extend his "Sabbath limit" for another 2,000 cubits, in what is known as ʿeruḇ tǝḥūmīm (the amalgamation of boundaries),[13] and which, if proper care had been taken on the eve of Sabbath to set-up a temporary abode at the prescribed 2,000 cubits' distance, would count as a man's Sabbath abode and would facilitate his going beyond the one biblical mile limit on the Sabbath day for another biblical mile. Setting up a temporary abode in this manner required of him to deposit on the eve of Sabbath enough food for two meals in an accessible place at the spot of the current 2,000 cubit limit, but did not require of him to actually rest there.[14] He would also declare there, "Let my cessation of labor (Heb. shǝvitathi) be in this place." For the ʿeruḇ tǝḥūmīm to be effective, the food must be prepared by day (before the Sabbath) and be still in existence when Sabbath commences. Even so, this was a special allowance, and was only permitted when a certain religious duty or function warranted going beyond two-thousand cubits on the Sabbath day.[15] Since the Sabbath day limit of 2,000 cubits was a rabbinic ordinance, the Rabbis had the power to exercise leniency in what concerns its proper observance.[16] The Mishnah (Shabbat 23:5), however, prohibits a man from going out as far as the "Sabbath limit" and waiting there till nightfall (until the Sabbath departs) in order to engage forthwith in some business activity or in labor otherwise forbidden to do on the Sabbath day, since by preemptively going out on the Sabbath day for such purposes, even if it is merely to wait there until nightfall to get an early start, he transgresses a different prohibition of not being absorbed in one's own personal business affairs and thoughts on the Sabbath day (Isaiah 58:13).[17] If, however, it was merely to call back an animal that had gone astray, he is permitted to stand at the "Sabbath limit" and call out to his animal, and thereby have the animal come back within his domain on its own power.

Although a man has an extension of 2,000 cubits (1 biblical mile) from his town or from the place that he makes his ʿeruḇ tǝḥūmīm, the Rabbis state that, from that central point of reference, the one traveling is to delineate the bounds outward as if it had been a square, rather than the arc of circle. The difference between these two systems of delineation is that if the Sabbath limit was merely measured outward in the form of the arc of a circle, the person has merely a radius of 2,000 cubits to walk in any direction. Yet, since the actual measurement is done in the form of a square, with the point of reference (ʿeruḇ tǝḥūmīm) being in the center, this enables him to travel 2,000 cubits head-on (in relation to the square), or about 2,800 cubits diagonally.[18]

Practical bearing in Jewish lawEdit

  • The rabbinic ordinance of washing hands prior to eating bread requires of people travelling the roads to go as far as 4 biblical miles if there is a known water source that can be used for washing. This applies only to when the water source lies in one's general direction of travel. However, had he already passed the water source, he is not obligated to backtrack unless the distance is within 1 biblical mile.[19]
  • Sliced pieces of meat that are to be cooked in a pot require preparation by salting, before they are cooked. The first process used in the meat's preparation (before cooking) is rinsing in water, followed by salting with any coarse grain of salt, while laid over a grating or colander to allow for drainage, and where the salt is allowed to remain on the meat for the duration of time that it takes to walk one biblical mile[20] (appx. 18– 24 minutes). Afterwards, the residue of salt is rinsed away with water, and the meat cooked. (Salting in this way helps to draw out the blood).

Divergent methodsEdit

Nearly two thousand years of Jewish exile from the Land of Israel have given rise to disputes over the precise length of the biblical mile observed by the ancients. Some hold the biblical mile to be 1 km 152 m, while others hold it to be 960 m, depending on the length they prescribe to each cubit. Originally, the 2,000 cubit Sabbath limit was measured with a standard 50-cubit rope.

Divergent methods espoused by the Rabbis
Scholar Cubit Biblical mile
Avraham Chaim Naeh 48 centimetres (19 in)[21] 960 metres (3,150 ft)
Chazon-Ish 57.6 centimetres (22.7 in)[22] 1,152 metres (3,780 ft)
Ḏerāʿ (Egyptian cubit) 52.9 or 52.3 cm [23] 1,058 metres (3,471 ft)[24]

Distances between citiesEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Although a furlong (stadion) is an obsolete measure of length, according to the historian Josephus there were about four furlongs to a biblical mile. The Southern Wall of Jerusalem's Temple Mount is 922 feet (281 m) in length, and which Josephus equates as being equal to the length of one furlong (Greek: stadion). See: Josephus, Antiquities (15.11.3; XV.415–416), who described the dimensions of the Temple Mount in the following terms (apparently not including the extension made to the Temple Mount): “This hill was walled all round, and in compass four furlongs; [the distance of] each angle containing in length a furlong (Gr. stadion).” Compare Mishnah Middot 2:1 which states that the Temple Mount measured five-hundred cubits (Heb. amah) by five-hundred cubits. If it can be ascertained that Josephus' stadion is equivalent to the 500 cubits mentioned in the Mishnah, and being that the Southern Wall measured 281 meters, this would place each cubit (Heb. amah) at 56.205 cm. Rabbi Saadia Gaon, on the other hand, holds that a stadion was equivalent to only 470 cubits (v. Uziel Fuchs, "Millot HaMishnah" by R. Saadia Gaon — the First Commentary to the Mishnah, Sidra: A Journal for the Study of Rabbinic Literature, pub. Bar-Ilan University Press (2014), p. 66), in which case , each cubit was 59.792 cm, close to the 60 cm. cubit espoused by the Chazon-Ish.
  2. ^ Depending on the standards given by Rabbi Avraham Chaim Naeh and the Chazon-Ish.
  3. ^ Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim §297:2)
  4. ^ Mishnah - with a Commentary of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (ed. Yosef Qafih), vol. 1, Mossad Harav Kook: Jerusalem 1963, s.v. Kippurim 6:4
  5. ^ Moshe Fischer, Benjamin Isaac and Israel Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II - The Jaffa-Jerusalem roads, B.A.R., Oxford 1996, p. 26 ISBN 0-86054-809-0
  6. ^ Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Shabbat 27:1–2) and Magid Mishne (ibid.); Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Eruvin 6:24). Cf. Numbers 33:49 and Babylonian Talmud, Erubin 51b, 55b; Jerusalem Talmud, Shevi'it 6:1; Midrash HaGadol, on Exodus 16:29; see also Sefer ha-Chinuch, §24
  7. ^ Mishnah, Eruvin 4:3; Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 51a; Midrash HaGadol on Exodus 16:29, et al.
  8. ^ Saadia al-Dhamari, Midrash ha-Biʾūr (vol. 2), Kiryat Ono 1999, p. 443 (Hebrew)
  9. ^ She’iltoth of R. Achai Gaon on Exodus 16:29 (P. Weyehi bishlah, §48)
  10. ^ Pesikta, ʿĂniya p. 137b; Rashi on Eruvin 35b, s.v. אם אינו יכול להבליעו
  11. ^ Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, s.v. Exodus 16:29
  12. ^ Halakhot Pesukot, s.v. Hil. Erubin; She’iltoth of R. Achai Gaon on Exodus 16:29 (P. Weyehi bishlah, §48)
  13. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Erubin 21b
  14. ^ Mishne Torah (Hil. Eruvin 6:1)
  15. ^ Mishne Torah (Hil. Eruvin 6:6)
  16. ^ Mishne Torah (Hil. Shabbat 27:1)
  17. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 150b–151a; Mishnah, with a Commentary of Moses ben Maimon (ed. Yosef Qafih), vol. 1 - Seder Zera'im, Mossad Harav Kook: Jerusalem 1963, s.v. Shabbat 23:3; Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Shabbat 27:2–3); Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim §306:1–3)
  18. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 49b; Maggid Mishneh, on Maimonides' Mishne Torah (Hil. Shabbat 27:1); Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Shabbat 27:2); Arukh ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim §399:14). It is to be noted here that the distance of 2800 cubits is merely an estimate of 20002.
  19. ^ Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Bikkurim 8:11); Jerusalem Talmud, Hallah 2:2; Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 34a; ibid. 46a
  20. ^ Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah § 69:6; § 69:16; § 69:19
  21. ^ Abraham Haim Noe, Sefer Ḳuntres ha-Shiʻurim (Abridged edition from Shiʻurei Torah), Jerusalem 1943, p. 17 (section 20)
  22. ^ Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 39:14
  23. ^ Dieter, Arnold (1991), Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press
  24. ^ Figure represents the cubit of 52.9 cm.
  25. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 2b); cf. Tosefta (Eruvin 7:2)
  26. ^ Ishtori Haparchi, Sefer Kaftor Ve'ferah (vol. 2), ed. Avraham Yosef Havatzelet, Jerusalem 2007, (chapter 11) p. 56
  27. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 46a)
  28. ^ Jerusalem Talmud (ʿErūvin 5:7 [36b]); implied
  29. ^ Jerusalem Talmud (Ta'anit 24b)
  30. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Ketubbot 111b). Historical geographer, Yoel Elitzur, in Ancient Place Names in the Holy Land - Preservation and History (Jerusalem 2004, pp. 383–384) has noted the following: "The distance from Lod to Kafr ʻĀna, commonly identified as Ono (today between Or Yehudah and Neve Monosson) is greater than specified in the Talmud (Ket. 111b). In Midrash Shir ha-Shirim, edited by Grünhut from a manuscript, the talmudic saying is cited with a significant difference: 'The distance from Lod to Ono was five miles,' but this particular source may reflect a later period, after the destruction of Ono itself."