Monday, January 5, 2015

Chamber of Shushan Habirah

Three 1-amah measuring sticks.
The Chamber of Shushan Habirah [the Capital] served as the repository for two different measuring sticks of the amah. In the northeast corner was a measuring stick that was half a fingerbreadth longer than a standard amah of six handbreadths and in the southeast corner was a stick that was a full fingerbreadth longer than a standard amah. This chamber had a depiction of the city of Shushan on its outer wall and this feature gave the chamber its name.

These two measuring sticks were used in determining the wages for craftsmen commissioned to work on the structure or furnishings of the Temple who would be paid per amah for their work. Since all man-made measuring instruments are not perfectly accurate, there was a concern that any standard amah measuring stick used for this purpose might be slightly off. If the measuring stick was even the slightest bit too short then the craftsmen would wind up being paid from the Temple treasury for more than they deserve, which constitutes a misuse of consecrated funds (me’ilah).

For example, let us say that the workers were being paid $300 per amah to build a new 1-amah box for the Temple. The treasurer measures their finished box using a standard, one-amah measuring stick and finds that (as expected) it is exactly one measuring stick long. The workers would then be paid $300 from the Temple funds. If, however, the measuring stick that he was using was, say, 0.03% shorter than an actual amah then the box is really only 0.9997 amos long and the workers only deserve to receive $299.91.

To avoid this, the finished product would be measured by the treasurers using one of the two measuring sticks stored in the Chamber of Shushan Habirah whose extra length compensated for any human error in accuracy and ensured that they were (at least) one amah long beyond any shadow of a doubt. Utensils of silver and gold would be measured with the smaller of the two measuring sticks (to minimize the loss to the craftsmen) and work done on the physical structure of the Temple would be measured with the larger of the two measuring sticks.

There is a dispute among the commentators where this chamber was located. Some opinions, notably Rashi to Succah 5b, maintain that it was built over the eastern gate of the Temple Mount and that the depiction of the city of Shushan on the outer wall of this chamber is identical with the one over the eastern gate. Many other sources, notably Rashi to Menachos 98a (and Tiferes Yisrael to Keilim 17:9), place this chamber above the eastern gate of the Courtyard, i.e., over the Nikanor Gate.

View of the interior of the Chamber of Shushan Habirah.

Chamber of Shushan Habirah in place
over the Nikanor Gate.

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