From: “Drafts concerning Solomon’s Temple and the Holy Cubit (amah)”
Source: NLI Yah. Ms. Var.1. 2.4, 38a
Like other learned individuals before him and in his day, Newton invested much effort in the attempt to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple. In the opening of the chapter, Newton compares the information presented by Josephus Flavius and Philo, who he believed had first-hand familiarity with the Temple, to the information presented in the Talmud. This method of comparison illustrates Newton’s impressive expert knowledge and the depth of his study of the various Jewish sources. While Newton had only some knowledge of Hebrew and did not master the language, he had access to many aids composed by scholars from the 16th century onwards, such as the Christian Hebraist Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629) who wrote the composition Epitome Grammaticæ Hebrææ, and Brian Walton’s Polyglot Bible, which appeared in 1652. One of the great challenges he faced was to ascertain the dimensions of the Biblical measure of the cubit (amah). Newton believed that key events in the visions of the end of days would occur in the context of the Jewish Temple and its service. To this end, he examined the Jewish sources and attempted to determine the dimensions of the cubit relative to other measures mentioned in the sources. Newton applied his mathematical skills to solving this riddle.
The Amah and Techum Shabbat
At the beginning of the page we present here, Newton considers the cubit in the context of a Sabbath day’s journey (“techum Shabbat”, or distance one is permitted to walk on the Sabbath). He quotes Origene in Greek, who explains that the techum Shabbat equals the distance from the Tabernacle and Holy Ark to the Israelites’ camp, an explanation that corresponds to the version of the Jerusalem Talmud. Newton was concerned with the ratio between a “large cubit” and “small cubit” and with the number of cubits in a mile. Comparing the Biblical mile to the Roman mile, he determined that there are 7.5 ris in a cubit, (quoting from the Mishnah, Tractate Yoma 6:4). Further along, it emerges that he is unsure whether the term for a stadium is ris or dis, due to the similarity in shape between the letters Resh and Dalet. Relying on the famous Spanish scholar Arias Montanus (1527-1598), he states that the measure of the cherub, based on Sefer ha-Arukh is a mile, equaling one thousand amot. In his view, he adds, this is an error; further along, he also asserts that a parsah is equal to four miles.
What is the meaning of the expression “kivrat eretz”?
Of particular interest is Newton’s treatment of the measure cherub. This measure, said Newton citing Arias Montanus, is called a mile in Sefer Ha-Arukh (written by R. Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome, 11th c.). In his opinion, however, this is an error, and the word really is “berath” (and not a berach, as the word is transliterated in certain instances in the Newton Project), which appears in the Bible in Gen. 35:16 and 48:7, and in II Kings 5:19 in the expression “kivrat eretz”. Had Newton himself read Sefer ha-Arukh he would have realized that its author also identified the word cherub with kivrat eretz in Gen 35:16, just as Newton did.
Newton explains that “by Berath […] all Jews mean a Mil.” It is not clear from whence his great confidence on this matter derives. Apparently, he knowingly or unknowingly relies on Rashi (whom he quotes in other places), who, in interpreting the verse, writes: “kivrat eretz, a measure of land, which is 2000 cubits like the Sabbath day’s journey, as mentioned by Rabbi Moses the Preacher.” Already in rabbinic midrash it appears that there is uncertainty regarding the meaning of the word (see below, link to Mazor’s blog, in Hebrew); in modern Hebrew, the word denotes an undefined distance.
And yet, it transpires that Rashi and Newton were correct, and indeed, the term does in fact refer to a precise distance. The source of the word is apparently the Akkadian beru, which is a time unit of two hours, also used to denote the distance the average adult covers in two hours – in other words, it is a defined unit of distance that was in use in the ancient world. (See here, in Hebrew).
Scholarship has come a long way (“kivrat derekh”) since Newton’s day, and yet it is difficult not to be impressed by Newton's comprehensive research and his sharp senses in tackling this issue, particularly given that he lacked the scientific knowledge we possess today.
Newton Project (Latin)
Newton Project (English)
Online Collection of Newton’s Writings
The collection of Newton's theological writings possessed by the library appears online on the library website. The pages are linked to the Newton Project in England, which contains a full typed version of the text in two formats: diplomatic text (including all of the additions, erasures and changes that Newton made on the original manuscript) and normalized text – contiguous text that integrates all of the changes for smooth reading. Alongside these is a translation of the text into English.
Collection of Newton's writings on the National Library's Newton Project Web page