Matza relief! A 'kezayit' may be smaller than we thought

Researchers believe ancient olives weighed only 5 grams.

olives 88 (photo credit: )
olives 88
(photo credit: )
Researchers from Bar-Ilan University's archeological botanics lab say they have identified the strains of olive upon which the minimal halachic requirement of matza consumption is based. And their conclusions, if rabbinically endorsed, would be good news for those who have trouble digesting too much of the unleavened bread. The size of an olive (kezayit) provides the Talmud's standard for the smallest amount of matza a Jew is obligated to eat at the Pessah Seder within a very short time. But because strains of olives come in various sizes, the precise required quantity has been unclear. Prof. Mordechai Kislev, who headed the team with Dr. Orit Simhoni, Yonit Tabak and Ofer Tzarfati-Zuta, maintains that Syrian and Nabali strains, whose weight per olive is only around five grams (about a sixth of the weight of a machine-made matza), are the model for the halachic standard. The researchers said these types of olives, smaller than today's olives, were the most common during ancient times. There are rabbinical arbiters who maintain one must eat a whole machine-made matza at the Seder, while others are more liberal and require only half of a matza or even only five percent of a matza. While eating a whole matza is usually not a problem for healthy people, it is for some, and especially for celiacs, whose digestive systems are highly disturbed by the gluten in wheat flour; some buy special, expensive matza made of oats, which do not contain gluten, but too much of these can cause digestive problems. Kislev and his colleagues said Syrian olives, which each weigh 2.5-3.5 gr., and Nabali, which each weigh 4-6 gr., were common in this area during Talmudic times. About 2,000 well-preserved olive pits of these two varieties were identified in archeological digs at the Masada fortress near the Dead Sea - destroyed in 73 CE. In addition, the Bar-Ilan researcher said, there are dozens of three-millennia-old olive trees of these strains around the country that still produce fruit. The same types of olive pits from the time of the ancient Roman Empire have been found in digs at Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy, the researchers said. The pits were preserved for thousands of years under the lava of a volcano that erupted in 79 CE. Thus, the researchers concluded that when Joshua led the Jewish People into the Promised Land, and later at the time of the First Temple, olives were much smaller than today, and our ancestors carried out the commandment of eating matza by consuming very small pieces weighing about 5 gr., the measure of olives from that time. Now celiac patients can carry out the commandment to eat a kezayit of matza at the Seder by consuming only 5 gr. of the "bread of affliction," said Kislev. "I hope this new discovery will help them observe Pessah according to Halacha."