Vol. LXIII No. 8 — August 1985
Lloyd U. Jefferson, P.G.M. (Virginia)
Masonry, the more it is examined, the more beautiful it becomes. This paper, however imperfect, is an attempt to explore the origin of the Perfect Cubit. May it induce others having more extensive means of information and time for elaborate research to accept the challenge. Admittedly, the existence of a "Perfect Cubit" has neither historical authority nor logical possibility to support it. It is commonly believed that the origin of Masonry took place at the building of Solomon's Temple and that King Solomon was the first Grand Master, and Hiram of Tyre and Hiram Abif were his Wardens.
Dr. James Anderson accepts this legend in the second edition of his "Constitutions"' when he says that King Solomon was Grand Master of all Masons at Jerusalem; Hiram, King of Tyre, was Grand Master at Tyre, and Hiram Abif, in Solomon's absence, filled the chair as Deputy Grand Master, and, in his presence was Senior Grand Warden.
Moreover, Reverend George Oliver in "Antiquities of Masonry" said these periods occupy a space of three thousand years. They are selected for illustration, because it is generally believed that Masonry took its rise at the building of King Solomon's Temple.
It is said that Solomon recruited over one hundred and fifty thousand stone masons, hewers of timber, artificers of precious metals, laborers and overseers from all over the land, many speaking in strange tongues, making communication difficult. Chapter 2, Second Book of Chronicles relates how Solomon numbered all the strangers who were in the Land of Israel, after the numbering wherewith David, his father, had numbered them, and they were found an hundred and fifty thousand and three thousand of them to be bearers of burdens and fourscore thousand to be hewers in the mountain, and three thousand and six hundred overseers to set the people at work.
We must reflect on the monumental task that was Solomon's to meld such a huge body of workmen, sorting out their various talents and abilities, and organizing them into an effective and harmonious work force to commence building the Temple.
Yet, perhaps Solomon's greatest problem was the lack of a uniform measure of length by which the stones, timbers and other materials could be joined with accuracy. He spoke of the cubit, which was used as a measure of length by the Hebrews, Egyptians, and Babylonians, being the distance from the elbow to the extremity of the middle finger or approximately eighteen inches. Understandably, the cubit would vary by the physical size of the workman or overseer, and thus precluding the use of an exact measure. World Book Encyclopedia states that generally the cubit was the length of a man's forearm from his elbow to the tip of the middle finger. The cubit of the Ancient Egyptians was about 21 inches long. That of the Ancient Romans was 17.5 inches. The Jewish cubit was 22 inches.
Coil in his Masonic Encyclopedia says the cubit was a measure used by the Hebrews, the exact length of which has been the subject of much uncertainty and dispute. The majority opinion is that it is the length of the forearm and hand from the elbow to the extremity of the middle finger or approximately 18 inches. The Egyptian Royal cubit was 20.67 inches; and the Roman Attic cubit was 17.57 inehes.
Marsengill, Editor (The Philalethes Society) said, "According to Bishop Cumberland, the Hebrew cubit was 21 inches but according to all other authorities, it was approximately 18 inches. Two kinds of cubits were known: the Sacred (36 inches) and the Profane (18 inches). The measurements given in the Bible about Solomon's Temple are all based on the Profane or common cubit."
Mackey's Revised Encyclopedia refers to Hastings Dictionary of The Bible (page 967), "We have at present no means of ascertaining the exact dimensions of the Hebrews' ordinary and Royal cubits. The balance of evidence is certainly in favor of a fairly close approximation to the Egyptian system."
The Maryland Master Mason Handbook declares that it is of great interest that archaeological research has revealed that in Solomon's day there were three different cubits: a Land cubit which was used for plotting the layout of the Temple's courts and the surrounding terrace, which had a length of about 17.6 inches; a Building cubit used in the erection of buildings was about 14.4 inches; and a Gold cubit used in the construction of the gold and silver vessels and decorative work which was equal to about 10.8 inches. All these three are found to be multiples of the basic palm breadth of 3.6 inches which was used by the Babylonians and also the Hebrews.
Amid all of this confusion about a unit of measure, especially finding one which was uniform and dependable, it is claimed the Ancient workmen of the Temple fashioned a rope of human hair which was knotted at three, five, and seven cubits. The human hair was chosen because it was unaffected by heat or cold, and thus maintained a constant length. He called this, "The Perfect Cubit," which enabled the workmen to join the stones, timbers and other materials with accuracy.
Worshipful Brother Lawrence J. Chisholm, Worshipful Master of Joppa Lodge No. 35 in The District of Columbia, authored a weights and measure section of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1976, in which he included these historical comments regarding the cubit.
Although there is evidence that many early civilizations devised standards of measurements and some tools for measuring, the Egyptian cubit is generally recognized as having been the most ubiquitous standard of linear measurement in the very ancient world. Devised about 3000 B. C., it was based on the length of the arm from the elbow to the extended finger tips and was standardized by a royal master cubit of black granite, against which all the cubit sticks in use in Egypt were measured at regular intervals.
The royal cubit (20.62 inches, 524 millimeters) was subdivided in an extraordinarily complicated way. The basic subunit was the digit, doubtlessly a finger's breadth, of which Ihere were 28 in the royal cubit. Four digits, equalled a palm, five a hand. Twelve digits, or three palms, equalled one small span. Fourteen digits, or one-half a cubit, equalled a large span. Sixteen digits or four palms, made one t'ser. Twenly digits, or five palms, were a small cubit.
The digit was in turn subdivided. The 141h digit on a cubit stick was marked off into 16 equal parts. The next digit was divided into 15 parts, and so on, to the 28th digit which was divided into two equal parts. Thus, measurement could be made to digit fractions with any denominator from 2 through 16. The smallest division, 1/16 of a digit, was equal to 1/148 part of a royal cubit.
The accuracy of the cubit stick is attested by the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh; although thousands were employed in building it, its sides vary no more than 0.05 percent from the mean length of 9,069.45 inches (230.364 metres) — about 4 1/2 inches in 755 feet.
In Oliver's Antiquities he said: "The structure thus begun, according to a plan given to Solomon by David, his father, upon the Arc of Alliance, every energy was used to render it a perfect specimen of art. Every stone, every piece of timber, was carved, marked, and numbered in the quarry and the forest; and nothing remained for the workmen at Jerusalem but to join the materials with precision, on a reference to the marks and numbers, This was effected without the use of' either axe, hammer, or metal tool; so that nothing was heard at Zion, save harmony and peace." It is a real testimonial to the Ancient Craftsmen that the parts could be so shaped at great distance and fit as they were intended. It is assumed this was due in part to the use of the perfect cubit.
Upon the significance of the three knots in the perfect Cubit ... three, five and seven. Mackey in his History (Volume I) referred to the symbolic character of those sacred numbers in the teaching of the Ancient Art and Science ... three, five, and seven. In the same spirit of symbolic reference, the steps of the winding stairs leading to the middle chamber were divided into a series of three, five, and seven.
At the onset of this paper, it was stated that the existence of a "Perfect Cubit" has no historical authority. Again, Mackey in Volume One (p. 9) states for a faithful and thorough inquiry of the history of Freemasonry, carefully separate the two periods into which it may be naturally divided.
The Historic, and The Prehistoric.
The Historic is the period within which we have genuine documents in reference to the existence of the Order.
The Prehistoric is the period within which we have no such records and where we have to depend wholly upon legends and traditions.
In the preface of Mackey's History (Page vii) Robert Ingham Clegg reflected that Brother Mackey ... pointed out that the very age of the Masonic institution had tended to confuse mere traditions or legends with the authentic truths of history, and he welcomed light from all directions but carefully applied critical standards to the source and standing of the information that came his way. By no means was he ready to reject a Masonic legend as fable.
It is left to the Masonic scholars and prominent historians to determine whether "The Perfect Cubit" is a Masonic legend or fable.