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Metals & Mining

In the Bible

Six metals are mentioned in the Bible and in many passages they are listed in the same order: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead. Antimony is also mentioned. The metals are referred to in various contexts, including methods of mining, metallurgical processes of extracting the metal, and preparing finished products. The strategic and economic importance of metals and of metal craftsmen is stressed. The prophets employ figures of speech based on the properties of metals and the stages of their treatment. These metals have been uncovered in excavations in Ereẓ Israel in the form of vessels and slag. At Tell Jemmeh, Tell Kasila, Timnah, and other sites, furnaces for smelting iron and copper have been found dating from different periods. The only explicit biblical reference to a foundry is to that of King Solomon "in the plain of Jordan … in the clay ground" where Temple vessels were produced (I Kings 7:46). Utensils for smelting are mentioned mainly as metaphors – "But you the Lord took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace" (Deut. 4:20). Isaiah speaks of refining silver in a furnace (Isa. 48:10); while Proverbs (27:21) describes the refining of gold and silver in a furnace. Ezekiel compares Israel with the process of refining metals: "The house of Israel has become dross unto Me; all of them, silver and bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace, have become dross" (Ezek. 22:18). The prophet was apparently well acquainted with the technical process of refining and smelting silver, and describes how silver is extracted from its ores by means of bellows, leaving slag behind. The working of metals was executed by special smiths and craftsmen, the first of whom was "… Tubal-Cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron" (Gen. 4:22). The Bible speaks of the high qualifications necessary for the specialized metalwork of the Tabernacle: "I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge … to make designs for work, in gold, silver, and copper" (Ex. 31:3–5). Solomon was forced to bring the craftsman Hiram from Tyre to work in copper (I Kings 7:13–14). The Bible describes the Philistine monopoly of metalsmiths and their strategic importance: "Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, 'Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears'" (I Sam. 13:19). The great importance attributed by Nebuchadnezzar to craftsmen and smiths is evident in his deporting them from Jerusalem together with Jehoiachin's army to prevent a possible revolt (II Kings 24:15–16). The methods of working metal after its extraction varied according to the type of metal and the use to which it was put: casting, hammering, gilding, preparing metal, wires, etc.

GOLD (Heb. zahav)

Gold is one of the rare metals found as an element in nature. It is extracted from the earth by a process of collecting and washing. Specialized goldsmiths employed two methods in working gold. The first consisted of beating it with a hammer into very thin sheets which was possible because of the gold's softness. The sheets were used for, among other things, gilding, and also for making gold wire: "They hammered out sheets of gold and cut threads…" (Ex. 39:3). The second method consisted of melting the gold and then casting it (Ex. 25:12). In the process of melting, the gold was also refined; refined gold, which was necessary for certain purposes (I Chron. 28:18), is apparently identical with "pure gold" (Ex. 25:17).

In various biblical passages words are mentioned that are explained as synonyms of gold: segor (Job 28:15); paz (Ps. 21:4; Lam. 4:2); ketem (Prov. 25:12); ḥaruẓ (Ps. 68:14; Prov. 3:14); and baẓer (Job 22:24; sometimes understood as "gold ore" or "ingots"). In addition, there are adjectives describing gold, some of which may designate types of gold. The various kinds of gold mentioned in the Bible are summarized in the Talmud (Yoma 44b–45a): "There are seven kinds of gold: gold; good gold (Gen. 2:12); gold of Ophir (I Kings 10:11); fine gold (ibid. 10:18); beaten gold (ibid. 10:17); pure gold (ibid. 6:20); gold of Parvaim (II Chron. 3:6)." In the talmudic discussion concerning the different types of gold, Ophir gold is said to be derived from the place name *Ophir , whereas the other adjectives are said to designate metallic or commercial qualities of gold: zahav mufaz, "fine gold," because it resembles paz ("a shining jewel"); zahav shaḥuṭ, "beaten gold," because it is spun like thread (Heb. ḥuṭ); zahav sagur, "pure (lit. "locked") gold," indicates such fine quality that when its sale begins all the other shops lock up; zahav parvaim, "gold of Parvaim," is said to look like the blood of a bullock (Heb. par), but it may also designate a place-name.

The Bible mentions various places from which gold was brought into Ereẓ Israel. Scholars do not agree as to the identification of most of these places but in all probability they include the countries in which gold mines were located in the biblical period: Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and India. Among the places cited is the "land of *Havilah" (Gen. 2:11–12), which scholars locate either in southeast Sudan, northwest Ethiopia, or in the southern Sinai Peninsula. The location of Sheba (I Kings 10:6–10) is also disputed (see *Sabea ); some scholars place it in Ethiopia and others consider it the name of one of the regions or tribes in southern Arabia. Ophir, which was reached by ships from Ezion-Geber (I Kings 9:26–28; 10–11; 22:49), is identified by *Josephus with India, but, like Havilah and Sheba, it has also been located in Saudi Arabia. Uphaz has not been identified (Jer. 10:9). Parvaim (II Chron. 3:6) is either a place in Arabia or an adjective describing gold as in the talmudic explanation mentioned above.

As early as the patriarchal period, gold was used for manufacturing jewelry and fine vessels (Gen. 24:22) whose value was measured by the amount of gold they contained. Gold was a symbol of wealth and position and served as capital but not as a means of payment. Silver served as currency, but gold bullion as payment is mentioned only once in the Bible: "So David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold by weight for the site" (I Chron. 21:25; but cf. Num. 22:18; 24:13; II Sam. 21:4; I Kings 15:19; Ezra 8:25f.). The Mishnah explains that "Gold acquires silver, but silver does not acquire gold" (BM 4:1), i.e., gold is valuable as property while silver is a means of payment. At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelite women borrowed from their neighbors "objects of silver, and gold, and clothing" (Ex. 12:35). Aaron broke off golden earrings to make the golden calf (ibid. 32:3). The fullest descriptions of the use of gold are found in the accounts of the building of the Tabernacle in the desert and of Solomon's Temple. In the Tabernacle, gold leaf and gold casts were used, for which the gold was contributed by the Israelites: "And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper" (Ex. 25:3). The finest craftsmen executed the work (ibid. 31:4). Solomon obtained gold for the Temple and his palace from the booty taken in King David's wars (II Sam. 8:7; 12:30) and from trade with Ophir on Hiram's ships (I Kings 9:28). Gold vessels of all kinds denoted wealth and nobility and were also important in ritual. At the same time, the principal idols were made of gold and silver and the prophets inveighed against the worship of these graven images (Isa. 30:22). The wealth and prestige of silver and gold in the form of property and of idols were used as symbols by the prophets: "Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them…" (Zeph. 1:18). Wealth and gifts of splendor were associated with gold: the Queen of Sheba brought Solomon "… very much gold" (I Kings 10:2); "and the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom … every one of them brought articles of … gold" (ibid. 10:24–25). The shields of Solomon's guard were made of gold (ibid. 14:26), and when Ahasuerus made a great banquet for the nobility of his court, he served them from "golden goblets" (Esth. 1:7).

SILVER (Heb. kesef)

The main minerals in which silver appears in nature are natural silver and silver sulfides. Silver is commonly found in association with gold and copper, and sometimes with lead. Silver was known to man in earliest antiquity; articles of silver have been found in Ereẓ Israel from as early as the Middle Bronze Age. Silver mines in ancient times were located in Spain, Egypt, and Anatolia. According to the Bible, silver, like other metals, was brought by Solomon from *Tarshish (II Chron. 9:21) and Arabia (9:14). Silver was extracted from its ore by smelting, with the use of bellows, and the slag containing lead was separated from the silver (Jer. 6:29–30). Job was acquainted with the technical process of extracting silver: "Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold which they refine" (Job 28:1). Ezekiel also describes the method of extracting silver and mentions slag containing bronze, iron, lead, and tin (Ezek. 22:20–22).

Because of the high value of silver, it was used as a means of payment from earliest times, in preference to gold which was extremely soft. Payment in silver took the form of bullion ("400 shekels of silver," Gen. 23:15) or was weighed on scales. The biblical verse "Here, I have with me the fourth part of a shekel of silver" (I Sam. 9:8) clearly indicates the use of coins. The Temple tax was also paid in silver coins ("a half-shekel," Ex. 30:13). In the Bible the shekel designates a unit of weight (Heb. mishkal), from which the term *shekel is apparently derived. Weighing the silver was replaced by standard units of weight, which became *coins ; later the coins were counted, as, for example, "I herewith give your brother 1,000 pieces of silver" (Gen. 20:16).

Silver was also used for making vessels for the Tabernacle and the Temple. It was a symbol of wealth and position as in the description of the palace of Ahasuerus "… silver rings and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver…" (Esth. 1:6). When "all the kings of the earth" came to hear Solomon, they brought him gifts of gold and silver (II Chron. 9:23–24). The most outstanding description of a king's wealth is the chariot bought in Egypt by Solomon for 600 shekels of silver (I Kings 10:29). Job describes kings and counselors "who filled their houses with silver" (Job. 3:15). Among biblical figures of speech and similes based on silver is: "Your silver is become dross" (Isa. 1:22), i.e., the very valuable metal is transformed into something worthless like the slag formed during its reduction. The smelting and refining of silver are used as symbols of the Israelites: "For Thou, O God, hast tested us; Thou hast tried us as silver is tried" (Ps. 66:10). Trade in silver becomes a symbol of trade in general; although it is an honest trade, it is transcended by the acquisition of wisdom "For the gain from it is better than gain of silver" (Prov. 3:14).

COPPER (Heb. neḥoshet)

The copper referred to in the Bible is not pure copper but an alloy of copper and tin. This alloy – bronze – was the most useful and important metal from the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E. to the 13th century B.C.E. when it began to be replaced by iron. Copper mines in the ancient Near East were located in Cyprus (from which the name copper is apparently derived), Sinai, and Egypt. It was the main metal extracted in Ereẓ Israel in antiquity and is the only one mined there today. Copper is usually extracted from sulfide minerals, and partly from silicates, and carbonates; very small amounts of native copper are also found.

The Arabah contains copper mines in three main centers: (1) Faynān (biblical Punon, Num. 33:42), around 25–30 mi. (40–50 km.) south of the Dead Sea in the eastern Arabah; (2) the area of Wadi Abu Khushayba, around 8 mi. (13 km.) southwest of Petra; (3) and in the Timnah-Amram region which also extends southwest of Elath. The copper deposits appear in the form of concentrates in the white Nubian sandstone with a base of Evronah complex formation of the Lower Cretaceous period. The concentrates are connected with the layer of fossilized trees in the sandstone and are composed mainly of sulfides, carbonates, silicates, and copper oxides. They have a high copper content which reaches as much as 30–40%. N. Glueck, the first to describe these deposits in detail, attributes the beginning of copper mining and smelting activities to the Kenites, Kenizzites, and Kadmonites (Gen. 115:19), who inhabited the area and were related to Tubal-Cain (i.e., the Kenite), the first metalsmith (ibid. 4:22). In Glueck's opinion they were nomadic tribes who wandered in the Arabah and were metallurgical specialists. He also associates the Edomites with the metal industry and its trade through the Arabah and the Red Sea. The area was conquered by David, and Solomon continued to work the mines and develop international trade, mainly by way of Ezion-Geber; his metallurgical industry was located in the plain of the Jordan "in the clay ground between Succoth and Zarethan" (I Kings 7:46). Glueck suggests that copper was even exported from the Arabah by Solomon, and also that the protracted wars between Judah and Edom during the period of the Kingdom of Judah were over control of the copper mines in the Arabah.

Excavations carried out between 1959 and 1969 by the Arabah Expedition headed by B. Rothenberg concluded that the copper mines in the Timnah area are not to be attributed to the time of Solomon. Rothenberg distinguished three periods at the site: the Chalcolithic period (fourth millennium B.C.E.), the Early Iron Age, and the Byzantine period (third–fourth centuries C.E.). Rothenberg suggests that Egyptian kings in the 14th–12th centuries B.C.E., and not the kings of Israel and Judah, sent mining expeditions to the Arabah, and that the copper mines and the smelting installations were operated by the Egyptians together with the Midianites, Kenites, and Amalekites. Among the finds in an Egyptian temple discovered in Timnah was a copper snake which dates it to the time of the Exodus. According to the excavator, the Kenites and the Midianites employed highly developed methods of copper production that ceased with the Israelite Conquest; only commercial activities, and not production, were undertaken in the period of the Monarchy by way of Ezion-Geber and the Red Sea to Ophir and Sheba. Rothenberg also emphasizes that a metallurgical center was located in the Succoth-Zarethan area where imported raw copper was made into finished products (I Kings 7:46). The copper was extracted from its ore by smelting in an oven and then cast. Heat was produced by charcoal from acacia trees which grow in the Arabah.

Much copper was used in manufacturing vessels for the Temple and especially for the Tabernacle: clasps, sockets, rings, posts of the enclosure, lavers, etc. (Ex. 26–36). The biblical description of copper weapons indicates a highly developed military culture, e.g., the description of Goliath: "He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was 5,000 shekels of bronze" (I Sam. 17:5–7). Copper was fashioned into a symbol for the Israelites in the desert in the form of a serpent of copper made by Moses (Num. 21:9; see *Copper Serpent ); it was preserved by the Israelites up to the time of Hezekiah who destroyed it, calling it *Nehushtan (II Kings 18:4). The destruction of the Temple is emphasized by the removal of the copper; after the Temple was burnt, the Babylonians destroyed all the objects in it and carried away a great many copper objects to Babylonia and "the bronze of all these vessels was beyond weight" (II Kings 25:13, 16). In its use in vessels for the Tabernacle and Temple and for weapons, copper symbolized strength and rigidity – "The skies above your head shall be copper" (Deut. 28:23). It also denoted drought – "I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper" (Lev. 26:19). The word for chains (neḥushtayim) is also derived from copper. Not only the heaven and earth but also the Israelites are compared with rigid copper: "your forehead copper" (Isa. 48:4).

IRON (Heb. barzel)

Job was acquainted with the technical process of extracting iron from iron ore: "iron is taken out of the earth" (Job. 28:2). Isaiah described the smith's technique of working iron with the help of charcoal to produce steel suitable for making vessels (Isa. 54:16). The Bible speaks of Tubal-Cain as the first metalsmith (Gen. 4:22; see above discussion of copper). Some scholars identify the family of Japheth, to whom Tubal-Cain was related, with peoples who inhabited the coast of the Black Sea. Iron was first exploited by the Hittites in Asia Minor and it was brought to Syria and Ereẓ Israel by Phoenician merchants. Another source of iron was Tarshish, and "massive iron" was brought from Vedan and Javan (Ezek. 27:12–13, 19).

The Early Iron Age in Ereẓ Israel corresponds roughly with the period of the Philistines (from c. 1200 B.C.E.). The iron in the hands of the Philistines may have been connected with their maritime trade and with imports by merchants from the north. Iron mines were apparently located in the mountains of iron in the hill region of Edom (Josephus mentions an "Iron Mountain" near Gerasha) and also in southern Lebanon, but these were probably of little importance. Iron was used primarily for weapons, and ironsmiths were thus of prime importance in the military organization. The Philistines succeeded in securing control of all the smiths – apparently ironsmiths: "Now there was no smith to be found throughout the land of Israel" (I Sam. 13:19). Whoever needed the services of ironsmiths for sharpening everyday tools, such as agricultural implements, was forced to go to the Philistines. Iron implements (a plow and a spade) have been found at Tell Jamma and also furnaces for smelting iron; the earliest finds come from Tell al-ʿAjūl where a dagger with an iron blade and copper handle were also discovered. As early as the biblical period, iron was employed extensively in everyday life: war, agriculture, building, religion, trade, and household utensils. Iron weapons included chariots (Josh. 17:16); horns (I Kings 22:11); swords and spears (I Sam. 13:19; II Sam. 23:7); "iron objects" (Num. 35:16); and fetters (Ps. 105:18); while iron agricultural tools included sledges (Amos 1:3) and yokes (Jer. 28:14). In building, iron was used in door bars (Isa. 45:3), nails for doors of gates (I Chron. 22:3), and hammers and axes (I Kings 6:7); in religion, it was used for statues of gods (Dan. 5:4); and in trade, for weights (I Sam. 17:7). Household utensils made of iron included bedsteads (Deut. 3:11) and pens (Job 19:24).

Iron often appears in figures of speech in the Bible, but it mainly symbolizes the material from which instruments of war were made. Its use was prohibited in building an altar (Ex. 20:25): "an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man has lifted an iron tool" (Josh. 8:31). The Mishnah elaborates: "for iron was created to shorten man's days, while the altar was created to lengthen man's days; what shortens may not rightly be lifted up against what lengthens" (Mid. 3:4). Solomon carried the ban against using stones hewn with iron in building the altar even further when he built the Temple, "so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the Temple," while it was being built (I Kings 6:7). In the Talmud a discussion is held on whether the prohibition against the use of iron tools applied only to the Temple site or to the quarry as well (Sot. 48b), for Solomon built three rows of hewn stone in the inner court (I Kings 6:36). In the description of David's battle with Goliath, spiritual values are contrasted with iron weapons symbolizing war, as Goliath appears with a sword, spear, and javelin, opposite David's faith in God (I Sam. 17:45, 47). Iron also denotes strength: "iron yoke" (Deut. 28:48), "your neck is an iron sinew" (Isa. 48:4), and has a special meaning in Psalms 107:10.

TIN (Heb. bedil)

Tin was known to, and utilized by, the ancient Egyptians. There was an extensive international trade in tin that was alloyed with copper to make bronze – the copper of the Bible. Tin was mentioned by Ezekiel as one of the products imported by the Phoenicians from Tarshish (27:12). It appears in the Bible together with the other metals, gold, silver, copper, iron, and lead, for example, in connection with the laws of their purification after being captured as booty (Num. 31:22). Tin is mentioned by Ezekiel as one of the components of the slag obtained by reducing silver from its ore (22:18–22) and by Isaiah: "smelt away your dross as with lye, and remove all your tin" (1:25). No specific tin vessels are mentioned in the Bible.

LEAD (Heb. ʿoferet)

The ancient sources of lead were Asia Minor and Syria, and it was included among the metals brought by the Phoenicians from Tarshish (Ezek. 27:12). Lead galena is found today at the foot of Mount Hermon; however, nothing is known of its extraction in antiquity. Because of its high specific gravity, it served as weights for fishermen's nets – "they sank like lead in the majestic waters" (Ex. 15:10), from which the simile "to sink in water like lead" is derived. The plumb line may also have been made of lead (Amos 7:7). Lead served also as a cover of utensils because of its high specific gravity (Zech. 5:7–8). The verse, "… that with an iron pen and lead they were graven in the rock for ever!" (Job. 19:24), seems to indicate that as early as biblical times, lead was used for writing; because of the softness of lead, writing implements were made of stone filled with lead. Lead is mentioned several times in the Bible together with the other metals (e.g., Num. 31:22). Lead, or lead minerals, may have been used for cosmetics and dyes.

ANTIMONY (Heb. pukh)

No objects made of antimony are known, but it appears in copper alloys. Unlike the other metals, the Bible does not mention antimony as a metal but only its use as a mineral – as eye shadow. Kohl for painting the eyes (II Kings 9:30; cf. Ezek. 23:40) is translated in the Vulgate as stibium.

[Uri Shraga Wurzburger]

In Rabbinic Literature

Rabbinic literature – the Talmuds in particular – contains a wealth of information on metals and metallurgy (though not on their primary production by mining), on the use of the various metals in manufacture, on metal artifacts, and so on. The growth of terminology as well as the use of terms borrowed from Greek, Latin, and even Persian is an indication on the progress from biblical times in the refining process and in the use of metals, though the basic metals remained more or less the same. As distinct from the Bible, rabbinic literature has generic terms for metals, generally mattekhet from the biblical root (ntk, "to smelt"), and in the Middle Ages also metilin or metil from the Greek μέταλλον or Latin metallum. Metals mentioned in rabbinic literature are gold, silver, copper (brass and bronze), iron, tin, lead, and antimony or stibium. A number of terms exist for metal sheets, bars, or lumps: eshet or ashashit niska ("cast metal"), particularly a bar of silver or gold; ḥarakhah ("lumps of metal [iron ore]"), before smelting; milela for gold ore as broken in the mine; peitalon (Gr. πέταλον; "metal or gold leaf "), for which there is also a Hebrew word (tas); and also the more general term golem (pl. gelamim), meaning any raw, unfinished material. There is also a whole range of terms for old and broken metal which could be used again, the most general of which is gerutei (pl. geruta'ot) or gerumei (in Gr. γρύτη), "junk iron" still used in modern Hebrew for junk, rubbish, but other derivations have been suggested (see S. Krauss in JE, 8, 515 and Kohut, Arukhha-Shalem, S.V.). Asimon (Gr. ασημος) is uncoined bullion or coins on which the stamping has worn off.

The social standing of metalworkers was high, but they maintained fine distinctions between them, with the gold- and silversmith (zehavim, kassafim) ranking higher than the ordinary smith (nappaḥ); see the description of the separate seats occupied by different craftsmen in the great synagogue of Alexandria in Sukkah 51b. The metalworker is called nappaḥ as he has to blow (nafaḥ) the fire with the mappu'aḥ ("bellows") in order to soften the metal. The gold- and silversmith is also called meẓaref, though this is occasionally applied to the coppersmith as well. For fuel, the smith used peḥam (charcoal), which he had to make himself, and the peḥami is therefore both the charcoal burner and the blacksmith (see the story of R. Gamaliel's visit to the home of R. Joshua b. Hananiah, who was a needle maker; Ber. 28a). For the smelting of gold, straw was used as fuel. When taken from the fire with ẓevat ("tongs," see Avot 5, 6), the metal was beaten with the pattish ("hammer") or kurnas (Gr. κέαρνον) on the saddan ("anvil") made by the sadna'ah. The term "beat with the hammer" became typical for every kind of manufacture. Rabbinic literature contains many further details on the various activities of the blacksmith and other instruments which he uses (see Krauss, Tal Arch, 2 (1911), 299ff.). There is an equally great variety of implements and vessels, which were made from the various metals. Metals were used in every kind of manufacturing process, in agriculture, for domestic and personal needs, for weapons and armaments, for coins, and Temple use. Gold and silver were the main raw material of women's ornaments (ibid., 307ff.).


Both Talmuds and some Midrashim have slightly differing lists of seven varieties of gold, most of which occur already in the Bible (TJ, Yoma 4:4, 41d; Yoma 44b; Num. R. 12:4; Song R. 3:10, no. 3; for the talmudic discussion on the various names for gold see above, in the biblical section). Various information is given on the smelting of the gold used for the making of the *menorah by Moses (TJ, Shekalim 6:4, 50b), Solomon, and in the Second Temple (Song R. 3:10, no. 3). According to the Midrash, gold had, in any event, been created for its use in the Temple (Ex. R. 35:1). It does not deteriorate (Me'il. 5:1, 19a). In Solomon's time, weights were made of gold (PDRK 169a). The gold (and silver), which the Israelites carried away from Egypt, is a frequent subject of aggadah (see Ber. 32a). So are the golden tables of the rich (Shab. 119a; Ta'an. 25a; Tam. 32a). The members of the Sanhedrin of Alexandria sat on golden chairs in the famous basilica (Suk. ibid., and parallels). Famous, too, is the golden ornament (Yerushalayim shel zahav) which R. Akiva gave to his wife (Shab. 59a). His colleague R. Ishmael had a bride fitted with a golden tooth to make her more attractive (Ned. 66b; cf. Shab. 6, 5). Rich men in Jerusalem would tie their lulavim with threads of gold (Suk. 3, 8) and offer their first fruits in baskets of silver or of gold (Bik. 3, 8).

SILVER (Heb. kesef)

The term argentariyya and similar forms (Gr. άργεντάριος, Lat. argentarium) is used in TJ, Peah 8:9, 21b and the Midrash (PdRK 106b) for table silver (and gold) and martekha for silver slag (Git. 69b).


The word beronza ("bronze") is found in medieval rabbinic literature (Heilprin, Seder Dorot, 1 (1905), 104). The Greek word χαλκός which like neḥoshet means copper as well as the alloys brass and bronze, though later the latter only, is used in the Babylonian Talmud (BK 100b) for copper caldron (so also in Gr.; see Jastrow, Dict., S.V.); in the Jerusalem Talmud (BB 4:6, 14c) for the copper (caldron) room in a bathhouse; the Targum often used the form karkoma (χαλκωμα), Greek for anything made of copper, etc. (see S. Krauss, Griechische und lateinische Lehnwoerter (1898), 299). The term peliza (a kind of bronze, see JE, 8, 516) is used in Bava Kama (113b, Ms., see Rabbinowicz, Dik Sof, BK 140). According to the Midrash (Lev. R. 7:5; Tanh., Terumah 11), the copper covering on the altar of the Tabernacle would miraculously not melt in spite of the perpetual fire. Bronze tablets were used to inscribe international treaties, such as the one between Judah Maccabee and Rome (I Macc. 8:22; Jos., Ant., 12:416) and his brother Simeon and Sparta (I Macc. 14:18). Mishnah Parah (12:5) mentions a "hyssop of brass." Nathan b. Jehiel's Arukh quotes from the lost Midrash Yelammedenu the term konekhi (Gr. κόγχη), a copper shell or bowl (for oil). Corinthian bronze (kelinteya), famous for its quality and shine, was used for the Nicanor gates of the Herodian Temple (Eliezer b. Jacob, Yoma 38a; Tosef. ibid. 2:4).

IRON (Heb. barzel, parzel, parzela)

As to the sources of iron ore, the Palestinian Targum translates the place names Kadesh and Wilderness of Zin (Sinai) as "Mountain of Iron" (Num. 33:36; 34:4). The Mishnah (Suk. 3:1) and Josephus (War, 4:454) mention an Iron Mountain near Gerasa in Transjordan (Avi-Yonah, Geog., 162). Indian iron was used for making weapons (Av. Zar. 16a), and Indian swords were the very best available (Tanḥ., Va-Etḥannan 6). Parzelayyah is used as a generic term for iron tools (Lev. R. 24:3; TJ, Nid. 2:6, 50b, as a simile for a sharp mind). He who bathes in hot water without showering himself afterward with cold water is like iron that has been treated in the fire without being put into cold water afterward (Shab. 41a). According to R. Eliezer, it is permitted on the Sabbath to cut wood on which to burn coal to forge a knife for a circumcision which is to occur on that day (ibid. 19:1, 130a). The Talmud speaks of even sho'evet, a magnetic stone which attracts iron (Sot. 47a).


The terms used for this metal are either ba'aẓ or avaẓ, kassitera, kassiteron, and gassiteron (Gr. κασσίτερος). Both ba'aẓ and kassitera are used in the same passages (Men. 28b and elsewhere), which implies that they were two different metals or kinds of the same metal. The Temple menorah was not to be made of them, but when the Hasmoneans cleansed the Temple and needed a new menorah (the golden one having been carried off by Antiochus IV), they made it of seven spears plated with tin (ibid.). It was forbidden to make weights out of metal – tin and lead being mentioned specially – because metal wears away (BB 89b and Tos. ad loc.; Tosef., ibid. 5:9). The traveler Pethahiah of Regensburg (12th century) reports that in Babylonia people were summoned to synagogue by a tin instrument. In the later Middle Ages up to modern times tin was used extensively for artistic *ritual objects such as Ḥanukkah menorot, seder, Kiddush, and Havdalah plates, etc.


Lead is called avar in rabbinic literature, also karkemisha in the Palestine Targum (Num 31:22; Job 19:24). Ḥullin 8a (cf. Neg. 9:1) mentions "lead from its source" as a naturally hot substance causing injury. The water reservoirs below the Temple Mount were said to be lined with lead (Letter of Aristeas 90). Lead was also used as a writing material (Shab. 104b, see Rashi). A wick of hot lead was used to carry out the death sentence by burning (Sanh. 52a), and water pipes were made of lead (Mik. 6:8). The term alsefidag (of Persian origin) is used in geonic literature for white lead (Kohut, Arukh, 4 (1926), 82).


Antimony or stibium, called koḥal, was used in the form of a powder for painting the eyelids (verb kaḥol). From the word koḥal the modern Hebrew word for blue (kaḥol) is derived. Both the noun and the verb are used in many talmudic passages (e.g., Shab. 8:3; 10:6, 80a; Ket. 17a). A species of hyssop is called ezov koḥalit (Neg. 14:6 and elsewhere), probably after a district (Kid. 66a) in Transjordan (see Jastrow, Dict., S.V.), which may, in turn, have derived its name from the metal; cf. the "hyssop of brass" in Parah 12:5, mentioned above.


The mysterious ḥashmal (Ezek. 1:4; 8:2) is interpreted in Ḥagigah (13a–b) as fire-spouting dragons. Translators called it amber or galena (lead-ore), while in modern Hebrew it has become the word for electricity (cf. S. Munk (ed.), Guide des égarés, 2 (1961), 229 n. 4).


The relative value attached to metals can be seen from the pages concerning the Temple menorah (Men. 28b), where they are listed either in descending order – gold, silver, tin, lead – or ascending order – iron, tin, silver, gold. The relative value of metals depended on the currency situation, the coins made of less valuable metal being considered currency in relation to those of the more valuable one, which is then considered commodity but not currency (see BM 4:1; Mishnah lists gold, silver, and copper in descending order, whereas the same Mishnah in the Jerusalem Talmud (BM 4:1, 9c) puts silver before gold).


The symbolism of metals representing the Four Kingdoms in Daniel 2 and 3 is expanded in Exodus Rabbah (35:5), "Gold is Babylon; silver is Media; copper is Greece; iron is Edom (Rome); etc." A symbolic meaning is found by Midrash Tadshe 11 in the fact that of the two altars in the Tabernacle and Temple one was overlaid with gold (the soul) the other with copper (the body). On account of the Golden Calf, gold became a symbol of sin, and therefore a shofar mouthpiece was not to be overlaid with gold (RH 27a; cf. Maharil, Hilkhot Rosh Ha-Shanah), nor did the high priest officiate on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies in his golden vestments but in white linen ones (ibid. 26a). At the same time, the gold plate on the incense altar of the Tabernacle and Temple was to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf (Yal., Ex. 368). Iron is also a metaphor for strength of character, and a scholar who is not as hard as iron is no scholar (Ta'an. 4a; cf. Men. 95b concerning Rav Sheshet). Similarly the Evil Inclination may be as hard as iron, but the Torah, which is likened to an (iron) hammer (Jer. 23:29), will smash it (Suk. 52b; see Tos. ad loc.). Some students may find their studies as hard as iron (Ta'an. 8a), but two scholars studying together sharpen each other's mind as one piece of iron sharpens the other (ibid. 7a). As wine cannot be preserved in golden or silver vessels but only in the humblest of vessels (earthen ones), so the words of the Torah will not be preserved in one who is in his own eyes like a gold or silver vessel but only in one, who is like the lowliest of vessels (Sif. Deut. 48).

Jews as Metalworkers and Miners

A study of the part played by Jews in the mining and metal industries proves that there has been too great a tendency to minimize their participation in the promotion and development of these branches. It is true that the objective restrictions which kept the Jews off the land and prevented their ownership of it, especially in medieval society, contributed in no small measure to limiting their opportunities of exploiting natural resources in general and various metals in particular. Yet despite all this the Jews succeeded, at different times and in various countries, in penetrating several branches connected with the mining of metals, their contribution to the advance of the industry being at times of great significance.


Very little information on the exploitation of the earth's resources has come down to us from the mishnaic and talmudic periods. Until the end of the fourth century there were copper mines at Punon, at the south of the Dead Sea, and *Jerome (340?–420) testifies that mining was discontinued there during his lifetime. The literature of these periods frequently mentions coal and copper refiners; it may be assumed that the "refiner" mentioned in the Mishnah (Ket. 7:10) is merely a copper smelter. As mentioned, the separation of Jews from the land in the Middle Ages had implications for the mining industry. In those times mining was frequently connected with agricultural labor, and thus in Germany, for instance, there were farmers who were engaged in extracting iron ore in their free time. It is therefore evident that since the Jews were cut off from agriculture their opportunities for extracting metals were limited. Added to this, in Christian Europe minerals were considered crown property, so that private ownership of mines was impossible. Yet in spite of all these restrictions Jews were to be found in various branches of the mining industry, as lessees and managers, traders in metals, and even miners. As for precious metals, there can be no doubt that their employment as minters of coins, especially in absolutist Europe at the time when *Court Jews flourished, brought them into direct contact with gold and silver mining (see *Mintmasters and Moneyers). A similar state of affairs prevailed with regard to the extraction of precious stones (see *Diamond Industry and Trade), since the Jews were prominent in the international trade in luxury goods and in purveying them to royal courts, at least from the days of the Carolingian kingdom up to the time of the absolutist states in modern Europe. In such countries as Spain and Poland, where Jews played an outstanding part as colonizers, they were prominent as lessees of salt mines (see *Salt Production).

There were also Jews in different countries throughout the Middle Ages who were engaged in extracting both heavy and light metals of various kinds. In England, for instance, Jews had worked in tin mining in Cornwall in 1198. Joachim *Gaunse appeared in 1581 and suggested to the English government new methods for processing copper. When it became known that he was a Jew from Prague, he was arrested by the authorities and his fate is unknown. In Sicily, there was a long tradition of Jewish activity in the mines from the times of the emperor Tiberius, who sent 4,000 Jewish youths as slaves to the mines. Jews were commonly engaged there not only in the manufacture of metalware but also in mining silver and iron. In spite of the opposition of the local authorities, a royal decree of 1327 ordered Sicilian officials to support Jewish mine prospectors and miners. At the beginning of the 15th century two Jews of *Alghero received special authorization to exploit the resources of the region, on condition that half the output be handed over to the crown. Attempts by Jews to extract metals in Germany are also known: in 1625 Duke Frederick Ulrich of Brunswick asked the theologians of the University of Helmstedt if he might be allowed to hand over the lead trade to two Jews and authorize them to move freely through his state for that purpose. After the members of the faculty had agreed, these Jews mined lead from the Harz Mountains.


In modern times the part played by Jews in the mining and metal industries of Germany reached considerable dimensions. After Aron Hirsch (1783–1842) had established a firm for buying and selling copper in 1805, Halberstadt became the cradle of the modern German nonferrous metal trade. In 1820 he became a partner in founding copper enterprises in Werne and Ilsenburg. When his son Joseph (1809–1871) joined the business, its name was changed to Aron Hirsch and Son. In 1863 they acquired the copper works of Heegermuehle, near Eberswalde. A branch was established in New York in 1894 and the firm began to take an interest in the metal enterprises of France, Belgium, and England and the mines of Australia, America, and Eastern Asia. At the close of the 19th century Aaron Siegmund Hirsch initiated the establishment of the zinc enterprises of *Vladivostok . The firm of Hirsch Kupferund Messingwerke A.G. was founded in 1906; World War I and the economic crisis of 1929–32 caused it to be liquidated in 1932. Dr. Emil Hirsch (1870–1938) then founded a new enterprise in Berlin, the Erze und Metalle Hirsch A.G., with a branch in Amsterdam, but the firm was liquidated when the Nazis came to power. Philipp Abraham Cohen, a descendant of the Hanover banking family, transferred the family business to Frankfurt in 1821. In Hanover they had been connected with the mining enterprises in the Harz Mountains. Philipp Abraham Cohen's son-in-law established the metal-trading firm of Henry R. Merton and Co. in London. In the meantime the Frankfurt firm extended its scope and traded in American copper and tin from the Dutch Indies. This enterprise was also involved in the nickel and aluminum trades, and until 1873, when the Deutsche Gold und Silber-Scheideanstalt was established, in the silver trade too. In 1881 the branches in England and Frankfurt established the Metallgesellschaft, Frankfurt on the Main, which became the leading German firm in the metal trade. Among other enterprises, they established the Usine de Désargentation (de-silverizing plant) in Hoboken, near Antwerp. In 1896, together with the firms of Hirsch and Beer, and Sondheimer and Co., they undertook zinc and lead mining. The Metallurgische Gesellschaft (Lurgi) was established in 1897; together with the Metallgesellschaft, it founded the Berg und Metallbank A.G. in 1906. Once the firm had successfully overcome the post-World War I crisis, branches were established in Amsterdam, Basle, Brussels, Copenhagen, Madrid, Milan, Prague, Stockholm, and Vienna. It was liquidated as a Jewish firm when Hitler came to power.

The Jews of Russia, too, had considerable achievements to their credit in the mining of certain metals and in associated industries. In 1807 there were 253 Jewish copper and tin workers in Minsk, Kiev, and Yekaterinoslav, that is, 6.8% of the Jewish craftsmen in these towns. ICA ( *Jewish Colonization Association ) statistics of 1897 reveal that there were then 15,669 Jewish smiths and 11,801 Jewish craftsmen in the various branches of the metal industry. The Jews were also well represented in the development of the industry: in Moscow four metal factories were established by Jews between 1869 and 1878, and a further two factories in the Moscow area between 1878 and 1880. Of the 96 large iron and tin plants in Odessa in 1910, 88 belonged to Jews. The laws of 1882 and 1887 excluded the Jews from the mines, but in spite of this they played a considerable role in the gold mines. Descendants of exiles and Jewish settlers in Siberia were among the pioneers of gold mining there. The director of the largest gold-mining enterprise in Russia in 1913, Lena Goldfields Co., was Baron Alfred Guenzburg; Jews were represented in the Gold Mining Co., and also in the platinum mines: of the five directors of the A.G. Platinum enterprise in 1912, two were Jews.

In the U.S. there were several prominent Jewish firms engaged in copper extraction. In 1813 Harmon *Hendricks established in Belleville, New Jersey, the Soho Copper Rolling Mills, later known as the Belleville Copper Mills. His descendants were prominent in the metal trade. In 1891 Meyer *Guggenheim (1828–1905), formerly a peddler and dry-goods merchant, acquired copper mines and then established an enterprise in Aguas Calientes, Mexico. Together with his sons he founded the mining company of M. Guggenheim's Sons. In 1901 they merged with the American Smelting and Refining Co. and the Guggenheim sons directed the enterprise. The firm initiated the acquisition and development of a copper mine in Alaska, developed copper mines in Mexico, and even extended its activities to Australia, Canada, and Africa.

Coal, which had been practically unknown in medieval Europe, was introduced into various branches of industry in England at the beginning of the 17th century because of the rise in the price of firewood. The Industrial Revolution increased the importance of coal, which came into use in the other countries of Europe during the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. In Eastern and Central Europe the Jews were pioneers in developing coal mines. In Poland, prospecting by Solomon Isaac of *Bytom led to the establishment of two large coal mining enterprises in 1790: the Krol mine near Chorzow and the Królowa Ludwika mine near Zabrze, which were worked for about 50 years. Between 1874 and 1879 many Jews studied at the mining school of Tarnowskie Gory; they were later employed as miners and engineers in Upper Silesia. Jews participated in the wholesale coal and iron trade until World War II. The large coal concern of *Katowice was a development of the important coal firm of Emmanuel Friedlander and Co. Their activity in the coal mines led them to develop an interest in mining other metals and brought them into various branches of the metal industry. In 1805 there were three copper foundries in Podolia employing 42 Jewish workers; in Warsaw a Jewish iron factory, which employed 200 Jewish workers, was established in 1848. Until 1938, when the cartel organizations introduced their policy of ousting all factories not connected with international concerns, the iron foundry of krakow belonged to Jews. In the wholesale iron trade, the old-established Warsaw firms of Priwess, and Freilach and Carmel were prominent; both prospered between the two world wars. According to the census of 1931, 1,462 Jews were employed in the mines (including 853 miners), 33,318 Jews were employed in metal foundries and in the metal and machinery industries (9,185 manual workers), and 4,209 Jews in the minerals industry (1,440 manual workers). The great majority of the Jews employed in the metal branch (73.9%) were craftsmen.

The Jews of Germany, too, were active in the coal industry in that country; many of them entered it via the coal trade or real estate business. Fritz Friedlaender-Fuld (1858–1917), an apostate, extracted coal in the Rybnik region. Eduard Arnhold (1849–1925), who had been director of the Caesar Wollheim coal firm, supervised a considerable part of the mining industry of Upper Silesia. Paul Silberberg succeeded his father as director of a lignite mine (Fortuna) in 1903.

In various parts of Czechoslovakia the Jews were the first to extract coal. The first person to exploit the coal mines of Ostrava-Karvina (Moravia), in 1840, was David Gutmann of Lipnik nad Becvu (see Wilhelm von *Gutmann ). After obtaining the support of the Rothschild family, who owned iron works in Vitkovice, they established joint iron and mining enterprises there. At the beginning of the 20th century some of the coal mines of Kladno were owned by Jews, among them Leopold Sachs. The *Petschek family was active in the development of the lignite coal mines, particularly in northern Bohemia. Their competitor and former employer was Jakob *Weinmann .

[Jacob Kaplan]

In South Africa Jews were among the pioneers in the exploitation of South Africa's mineral resources. They were early in the field when industrial development started during the second half of the 19th century, and they remained prominent in the opening up of the country's coal, diamond, gold, and base metal mines. Jews like Barney *Barnato , the *Joel brothers, Lionel *Phillips , the *Beit brothers, and the *Albu brothers were among the prospectors, explorers, diggers, and financiers who flocked to the diamond fields at Kimberley in the 1870s. Sammy *Marks began coal mining on a large scale in the Transvaal and laid the foundations of the steelworks at Vereeniging. When the industrial focus moved to Johannesburg with the discovery of gold there in 1886, the Kimberley Jews played a foremost role in the creation of the great mining groups which developed the Witwatersrand. Here Sir Ernest *Oppenheimer created the powerful Anglo-American Corporation, headed the De Beers group, and stabilized the diamond market through the Diamond Corporation. Oppenheimer also pioneered the copper industry in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and after World War II led the development of the new goldfields in the Orange Free State and in the Eastern Transvaal. During this period A.S. Hersov and S.G. Menell created the Anglo-Vaal mining and industrial group. Jewish financiers also promoted the exploitation of platinum, manganese, and asbestos deposits.

As for the oil industry (see *Petroleum ), which was first developed in the second half of the 19th century, not only did the Jews participate in it (especially in Central and Eastern Europe) but Jewish industrialists were among the first to engage in the commercial exploitation of petroleum products.

From the above it is clear that the notion that Jews succeeded in forming part of the metal industry in the Diaspora only in secondary branches, close to the consumer, ignores the specific part they played in developing the primary branches. Even if this part was not quantitatively significant, there is no doubt that it was qualitatively important. It would appear that in those times and countries in which Jews were able to enter these branches of industry they engaged in them with great success.

Jewish Craftsmen in the Metal Trades

Many successive generations of Jews were engaged in various crafts connected with the metal industries. This continuity of occupation could be preserved chiefly in Muslim countries, where the Jews were enabled to conduct a more varied economic life than in Christian Europe. This was also true of such countries as Spain and Sicily which, although conquered by the Christians, still preserved modes of life from the days of Muslim domination. Jews were especially noted for arms manufacture. Jewish armorers are mentioned in the Mishnah (Av. Zar. 1:6), and Josephus describes the preparation of arms during the Jewish War (see, e.g., Jos., Wars, 3:22). *Dio Cassius , the historian of the second to third centuries C.E., relates that before the *Bar Kokhba War Jewish smiths deliberately manufactured defective weapons so that they would be rejected by the Romans and could later be used by Bar Kokhba's soldiers. From this account it can also be deduced that the Romans conscripted Jewish craftsmen to manufacture their arms. When *Muhammad gained control of *Medina , in southern Arabia, many of the weapons he obtained for his army were manufactured by local Jewish artisans. The "coats of mail of David" (probably named after a Jewish smith) were then famous in Arabia. The Jews of Portugal, too, excelled in this craft; their expulsion in 1496 brought a considerable number of them to Turkey, where they made a significant contribution to strengthening the military might of the Ottoman Empire.

The agent of the king of France in Constantinople during the first half of the 16th century tells of the numerous Marranos who revealed to the Turks the secrets of manufacturing cannons, guns, warships, and war machines. Obadiah of *Bertinoro found many Jewish copper and ironsmiths in *Palermo in 1487. When an expulsion decree was issued against the Jews of Sicily, in the wake of the expulsion from Spain, the local authorities complained that tremendous loss would result "because almost all the craftsmen" in Sicily were Jews; their expulsion would deprive the Christians of "workers who manufacture metal utensils, arms, and ironware." A similar complaint was heard in Portugal as a result of the expulsion order of 1496.

Many Jewish craftsmen and artisans were engaged in the metal industry in Christian Spain. In 1365 three Jewish smithies are mentioned in Toledo, and there were also Jewish workshops in Avila, Valladolid, Valdeolivas near Cuenca, and Talavera de la Reina; a Jewish tinsmith, Solomon (Çuleman) b. Abraham Toledano of Avila, is mentioned in a document of 1375; at the close of the 14th century Jewish smiths were called upon to repair the copper fountain of Burgos. Before 1391 many Jewish smiths, engravers, and goldsmiths lived in Barcelona. From a Saragossa register of 1401 we learn that there were many Jewish engravers and artisans in copper and iron. The local engraver's synagogue was used for the meetings of the community administration.

Jewish metalworkers continued to pursue their crafts along traditional medieval lines in various Muslim lands, where manual occupations were often despised and therefore pursued by religious minorities, particularly Jews. The report of the French consul on the condition of the Jews in Morocco at the close of the 18th century speaks of Jewish armorers there. The traveler *Benjamin II relates that Jews were employed in the iron industry in Libya in the middle of the 19th century. There are also reports on Jewish smiths who manufactured horseshoes there at the beginning of the 20th century. R. Ḥayyim *Habshush , who guided the researchers Joseph *Halevy and Eduard *Glaser in their search for ancient manuscripts in Yemen during the second half of the 19th century, was a coppersmith. Visiting that country in the late 1850s, R. Jacob *Saphir found many Jewish smiths. Yom Tov Ẓemaḥ reports that in 1910 the three remaining Jewish smiths of San'a were compelled to move to the provincial towns because of unemployment.

[Jacob Kaplan]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.