Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk
Former Rosh Kollel (Melbourne, 1998-2001)
Currently Head of the Beit Midrash in Netanya College


“If you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone, for if you lift up your sword against it, you defile it” (Shemot 20:22)

The verse mentions only “your sword”, but Rashi extends the prohibition to include any iron at all: “’you defile it’ – from here we learn that if you wave any iron over it, it is defiled, for the altar is created in order to prolong man’s life, while iron is created in order to cut short man’s life. It is not proper that that which shortens should be lifted over that which extends”.

This extension of the image of the sword to include any iron also finds expression in Sefer Devarim (27:5-6): “You shall build there an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stone; YOU SHALL NOT LIFT IRON OVER IT. You shall build the altar of the Lord your God from whole stones, and you shall offer upon it burnt offerings to the Lord your God.” In Sefer Shemot we are warned about a “sword”, while Sefer Devarim explains that the prohibition includes any vessel made of iron. This represents a transition from form (the sword) to substance (iron), and the transition demands some explanation. Surely it is not the substance that cuts short man’s life, but rather the form that it assumes? In the same way that iron may assume the form of a sword and shorten man’s life, it may also assume the form of ploughshares and pruning hooks – which lengthen man’s life! Similarly, when stone assumes the form of an altar it lengthen’s man’s life, but if it assumes the form of catapult stones, it shortens man’s life no less than iron does. Why, then, does the prohibition apply specifically to the substance of iron rather than to its form?

The answer to this question is to be found in a strange expression that appears in the Rashi and certain of the midrashim that he quotes: “For iron was CREATED in order to shorten man’s life…”. The meaning of this expression is clear: it is true that stones can also shorten man’s life, just as iron in certain forms can also extend man’s life. But fundamentally, iron was CREATED in order to shorten man’s life. God created this substance for the purposes of killing and cutting life short; this is the essence and nature of iron, and the fact that iron may also be fashioned into implements that shorten life in no way changes the fact of its fundamental purpose and nature. This point is illuminated in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (2:22) – “From the general rule, where we are told, “for if you lift your sword…” we may perhaps deduce that the stone altar is not disqualified unless the stones were actually cut by a sword. Therefore the Torah reaches, “you shall not lift iron over them”. Does this necessarily mean that all iron is turned into sword? [Surely not;] the Torah is teaching that “your sword” is what Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai refers to when he says: WHY IS IRON ALONE, AMONGST ALL OTHER TYPES OF METAL, DISQUALIFIED? BECAUSE A SWORD IS MADE FROM IT, AND A SWORD IS A SYMBOL OF PUNISHMENT, while the altar is a symbol of atonement. What happens [if iron is used in making the altar] is that a symbol of punishment is lifted over a symbol of atonement.”

The understanding that “iron” was created in order to shorten man’s life – that this is its purpose and its essential nature – illuminates several points:

the verse in Bereishit 4:22describes the occupation adopted by Tuval-Kayin, son of Lemekh: “Tzilla also gave birth – to Tuval-Kayin, forger of all sharp instruments of brass and iron, and Tuval-Kayin’s sister was Na’ama.” The Torah tells us that Tuval-Kayin worked with iron and brass, but does not specify what instruments he forged from them. The Midrash fills in the missing information: “’Tzilla also gave birth – to Tuval-Kayin…’ – Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin said, in the name of Rabbi Levi: This person enhanced [Heb: ‘t-v-l’ – literally, to spice or flavor] the sin of Kayin. Kayin killed, but lacked an implement with which to kill, but this one [Tuval-Kayin] ‘forged all sharp instruments of brass and iron’”. (Bereishit Rabba 23:3)

In light of the Midrash, Rashi explains: “’Tuval-Kayin’ – he enhanced [tibel] the profession of Kayin. “Tuval” is derived from the word “tavlin” (spice): he enhanced the profession of Kayin by producing weapons for murderers.”

The nominal connection between Kayin and Tuval-Kayin is obvious. Tuval-Kayin improved and enhanced something about Kayin. The Midrash talks about an enhancement of his SIN: but from where does the Midrash deduce that the connection centers specifically on Kayin’s sin? Rashi talks about an enhancement of Kayin’s PROFESSION – which, to his view, was murder. But Kayin was also a “tiller of the ground”, as we read in Bereishit 4:2 – “Hevel was a shepherd, while Kayin was a tiller of the ground”. This being so, surely we could also interpret the enhancement of Kayin’s profession as a reference to producing agricultural implements?

Indeed, Ha-Amek Davar explains: “Tuval-Kayin promoted Kayin’s occupation, which was the tilling of the ground. I.e., he forged all sharp instruments of brass and iron, thereby producing instruments for ploughing and reaping and everything involved in that profession.”

Why do the Midrash and Rashi not interpret as Ha-Amek Davar does? Why do they attribute to Tuval-Kayin such a negative occupation – the development of weapons – rather than a positive occupation – the development of agricultural implements? According to what we have said above, we may propose that a general reference to iron work implies, by definition, the forging of swords and other destructive instruments, since this is the essential and fundmental purpose of iron. Therefore, when we hear that Tuval-Kayin, who “enhanced the profession of Kayin”, worked with iron – it is clear to us that what he made was weapons.

Tuval-Kayin did indeed enhance Kayin’s profession – the profession of killing. The Midrash recounts Kayin’s efforts to kill Hevel without the benefit of iron implements: “’And he killed him’ – using what? Rashbag taught: He killed him with a cane, as it is written (Bereishit 4:23), “…and a boy for my wound” – i.e., something that causes a wound. The Sages taught: He killed him with a STONE, as it is written (ibid.): “I have killed a man for injuring me” – i.e., using something that causes injury.” (Bereishit Rabba 22:8). The Torah mentions only cane and stone, not iron: this was Tuval-Kaying’s discovery – the use of iron for killing.

How, then, do we justify the intepretation of Ha-Amek Davar? Attention should be paid to the fact that Tuval-Kayin occupies himself not only with iron, but also with brass. Brass was certainly not created for the purpose of cutting short man’s life, since the altar itself is made of brass. This logic, it appears, is what led Ha-Amek Davar to interpret Tuval-Kayin’s occupation in a more positive light.

The idea that iron was created in order to shorten man’s life finds clear expression in halakha: the halakha changes with respect to iron. Iron kills by definition, and therefore no measurement of its quantity is necessary for the purposes of capital punishment. What is the source of this law? The verses in Bamidbar (35:16-18) describe various implements that a murderer may choose to use: “If he strikes him with AN INSTRUMENT OF IRON, such that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he strikes him BY A STONE IN HIS HAND WEHREBY HE MIGHT DIE, such that he dies, the one who strikes is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he struck him with a WOODEN IMPLEMENT IN HIS HAND WHEREBY HE MIGHT DIE, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely die.” Shmuel (Sanhedrin 76b) offers a precise analysis of the discrepancies in the syntactical formulation concerning the different implements: “Shmuel said: Why is the word ‘yad’ (‘in his hand’) not mentioned with respect to the iron? Because iron can kill in any quantity; by means of the thrust of a NEEDLE into the gullet or into the heart”. The same idea arises from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 9:1; Tur 1312): “It is written, “If he struck him with a stone in his hand by which he might die, such that he dies, the one who strikes shall surely die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely die. Or if he struck him with a wooden implement in his hand by which he might die, such that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely die’: When it comes to iron, the Torah makes no mention of whether it is an implement by which he might die or not, since EVEN A TINY NEEDLE CAN PENETRATE HIS TRACHEA AND KILL HIM however, in the case of a stone it has to be [of a certain size in order to be] able to kill him, likewise a wooden implement.”

Rashi and the Talmud Yerushalmi place the emphasis on the implement (a needle) rather than on the substance itself (iron). This being the case, the Tosfot (Sanhedrin 76b) questions what is so unique about iron: could a wooden needle, or stone needle, not produce similar results? Tosfot suggests that the reason for the special status accorded to iron is that iron causes the flesh to swell. Tosfot understand that the uniqueness of iron is a function of the substance rather than of its form. This view sits well with the concept that “iron was created to cut short man’s life”.

c. “The sword is like a slain body”: We find, in several places in the Gemara, the following law: “The Holy One said that a sword is like a slain body” (Pesahim 89a and other sources). That is, a sword that comes into contact with a dead body attains the same status of “tumah” as the actual body. Rashi explains that not only an actual sword but all metal objects have this status.

What is to be the final destiny of iron? Will it ultimately merit some sort of repair, a complete change of nature? Perhaps the answer to this question is positive: the prophet Yishayahu promises that “it will be, at the end of days, that the mountainof God’s house will be established at the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will flow to it. Many nations will go and say: Let us go up to God’s mountain, to the house of the Lord of Yaakov, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths. For Torah shall emerge from Tzion, and the word of God from Jerusalem. And He will judge among the nations and will rule over many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they will not learn war any more.” (Yishayahu 2:1-4)

What is the meaning of these promises? What is the meaning of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks”? Perhaps this is nothing more than a graphic illustration of the peace that will reign in the time to come: the possibility of war will be so remote and unreasonable that there will be no need to maintain weapons and instruments of war. And since there will be no more need for them, people will use the iron to form plowshares and pruning hooks – an effective economic utilization of the metal.

But perhaps this prophecy is more than a pastoral description of the end of days; perhaps it describes a profound, fundamental change in the nature and essence of instruments of destruction and of the iron from which they are fashioned. In our times, we see that iron is indeed “created in order to cut short man’s life”, but in the time to come the essence of iron will change; it will be a substance that lengthens life – in the form of agricultural implements. Iron will change from being a symbol of punishment and death to being a symbol of life and longevity for man. “And concerning the repetition of the dream… twice – for the matter has been decided by God, and He will hasten to perform it”.

In the time to come, the interpretation of Ha-Amek Davar will prevail over that of the Midrash and Rashi as to the meaning of the name Tuval-Kayin.