Israel and the Iron Age

In this week’s parasha, Ekev, Moses describes the rich land of Israel and says it is “a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey…” This first part of the description is well-known, and the source for the Seven Species of Israel. These are the seven plants that are particularly praiseworthy, and are native to the Holy Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (which were used to make the honey that Moses is speaking of). The Zohar explains that all other species of plants have various angels appointed over them, but God alone oversees the growth and flourishing of the Seven Species (see Zohar Chadash on Ruth, 106a).

What we often overlook is the next part of Moses description: “a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.” Moses promises the Israelites a land full of iron and copper. This statement is actually just as significant as the Seven Species! What is so special about iron and copper that it was so enticing for Israel?

Bronze Age to Iron Age

When Israel came out of Egypt, the Old World was still mired in what historians refer to as the “Bronze Age”. Weapons and other instruments were primarily made of bronze, an alloy that is nearly 90% copper, and the rest mostly tin. In the Wilderness, we see how the Israelites used copper (or bronze, nechoshet) in making some of the structures of the Mishkan, including the copper altar and the copper basin. Moses also put together a nachash nechoshet, “copper snake”, to heal the people from venomous snake bites. Some believe this is the most ancient origin of the famous medical symbol of a staff intertwined with a snake.

Soon, bronze gave way to iron, a metal that is much harder and stronger. Scholars point out that the transition from Bronze Age to Iron Age took place roughly around the same time as the Exodus and Israel’s conquest of the Holy Land. In his eye-opening book, The Eighth Day, Samuel Kurinsky points out that the Israelite migration into the Holy Land closely coincides with the rise of ironworking. In fact, Kurinsky points out (pg. 149) that some 240 different iron-working sites have been found across Israel, dated roughly to the same time as the Israelite conquest! Kurinsky argues that what gave Israel such a mighty advantage over the Canaanites—and allowed them such a swift conquest with few casualties—is the fact that Israel had far superior iron weapons. Israel learned the secret of ironworking, and this is what allowed them to wipe out the old bronze age kingdoms. (We do see several instances, such as Joshua 17:16, where Israel had a hard time conquering the Canaanites, and this is because here the Canaanites also had iron!)

Kurinsky points out how the Torah accurately describes iron mining and iron working (pg. 181). For example, the verse in this week’s parasha cited above says the iron will be in “stones” while the copper is hewn out of “mountains”. Indeed, iron is typically mined from surface rock, while copper is found deeper in mountains and caves and had to be carefully “hewn out”. Isaiah 44:12 is even more precise regarding iron metallurgy, and mentions the fact that iron smelting requires large amounts of charcoal to generate much higher heat than needed for copper.

We can add to these descriptions that the Torah mentions iron casually numerous times, including the laws of accidental murder caused by a flying iron implement (Numbers 35:16), and the prohibition of building the Temple with iron tools (Deuteronomy 27:5). This implies that iron really was readily available and commonly used by the Israelites. The Torah first mentions iron at the very beginning in Genesis 4:22, crediting Tuval-Cain with being the first to discover bronze and iron metallurgy. Tuval-Cain was a descendant of Cain, son of Adam. Amazingly, scholars believe that the name “Tuval-Cain” was the origin for the Roman deity Vulcan, their god of fire and metalworking! Fittingly, it is also the origin of the English word “volcano”, from which flows iron-rich lava.

Iron is mentioned many more times later in the Tanakh. A careful reading shows how whoever controlled the iron trade in ancient Israel would inevitably control the entire region. For instance, some time after the Holy Land conquest, the Canaanites themselves learned how to forge iron and soon came to dominate the iron industry. This is what gave King Yavin of Hazor the strength to take over, and the Tanakh makes sure to point out that his general Sisera had 900 iron chariots with which he reigned over Israel (see Judges 4-5).

Israel would eventually regain control of the iron trade, and restore its prestige. Kurinsky points out how of all the things that King Solomon inherited from his father David, the largest deposit by far was of iron. We read in I Chronicles 29:7 that Solomon had “5,000 talents of gold, 10,000 darics, 10,000 talents of silver, 18,000 talents of copper, and 100,000 talents of iron”. The amount of iron was greater than all the other metals combined! It isn’t hard to imagine how King David was able to unite all the Tribes of Israel and defeat their enemies because he had a massive supply of invaluable iron.

Of course, these are only physical reasons—what is the spiritual significance of iron?

God’s Metal

On the Periodic Table, iron is found at position #26. It is element #26, and has 26 protons. This is of tremendous significance because 26 is, of course, the numerical value of God’s Name (יהוה). Amazingly, iron has just the right number of protons (26) to produce the most stable atomic nucleus. For this reason, iron is the most abundant metal in the entire universe. It is also the most abundant metal on this planet, making up about 80% of Earth’s core, and is also the most abundant element on Earth by mass.* For most of history, iron has been the most useful metal for humans, too, used in everything from train tracks to skyscrapers; from horseshoes to vehicles; for weapons, utensils, bridges, appliances, magnets, and everything in between.

More significantly, iron courses through our veins and makes our blood red. It is an iron ion that holds on to oxygen within our red blood cells, keeping us alive. A typical blood cell has about 250 million molecules of hemoglobin, each of which has 4 iron ions inside of it. In other words, every one of our red blood cells has a billion iron atoms inside of it! A similar molecule to hemoglobin, myoglobin, is vital for our muscles, too. Even more incredibly, iron is necessary for the electron transport chain in our cellular mitochondria, to extract the energy from the food we eat. (The other metal necessary to extract energy in the electron transport chain is copper!) Still, the average person has just 4 or 5 grams of iron in their entire body, yet without it no one could survive for even a few minutes. God keeps us alive spiritually, and His element #26 keeps us alive biologically.

The connection between Israel and iron is even more impressive. Our Sages pointed out long ago that the four mothers that gave birth to the Twelve Tribes of Israel are Bilhah (בלהה), Rachel (רחל), Zilpah (זלפה), and Leah (לאה)—and their initials spell barzel (ברזל), “iron”! This gives greater meaning to the famous statement that God forged us as a nation in the kur habarzel, the “iron crucible”, of Egypt (as in I Kings 8:51). Israel comes from “iron”, so to speak. One of the most ancient mystical texts that we have, Hilkhot haKise, points out that the Shema that we recite multiple times a day has exactly 239 words, the gematria of barzel (ברזל), for Israel is like iron. Our Sages even state that “a Torah scholar who is not hard like iron [kashe kabarzel] is not a Torah scholar!” (Ta’anit 4a) Moreover, there used to be an ancient custom for a Jew to
always carry a small piece of iron (like a small knife) for protection—both spiritual and physical.

Jewish expertise in ironworking did not end in Temple times. Kurinsky traces the evolution of Jewish ironworking throughout much of history (Pgs. 250-274). The Roman historian Deo Cassius described how Jews were instrumental in the Roman iron industry. Incredibly, he blames the Jewish blacksmiths for purposely making faulty iron weapons for the Roman soldiers, to give Judea an upper hand in the Roman-Jewish Wars! He records that the Romans enslaved 4000 expert Jewish blacksmiths and iron miners to work for the Roman iron industry in Sicily.

Jewish ironworking continued for many centuries afterwards. Sephardic Jews in Spain were iron experts, which is why to this day many Sephardic Jews have iron-related last names like Ferro, Fierro, and Herrero. It is well-known that the word ghetto originally comes from the Italian word for an iron foundry. Now we can appreciate why! The first official Jewish ghetto was the iron foundry area of Venice, and we have a record of one Soranzo of Venice complaining to the governing council not to expel the Jews, for then the Italians would run out of good quality iron, and only make their enemies stronger:

What pernicious act is this, to expel the Jews? Do you not know what it may cost you in years to come? Who gave the Turk his strength and where else would he have found the skilled craftsman to make the cannon, bows, shot, swords, shields and bucklers which enable him to measure himself against other powers, if not among the Jews who were expelled by the Kings of Spain?

Indeed, we know that the Ottoman sultan at the time, Bayezid II, declared: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” As explored in the past here, within a century of the Spanish Expulsion, the Spanish Empire’s glory days were over and it had begun to fade into oblivion. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, only grew more powerful, and at one point threatened all of Europe, largely thanks to that massive influx of knowledgeable Jews.

In time, it appears that the Jews were mostly squeezed out of the iron industry. In 1933, an influential German Jew named Alexander Kremener saw the need for an iron industry in the Holy Land and established the Palestine Foundries and Metal Works near Haifa. When it opened the following year, it was the first steel production plant in the whole Middle East. It played an instrumental role in pre-state Israel, but unfortunately didn’t last too long. The foundry didn’t live to see the rebirth of Israel.

Today, while Israel sits securely under its Iron Dome and Iron Beam, the country makes very little of its own iron and imports nearly $2 billion of the metal every year. This is quite unfortunate, because the UN estimates that Israel is sitting on at least 15 million tons of iron deposits! It would be wise for Israelis to return to their birthright and heritage, and to resurrect the ancient ironworking strength of the Holy Land. This is God’s metal, after all, and has tremendous power both spiritually and economically.

*When it comes to the Earth’s crust, the most abundant metal is aluminum. This is also interesting because the atomic mass of aluminum is 26.98 g/mol.

The above essay is adapted from Garments of Light, Volume Three.
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