An examination of the uses of stone and iron and how they relate to Judaism.
In Ki Tavo, we read, “You shall build an altar to the Eternal your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool (barzel) over them; you must build the altar of the Eternal your God of unhewn stones” (Deuteronomy 27: 4-6). This rule repeats the command in Exodus 20:22: “If you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones, for by wielding your tool (cherev) upon them you have profaned them” (Exodus 20:22).
English translations of the Bible have usually rendered the word cherev as “tool,” though the Hebrew word actually means “sword.” Cherev is a metaphor for any cutting tool and is used because of the sword’s association with killing. Barzel in Deuteronomy literally means iron and refers to any kind of cutting tool made from iron.
The Mishnah (Middot 3:4) recorded that the stones for the altar for the Second Temple were quarried “as whole stones upon which no [tool of] iron had been lifted up.” The Mishnah gives an interpretation of the prohibition: “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.”
The prohibition against using an iron tool to shape the stones runs like a thread through ancient Jewish history. While invading Canaan, Joshua built “an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded” (Joshua 8:31). When Solomon built the First Temple, “only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built” (1 Kings 6:7). When Judah Maccabee and his band of brothers liberated Jerusalem in 164 BCE, “they took unhewn [whole] stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one” (1 Maccabees 4:47).
The unhewn stones in Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1 Kings, 1 Maccabees and the Mishnah are called shleimot, from the same root as shalom, peace. The purpose of the altar was to promote peace. Not using an iron implement in building God’s altar reminds us of our duty to build a world that one day will not know war.
Once a boy said to his mother, “Mom, every time I look at Grandfather’s sword, it makes me want to be a soldier and fight. But, then, when I see his wooden leg, I cool off.”
Once a samurai came to the Zen master Hakuin and asked, “Master, tell me, is there really such a thing as heaven and hell?” The master was quiet for quite some time while gazing at the man. “Who are you?” he asked at last.
“I am a samurai swordsman and a member of the emperor’s personal guard.”
“You’re a samurai?” said Hakuin doubtfully. “What kind of emperor would have you for a guard? You look more like a beggar!”
“What?” the samurai shot back, growing red in the face and reaching for his sword.
“Oho!” said Hakuin. “So you have a sword, do you! I’ll bet it’s much too dull to cut off my head!”
The samurai could no longer contain himself. He drew his sword and readied to strike the master. Hakuin responded quickly, “That is hell!” The samurai, understanding the truth in the master’s words and the risk he had taken, sheathed his sword and bowed.
“Now,” said the master, “that is heaven.”
Building an altar of stones not touched by iron teaches that striking with a sword is hell; not wielding the sword is heaven.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at [email protected]