Why you should have sushi for Shabbat this week

Here’s a quote from Eric Ray’s book Sofer: The Story of a Torah Scroll:

…no “base metals” may be used in making or repairing these texts. Base metals are the metals used in everyday tools. That means that no iron, no steel, no brass, no copper, and no bronze can be used. Base metals are the kinds used to make weapons. Nothing that is used for killing can be used in making a Sefer Torah, a Mezuzah, or a pair of Tefillin.

Strictly speaking, this is something of an overstatement, but let’s explore the sentiment. Our aversion to metal implements starts in the Torah, in Exodus 20:22:

If you build an altar of stones to me, you shall not use dressed stone; if you lift your sword to it you pollute it.

And in 1 Kings 6:7:

In building the House, stones ready-dressed were brought, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any iron tool was heard in the House during its construction.

Rashi, the most widely-accepted biblical commentator, explains:

The altar was made to lengthen man’s days, and iron was made to shorten man’s days; it isn’t appropriate to lift something which shortens against something which lengthens. Also, the altar brings peace between Israel and their heavenly father, so one should not use upon it anything which cuts and destroys.

That’s some pretty powerful anti-iron associations.

Now, from ChinaDaily.com, an element of Chinese culture:

Chinese people, under the cultivation of Confucianism, consider the knife and fork bearing sort of violence, like cold weapons. However, chopsticks reflect gentleness and benevolence, the main moral teaching of Confucianism. Therefore, instruments used for killing must be banned from the dining table, and that is why Chinese food is always chopped into bite size before it reaches the table.

This fascinates me because it suggests that it’s not just Jews who are made uneasy by iron tools. I have no idea how much cross-cultural exchange there may have been, but it’s interesting that such a concept should take hold in such different places.

The haftarah to parashat Behukotai contains a line from Jeremiah 17:

Judah’s guilt is written with an iron pen…

Judah here means the Jews; Jeremiah is talking about how the Jews have messed up again. It seems likely that Jeremiah didn’t choose an iron pen just because of its material properties. Iron has nasty overtones. A set of sinister connotations, if you will.

Looking forward, to today’s sofer. It’s not actually per se forbidden to use base metals, according to various authoritative halakhic sources, but many soferim hold that it’s utterly inappropriate, for their associations with violence and the incompatibility of this with the ideals of Torah; Torah, like the altar, is supposed to lengthen man’s days and promote peace between Israel and God. Hence the widespread use of alternative tools – precious-metal substitutes such as gold and silver; non-metal tools such as glass; tools with positive symbolism such as surgical scalpels.

In particular, the iron pen, associated by Jeremiah with the numerous times the Jews have failed to play straight by God. The iron pen carries not only associations of violence but also of disregarding the Torah. It’s not necessarily the best tool for the process of creating that selfsame Torah. We are encouraged to use quills, so that we can create Torah without these overtones.

Or we could use chopsticks.

The astute will note that this is a repost with edits. It’s still interesting :P


  1. Posted May 24, 2011 at 15:06 | Permalink

    I’m wondering if you’d like to amplify your discussion of how iron implements should not be used in writing or constructing a Torah scroll by commenting on the tradition of not using them in constructing a Jew’s coffin.


    –Lee Gold

  2. Posted May 24, 2011 at 15:18 | Permalink

    About chopsticks:

    The cheap disposable ones are bamboo (technically a grass), but there are also non-disposable wood and plastic chopsticks, and there used to be (before modern laws regulating such things) ivory chopsticks. A Wikipedia article also mentions bronze chopsticks, as well as gold and silver — and jade (!) chopsticks.

    –Lee Gold

  3. jen
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 15:58 | Permalink

    I’ve never heard of that tradition, of not using metal implements to make a Jew’s coffin. I knew that we had our coffins unadorned, without metal fixtures, but I thought that was so that rich and poor alike should all be equal in death. Want to explain further?

  4. jen
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 15:59 | Permalink

    I’ve seen jade chopsticks at the museum…very delicious.

  5. Posted May 30, 2011 at 16:13 | Permalink

    Umm, I wasn’t thinking of not using iron/steel implements in making a coffin but of not using iron/steel in putting the coffin pieces together. Instead you use pegs and glue.

    I know when I chose mine (in 1999 or so, from the mortuary my parents used when they made their pre-need arrangements), I opted to pay a little more and go for a coffin made without nails.

    Since it costs more that way, it’s not equalizing the rich and the poor, though obviously forbidding the use of bronze or steel coffins, let alone gold-ornamented coffins will do so.

  6. jen
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:58 | Permalink

    That’s very interesting.

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