Word of the Day Nikhsei Tzon Barzel: What Does Israeli Lit Have to Do With Iron Dome?

The iron-clad asset of everlasting cultural treasures.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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The Iron Dome: An Israeli heritage asset?
The Iron Dome: An Israeli heritage asset?Credit: AP
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

What do Naomi Shemer songs like “Jerusalem of Gold” or books by revered Hebrew writers like S.Y. Agnon have to do with Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, known in Hebrew as Kipat Barzel?

Those cultural treasures may not shoot down incoming rockets, but they are as everlasting as sheep and goats made out of iron – at least, if we are to take the Hebrew idiom nikhsei tzon barzel, literally “iron livestock assets,” at face value.

In modern parlance, nikhsei tzon barzel (neekh-SAY tzone bar-ZEL, with the first word sometimes rendered as nekhes, meaning “asset” in the singular) are enduring assets that are often, though not necessarily, of the intangible, cultural kind.

The phrase originally referred to actual flesh-and-blood tzon: the goats or sheep given to a man as his bride’s dowry or as part of a loan in which the livestock served as the principal. The problem with using livestock as an enduring asset, of course, is that animals die, which makes the whole deal a tad less than ironclad.

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The Tosefta on Tractate Bava Metzia states: “A man receives iron livestock [tzon barzel] from his wife, and its offspring and its fleece, and if they die, he is responsible for them” (5:6).

In a tzon barzel loan or dowry, the borrower, or husband, had use of what the livestock produced – the milk and the wool – but eventually had to repay the value of any animals that died. This ensured that, though the livestock remained mortal, the asset was nonetheless as solid as iron, since the original value did not erode over time.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, click here.

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