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In Teruma (25:3), the verse says "וְזֹאת הַתְּרוּמָה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ מֵאִתָּם זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחשֶׁת".

Chabad (as well as Artscroll) translates it as "And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper;"

In The Pentateuch and Rashi's Commentary A Linear Translation Into English , it translates it as "And this is the offering which ye shall take of then: 'gold, and silver, and brass'"

What is נְחשֶׁת, copper or brass?

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I now searched that text and it turns out that's the King James translation. Now I'm wondering if it has a Jewish source or not? –  Shmuel Brin Jul 10 '13 at 2:50
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It could well mean both, as far as Biblical Hebrew is concerned. –  Isaac Moses Jul 10 '13 at 4:12
    
@IsaacMoses Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc –  Shmuel Brin Jul 10 '13 at 4:19
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Clues: Devarim 8:9 refers to mining it out of mountains. Brass is an alloy that is manufactured, not mined. However, it's been referred to in ancient times as "copper of the mountains" in "natural alloy" (whatever that means) forms. –  Isaac Moses Jul 10 '13 at 4:20
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2 Answers

R. Aryeh Kaplan (who was also a noted physicist) dealt with this precise question in his The Living Torah. On that word, which he translates as "copper," R. Kaplan comments:

Or, 'bronze.' The Septuagint thus translates the word as xalkos which can denote copper or bronze, and the MeAm Lo'ez, also, translates it as alambre which is Spanish for copper or bronze. There is some indication that the Hebrew word nechosheth used here indicates pure unalloyed copper (Deuteronomy 8:9; Radak on 1 Kings 7:45). Others, however, state that the Temple vessels were made of brass, which has the same color as gold (Ezra 8:27, Ibn Ezra ad loc.; Radak, s.v. Tzahav; Rambam on Middoth 2:3), and the Talmud clearly states that the vessels made by Moses consisted of this material (Arkhin 10b). Josephus writes that the brass altar looked like gold (Antiquities 3:6:8, see Exodus 27:2). Perhaps it was an alloy of copper and silver or gold.

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Copper is a pure element (Cu). Like gold it is very soft when pure and is really only fit for jewelry and small trinkets. Copper only became useable in the ancient world for weapons and other large solid things when it was turned into a sturdier alloy. An alloy of copper and other elements is called bronze. (Hence the Bronze Age) Brass is a specific alloy of copper and zinc. Biblical Hebrew (unlike some other ancient languages) does not distinguish between pure copper and copper alloys and calls them both נחשת. Therefore determining whether nechoshet in the bible is bronze, brass, or copper is a matter of interpretation from context. In Teruma since the nechoshet is being used to build solid things it is likely referring to an alloy although perhaps purer copper could be used to plate things.

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Any source or proof for your main point, that "Biblical Hebrew… does not distinguish between pure copper and copper alloys and calls them both נחשת"? Or is it conjecture, perhaps? –  msh210 Jul 10 '13 at 15:52
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One can prove it from perusing the Tanach's mentionings of Nechoshet. Verses that describe digging natural copper from the ground (e.g. Devarim 8:9 "and from its mountains you can dig nechoshet) as well as verses which describe helmets and other things that are made with copper alloys (e.g. Galyat's Armor in Shmuel aleph) use the same word - Nechoshet. Unless I'm mistaken there are no other Biblical words used to describe copper substances... This assumption is also accepted in academic circles.. –  Vtr Jul 10 '13 at 22:48
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