Among the very few words in the Book of Mormon that the Prophet Joseph Smith leaves without translation comes ziff. In Mosiah 11 the word shows up in a list of metals. King Noah taxed "a fifth part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth part of their ziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth part of their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain" (11:3).
A first question comes to mind: Is it all six metals that are separately taxed here or do we have a tax on two classes of metals: gold and silver; ziff, copper, brass, iron? Given the specificity with which Mosiah notes the taxes on fatlings and "all" their types of grain, I posit for two classes of metals in the Nephite economy. After taxation, it was Noah alone who ended up with "all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper" (11:8). Note the sequences as given in these two verses because they yield a clue as to the general type of metal ziff registers: a) gold, silver; ziff, copper, brass, iron; b) gold, silver, iron, brass, ziff, copper.
What ziff means can be pieced together from an entry in Professor Stephen A. Kaufman's study of Akkadian loanwords into other Semitic languages (The Akkadian Influence on Aramaic, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, Assyrian Studies 19, page 113).
Kaufman, the doyen of Aramaic studies, traces the origin of a very odd word found in the Targum Onqelos (Aramaic translation) of Exodus 32:4. The word is zyp' or, omitting the article ', zyp. The Hebrew text tells us that Aaron took golden earrings "and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf" [lit. and he formed it with a heret and he made it into a molten calf]. A heret is an instrument used for cutting or engraving (it's what Nephi would have used on his gold plates), but is the Aramaic zyp' a heret? According to Kaufman, zyp' is a loan word from Akkadian zipu, and he gives three changing or nuanced definitions for the word as it was used throughout the centuries: 1) mold; 2) impression; 3) cast coin.
In other words, the Targum Onqelos, by-passing the heret as engraving pen, understood the passage as follows: "and Aaron formed it in a mold [ve tsar yataya bi-zifa'a] and he thus made it into a molten calf," which gives a logical order to things and thus makes better sense. Professor Robert Alter's new translation of Exodus also yields: "and he fashioned it in a mold," with no mention of an engraving pen. (Alter clearly took a peek at Targum Onqelos.) Of his reading, Alter says: "Perhaps a term associated with a different image-making process was then applied idiomatically to all kinds of metalwork image-making," The Five Books of Moses, 494 n. 4.
Professor Kaufmann has this to say: "To my knowledge no one has previously interpreted zyp' in the Targum Onkelos passage as 'mold' (but see Aruch III 311). This interpretation is proven correct by the translation of BH hrt in our passage given in Targ. Y II and Neofiti, twps' [with emphatic t phoneme], and the medieval dictionary of Ben-Janach, dpws, and David ben Abraham al-Fasi, "mold" (for which see C.C. Torrey, "The Foundry of the Second Temple of Jerusalem," JBL LV , 259f.)."
There is no one like Professor Kaufman: catch your breath and read his statement again. But, in a jiffy, the thing to catch is "This interpretation is proven correct," that is, there is an Akkadian loanword in Aramaic, and it means "mold," "impression," and "cast coin."
But could zyp' or twps' or dpws spell ziff? Or are we pursuing a false lead?
One thing for sure: we're chasing down a "false coin," what the Arabs call a zif [z-long e-f]. Professor Kaufman continues: "The semantic development "(coin) mold"; "false coin"; 'false' is perfectly paralleled by the development of the English word 'bogus': an apparatus for coining money; counterfeit money; anything not genuine, a development which is said to have taken place in the course of a mere twenty-five years." The same thing holds for the word fabricate. Meanings change quickly; language is not cast in a ziff.
But another sequence in the development of the word from Akkadian to Aramaic and Arabic is what matters here: mold to molten metal to cast bronze. Turning to Akkadian ze'pu (zipu), which likely derives from the verb zabu (to dissolve, melt), we find it to mean 1) clay tag with a seal impression; 2) mold for casting metal objects (Sennacherib's History only); 3) impression (on clay); 4) cast coin (Late Babylonian only).
Now let's consider what Sennacherib says in light of Mosiah's King Noah (Sennacherib was the Assyrian opponent of righteous King Hezekiah an exact century prior to Lehi's march):
I executed with superior artistry cast bronze-work [pitiq eri] (for the figures of large animals), (and) upon an inspiration from the god (Ea), I built clay molds [zi-'-pi titti abnima], poured bronze into each [era qiribshu ashtappaka], and made their figures as perfect as in casting [ki pitiq] half-shekel pieces.
Again: Upon an inspiration from the god, I made clay molds for all necessary bronze objects which I cast for my palaces [ekallateja] in Nineveh, and I poured copper [era: the same word used by the Romans] into them (Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, vols P and Z).
Now Noah in Mosiah 11: [I] built many elegant and spacious buildings; and [I] ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper; and [I] also built [me] a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass.
And [I] also caused that [my] workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the temple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass. And the seats which were set apart for the high priests . . . [I] did ornament with pure gold [cf. Heb. nouns efudat, ornament, and zeppui, covering, Is. 30:22].
No need to pour it on. All this boasting can be summed up as follows: "I executed with superior artistry cast bronze-work for my palaces." All of which evokes Arnold Friberg's lavish throne-room, complete with Noah's living jaguars. Which is where Friberg goes wrong: they should be ziff and bronze beasts a la Sennacherib: "I artfully fashioned (the lion colossi) of cast copper" (CAD, vol. P). After all, don't all kings have their metallic lions? Why not Noah? But Friberg, with his stylus, fashions a golden calf. (We admire but need not worship Friberg's images!)
The palatial boasting rings in a point for the Book of Mormon: Noah and Sennacherib fit the job description for ancient despots. But despite the stunning parallel, the Akkadian zipu (mold)--at the time of Sennacherib's History--still doesn't yield true ziff (the molten). The expression Sennacherib uses for "cast bronze" is pitiq siparri, not zipu--but human language is marvellous in its fashioning, so hold on.
Siparri, a loanword from Sumerian ZABAR--and all names for metals are loanwords--does resemble ziff, and it is all together possible the ancients melded and conflated siparr and zip, brass and its mold. But let's postulate, even as Kaufmann asserts, that as zipu comes to mean "cast metal" (pushing pitiq siparri aside), so too with the loanword zyp'. Arabic zif clinches the matter. When we see a list of bronze, ziff, copper, iron, and then learn that the processes of casting metal required the use of a zip(-um) or zyp in order to produce a zif, we must be on the right track for Ziff. But how about its bizarre double f? The forms dpws and twps' show the second consonant, which could easily dissimilate from a sibilant to a fricative: zEEff or zEEfef.
Coin of the realm.
For the Aramaic translation of Exodus 32:4 see also The Aramaic Bible Series: Targum Onquelos to the Torah: Exodus, Bernard Grossfeld (tr.) and Targums Neofiti 1 and Pseudo-Jonathan: Exodus, Martin McNamara, Robert Hayward (notes), and Michael Maher (eds). B. Grossfeld translates zip' in light of Heb. hrt, but the other Targums clearly read mold.
I've also consulted the Aramaic texts on Hebrew Union College's The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (CAL) on the Internet.
In the footnotes of the LDS edition of The Book of Mormon (cv ziff) we read: "HEB related words: adjective, "shining" [zhh, etc., zohar!]; verb [zph], "to overlay or plate with metal." I've also examined the entry for ziff in the unpublished version of The Book of Mormon Onomasticon (Maxwell Institite), which gives the sources for George Reynolds earlier readings and lists some Biblical sound-alikes: the Personal and Place Name Ziph, the Month Name Zif [Ziw], all of which have clear etymologies of their own. Tsippui [tsippwi] something recalls ziff. Even closer to tsippui come Targumic dpws and twps. Yet neither the etymology nor the form of the noun tsippui (derived from the Pual stem of the root z-p-h, Qal stem: to order, arrange; Piel stem: to overlay, plate with gold, silver, etc., and cf. Egyptian db for bricks, bars of gold, silver] or its usage in the Hebrew Bible match Targumic zyp (and certainly neither Kaufman nor other Targumic editors make such a link).
Conceptually, however, the processes of metallurgy (including plating and melding) come together. Isaiah 30:22 may be of some relevance to Mosiah 11: "You will profane the silver covering of your silver idols and the ornamental-coat (or gold-leaf) of your images of molten gold ["molten": Heb. covered about? cast metal image]." The King James Version gives: "and the ornament of the molten images of gold," and it is the translation ornament for ephudat that something recalls the use of the verb ornament in Mosiah.
I do not think the Book of Mosiah to have been written in quite the Biblical Hebrew we know today (that is, "don't know today"), still, I like the idea of ephudat, a word related to the priestly ephod (coat, covering), being used by way of word play in Mosiah 11. The faint possibility of such a word play does remind us that many ideas from the ancient world indeed stand at conceptual combat within the texts--and doubtless the Book of Mormon runs rich in many veins thematic, verbal, and conceptual, at which we can but guess.