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MORTAR. 1. A bowl-shaped vessel of stone or basalt rock in which grain, spices, etc., were crushed with the use of a pestle. The manna was so ground before cooking (Num.11.8; cf. Prov.27.22).

2. A substance used to bind bricks or stones together in a wall. Mud or clay was often used (Nah.3.14); for better houses, mortar made of sand and lime was used. Some have thought that Ezek.13.10-Ezek.13.11, Ezek.13.14-Ezek.13.15, refers to poorly mixed mortar (kjv “untempered morter”). Recent scholars, however, believe the passage to refer to whitewash (niv, rsv) applied over a poorly made wall to disguise its weakness. In Babylon, bitumen was used for mortar (Gen.11.3 rsv). Many walls in Palestine were made by piling up large stones, using smaller stones, without mortar, to fill in the spaces between (cyclopean walls).

MORTAR. I. A substance used for uniting brick or stone in building.

1. Heb. חֹ֫מֶר, H2817, “bitumen,” “asphalt” (Gen 11:3) used in the Tower of Babel, and Exodus 2:3, “bitumen” (ASVmg., RSV) was used to coat Moses’ ark of bulrushes.

2. A related Heb. word, חֵמָ֔ר, “cement,” “mortar,” “clay” (Gen 11:3, “for mortar”). The builders of the Tower of Babel used bitumen instead of clay to hold the bricks together. The children of Israel had clay for mortar in Egypt (Exod 1:14). The conquerors shall trample on rulers as on mortar (Isa 41:25). The process of treading on mortar to soften it for use was advocated by Nahum (3:14). This Heb. word is used also of potter’s clay, clay for seals, and in fig. language.

In Genesis 11:3, where both the above Heb. words occur, KJV, ASV tr. “slime had they for mortar”; ASVmg. and RSV text replaces “slime” with “bitumen”; while JPS (1917) agrees with KJV; and Knox trs. “with pitch for their mortar.” The use of bitumen or asphalt for mortar is attested in Babylonia by archeological evidence; and its occurrence in the Valley of Siddim (Gen 14:10 RSV) beside the Jordan, near the Dead Sea, renders its use in Pal. possible. Biblical references and archeological evidence show that some kind of clay commonly was used for mortar in Egypt and Pal. “Pitch,” used to calk Noah’s ark, prob. was bitumen (Gen 6:14 LXX asphalto, “asphalt,” “bitumen”). It is not always certain what Heb. terms such as “pitch,” “slime,” “mortar,” “clay,” mean in modern technology.

3. Heb. עָפָ֥ר, dust is tr. “mortar” in Leviticus 14:42, 45 KJV, ASV, but RSV has “plaster.”

Modern mortar differs from ancient, being made of one part by volume of slaked lime and three parts of sand, mixed with enough water to form a paste. When applied to brick or stone it sets, becoming stiff as the water evaporates; then it hardens, as the slaked lime absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and is converted into calcium carbonate. Mortar in Biblical times was sometimes bitumen or asphalt, where this was found in nature, as in Babylonia and in Palestine though its use for mortar in Palestine is less surely attested. Bitumen is a sticky, pitchy substance occurring as liquid in wells, or exposed in pools where it is more or less hardened. It was used in Egypt for waterproofing papyrus boats and for preserving mummies. In Egypt and Pal. the usual mortar was moistened natural clay, which hardened by exposure to the air. The term “clay” is loosely used in the Bible, referring sometimes to true potter’s clay, sometimes to mud or mire of many types. Bitumen was too sticky to be trodden out, but clay, mixed with water, was trodden by barefooted men, until it was the proper consistency for use.

II. A utensil for crushing grain. 1. A mortar (Heb. מְּדֹכָ֔ה, that in which something is crushed or beaten) (Num 11:8), for beating manna so that it could be cooked.

2. A mortar, hollow place (Heb. מַּכְתֵּ֡שׁ, “a mortar,” “a hollow place”; “Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him” (Prov 27:22 RSV), illustrates how this kind of mortar was used. The “hollow place” in Judges 15:19 is the same Heb. word. (See Art; Mortar.)


A. Parrot, La Tour de Babel (1953), 7-13; W. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (1949).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(medhokhah (Nu 11:8), makhtesh (Pr 27:22)): A hollowed stone or vessel in which grain or other substance was pounded or beaten with a pestle. The Israelites used a mortar in which to beat the manna in the wilderness (Nu 11:8), and Pr 27:22 declares, "Though thou shouldst bray a fool in a mortar with a pestle .... yet will not his foolishness depart from him," i.e. it is inherent and ineradicable. Some have supposed an allusion to an oriental mode of punishment by pounding the criminal to death in a mortar, but this is unlikely. In illustration of Pr 27:22 such proverbs are quoted as "Though you beat that loose woman in a mortar, she will not leave her ways." See also BRAY. For "mortar" (the King James Version "morter").

See Bitumen.