Perceptions of the Shamir in Three Dimensions - Midrash, History, and Theory

Written by Professor Pesach Goldstein Posted in The Holy Temple


The author thanks Rabbi Yisroel Greenberg of El Paso, Texas, Habad for his comments and suggestions.

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Although by definition miracles do not have to be explained as scientifically observable phenomena, the miraculous shamir which cut the stones for King Solomon's Temple matches the description of alpha radiation. It is the dream of all Jews to assist in building the Third (and final) Temple. To do so, the stones must be carved. But would we be doing this in the same way as King Solomon did, or would we just be building an edifice? An essential element in Solomon's construction of the Temple was the miraculous shamir stonecutter.

In instructing us how to make the permanent altar to G-d, the Torah says, "do not build it out of cut stone" (Exodus 20:22). Rashi comments on this verse that iron, the material of deadly weapons, should not be used to shape the stones of the Temple, the essence of which is peace.

The Nature of the Shamir

The shamir (from shamira in Aramaic, meaning "like a flint stone") was a supernatural organism. The word "shamir" in biblical Hebrew was used in two senses:

  • a penpoint made out of a hard substance (Jeremiah 17:1);
  • sharp thorns (Isaiah 5:6).

Each usage relates to the ability of the shamir to pierce hard surfaces. The "glance" of the supernatural shamir could carve great stones. The Talmud and later great rabbis described how the passage of the shamir along the surface of a stone would cause it to split perfectly into two pieces.

Was the shamir mineral, plant, or animal? In an Abyssinian legend the shamir is supposed to have been a kind of wood or herb. Maimonides, however, and Rashi, considered it to be a living animal. The Talmud says that the "glance" of a living creature caused wood and stone to split. The Testament of Solomon, however, regards the shamir as a green stone perhaps similar to the pitda set in the High Priest's breastplate representing the tribe of Shimon.

Small as a barleycorn (less than one centimeter), the shamir did not have an inspiring physical appearance. Its supernatural essence came from having been created at the twilight of the first Sabbath Eve during the Six Days of Creation.

The shamir was first used at the time of the construction of the Tabernacle to engrave the names of the tribes on the precious jewels of the High Priest's breastplate.

For safekeeping, the shamir could not be put directly into any kind of metal vessel, including iron, which would be split apart. It was kept wrapped in wool, placed in a lead basket filled with barley bran. The choice of these materials was specific, since no other materials were able to resist its penetrative powers.

The rulers of the Canaanites and other nations realized the value of the shamir, but they were never able to locate it. The Midrash recounts that even King Solomon had no idea where to find the shamir, although he knew that he needed it to build the Temple. Solomon went to great lengths to obtain the shamir, even to the point of contacting demons. Also created at the twilight of the Sabbath Eve of the Six Days of Creation, these beings had some relationship with the shamir and the other supernatural phenomena created at this exceptional twilight.

The Midrash relates that Solomon consulted the king of the demons, who did not have it but knew that the angel of the sea had given the shamir to the hoopoe (dukhifat, Leviticus 11:1 9), a type of fowl who needed it to survive. In the end, King Solomon captured the shamir from the hoopoe. [Talmud Gittin 68a]

The shamir was used by man only in the construction of the Tabernacle and the Temple. Supernatural beings created by G-d for specific functions do not exist forever. The Mishna states that the shamir existed until the destruction of the Second Temple. Tosafot says that the shamir existed into the Common Era. According to the Tosefta, the shamir disappeared after the destruction of the Temple, since it was no longer needed. Correspondingly, the tahash, which had been created so its skin could be used for the Tabernacle, disappeared after the Tabernacle was completed.

Considered a kosher animal, the tahash was similar to a unicorn with a single horn on its head.

Another creature, the caper-spurge, shared characteristics with the shamir and was therefore mistaken for the shamir. But because the caper-surge existed into the Middle Ages (1000 CE), the rabbis argue that the two were not identical.

What Caused the Penetrating "Glance"?

By definition, a supernatural creature made by G-d to perform specific miracles cannot be explained rationally. However, theories abound in science which correlate natural phenomena with the supernatural. In this spirit, the "glance" of the shamir that could split wood and stone might be explained by:

the production of high or low frequency waves that could resonate the molecular structure of materials and disrupt them;

  • the production of confluent light rays as a "laser beam";
  • radioactivity.

The essence of the "glance" remains speculative, but the late Immanuel Velikovsky, an expert on the times of Solomon, and Frederic Jueneman, a noted scholar, have suggested that the shamir was a radioactive substance. They reason that a leaden box would be the most logical means to sagely contain such a highly energetic radionucleotide. Thus, the "glance" of the shamir may have been alpha radiation.

Alpha radiation is a high energy particle, which could destroy or discolor whatever is exposed to it. The reported weakening of the powers of the shamir in the course of time to the point of inactivity possibly indicates radioactive decay and half-life of its former radioactive potency.

If the shamir was a mineral, it could have been any one of a number of native green stones. It may have come from the copper sites in Armenia or Cyprus -- or from King Solomon's own mines in the Sinai, where malachite or verdigris also would have been found in the parent ore body. In fact, ancient writings by Zosimos the Panopolitan (also called the Theban) state that malachite is an "enemy of Topaz, clouding its color and spoiling its lustre."

A highly prized material for ornamental objects, malachite, however, also was known to produce sores in the bowels and inflame the eyes -- two symptoms known today as characteristic effects of radiation exposure. The malachite of today (or chrysocolla as it was known by the ancients) is not radioactive, but exceptions could have existed when combined with other minerals.

Chalcolite (or torbenite), for example, a green copper uranyl phosphate, exhibits radioactivity.

Carving the Stones

The Talmud says that the precision required to engrave the names of the tribes onto the precious jewels of the high priest's breastplate without losing any material was not humanly possible. Using a radioactive compound (following the line of thought of F. Jueneman), this would not be difficult to accomplish.

The tufts of wool and barley bran cradling the shamir would be transparent to its radiation, while the lead container would be impenetrable. If the ink used to write on the stones contained lead, a graduated discoloration would be highlighted on the gems after exposure to the shamir.

The subsequent removal of the ink would leave such calligraphy contrasted with the background, also giving the appearance of depth to the writing. Most precious minerals, such as diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, or topaz, are discolored by radioactivity.

Other gems, such as opals, are silicates containing water of crystallization. Exposure to alpha radiation disintegrates these crystals by releasing the chemically bound water, which volatizes without residue. That means, not even a splinter would be lost, leaving a cloudy or granular texture.

The "True" Essence of the Shamir

The Mishna relates that the shamir was created on the Sixth Day of Creation, at the twilight of Sabbath Eve. The Maharal elaborates on the significance of this point:

The entire physical world created during the Six Days is governed by the laws of nature. Not having been created exactly within this time frame, the shamir is therefore supernatural.

The other exceptional phenomena created during the first Sabbath Eve twilight relate, in some way, to the shamir. They include the demons, the ram which Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac, the first pair of tongs, Moses' staff, Adam and Eve's clothes, fire, the mouth of Bilaam's donkey, the Pillar of Fire and Pillar of Clouds that led the Children of Israel through the desert, and the vessel in which the manna was preserved in the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

The creation, existence, and function of the shamir and the organisms that guarded it were all miraculous. The Midrash relates the concept that a softer substance may have the ability to pierce a harder one. For example, the stone that David flung at Goliath pierced the giant's helmet and killed him. The shamir, too, had no physical limitations. It could effortlessly penetrate the hardest materials, and yet it was preserved in a basket of lead (a soft metal), attesting to its other than natural origin.

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