In the Talmud and the Midrashim there are many references to Shamir—unusual qualities were ascribed to it. For instance it reportedly could disintegrate anything, even hard, durable stones. The rabbinical literature describes it as being employed in engraving the breast plate of the High Priest.
Torah Law requires that an altar be completely natural and not made from stones cut by metal tools. No altar stone(s) could be hewn or shaped with metal instruments. Stones subject to such treatment were disqualified for Temple usage. The basic logic underlying this is that metal tools are usually used for war, whereas the altar is the tool for peace. Thus the tool for peace should not have been hewn with the tools of war. This reason alone should suffice us, yet, as with all things in Torah, there is much more than meets the eye. When Solomon’s Temple was built the Biblical record records that there was no sound of stones being chiseled into shape.
When we look today at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and see the lowest level of stones, dating from the First Temple times, we clearly see that they are cut stones. How then were they cut?
King Solomon was eager to possess the Shamir because he had heard about it from earlier days; knowledge of the Shamir is in fact ascribed by rabbinical sources to Moses. After much search a grain of Shamir the size of a barley-corn was found in a distant country, in the depths of a well, and brought to Solomon. Among Solomon’s possessions it was the most wondrous. Legend tells us that King Solomon had at his disposal a “little worm” called the Shamir and that this worm would eat its way through the stone, making smooth cuts. Legend tells us that King Solomon received this Shamir worm from the conquered chief of the demons, who was forced to reveal this secret to Solomon.
But strangely, it lost its abilities and became inactive several centuries later, about the time the Temple of Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
What was Shamir?
So, what exactly was the Shamir? If it were indeed some kind of living creature, we may never be able to identify it. However, there are those today who offer a different explanation. Some view the Shamir, based upon its description and function, and conjecture that it might have been some form of laser beam technology. This would fit with it being a secret revealed from non-human sources and would explain its precision ability to slice stone.
“The Shamir is as large as a barley-corn. It was created in the six days of Genesis. There is no substance hard enough to withstand its action”
The manner in which Shamir was kept secure may give us some clue “The Shamir may not be put in an iron vessel for safe-keeping, nor ii any metal vessel: it would burst such a receptacle asunder.” “It is kept wrapped in wool inside a box of lead filled with barley-bran.” This sentence is quoted from the Tractate Sotah 48b of the Babylonian Talmud. “Oferet” in the text is properly translated as “lead.” It contains an important clue: folkloristic fantasy would not make a leaden box of a greater resistance than an iron or a gold one: lead is a son metal. Therefore, this must be a description based on fact. And with the knowledge of our age we may easily guess who or what was Shamir: It was a radioactive substance; radium salts, for example, acting upon certain other chemical substances, can emit a luminescence with a yellow-green hue.
The breastplate of the High Priest was engraved in the following manner. The letters were written with ink, and the stones were exposed, one after another, to the “glance” or radiation of the Shamir. This ink must have contained powdered lead or lead oxides. The parts of the stones which were unprotected by lead were disintegrated without leaving any dust particles which, according to the Tractate Sotah 48b, appeared especially wondrous. Those parts protected by leaden ink stood up in relief on the surface of the gems.
The most precious possession of Solomon, his Shamir, did not survive With time it became inactive. The usual version of the story—the Shamir “disappeared,” does not correspond to the Hebrew text. The word batel used to describe the end, or demise, of Shamir has only one meaning: “To become inactive.” Therefore, when occasionally it is said that the Shamir “vanished” at about the Temple was destroyed, this is incorrect. The Hebrew term for a paralyzed member is ever batel; a loafer is batlan; inactivity is batala; all these words come from the root batel. In the four hundred years that passed from the building of the first Temple to its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in BCE 587, a radioactive substance could become inactive.
The information found in ancient sources—that Shamir was a greenish mineral, that it was as large as a barley-corn; that it could damage anything, even metals and other minerals, save lead, and the only protection could be found by placing Shamir in a leaden box; that it had a “glance” which disintegrated things without leaving filings or dust; that it became inactive after a period of four hundred years, all reveal the true nature of Shamir.
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” (Ex. 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) a penpoint made out of a hard substance (Jeremiah 17:1); or b) 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. A pseudepigraphic work, 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. According to R’ Bachiya in the Talmud, 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 (Talmud, Sota 48b.) 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 bird (dukhifat, Lev. 11:19), a type of fowl who needed it to survive. In the end, King Solomon captured the shamir from the hoopoe.
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 (Sota 9:12) states that the shamir existed until the destruction of the Second Temple. Tosafot (Gittin 68a) 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 tachash, which had been created so its skin could be used for the Tabernacle, disappeared after the Tabernacle was completed. Considered a kosher animal, the tachash was similar to a unicorn with a single horn on its head (Shabbat 28b).
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.
In the opinion of medieval authors, Rashi, Maimonides and others Shamir was a living creature, a worm. It was argued that Shamir could not have been a mineral because it was active. The Talmud transmits in the name of Rabbi Nehemiah the following description of the engraving on precious stones: The names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the twelve semi-precious stones of the Urim and Tummim, the breastplate of the High Priest, not by carving, but by writing with a certain fluid and “showing” them to Shamir, or exposing them to its action. In the opinion of modern authors, the expression “was shown to Shamir”—“clearly shows it was the glance of a living being which effected the splitting of wood and stones.” It is admitted, however, that “in the Talmudic-Midrashic sources it is never explicitely stated that the Shamir was a living creature.” An old source. The Testament of Solomon, a work written in Greek, probably in the early third century of the present era, refers to Shamir as a “green stone.” But how could a greenish stone cut the hardest of diamonds with its glance?
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: 1) the production of high or low frequency waves that could resonate the molecular structure of materials and disrupt them, 2) the production of confluent light rays as a “laser beam”, or 3) 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, Jueneman cites 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 (Avot 5:6) 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, which were then used to make other instruments, Moses’ staff, Adam and Eve’s clothes, fire, the mouth of Balaam’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 (Samuel I 17:49). 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.
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.
Theories about the Shamir
In 1896, one year after Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen of Wuerzburg discovered X-rays, Antoine Henri Becquerel, son and grandson of the great physicists, discovered radioactivity by accidentally placing a photographic plate near a uranium salt.Uranium at ordinary temperatures emits an invisible radiation which resembles X-rays, and can affect a photographic plate protected by a thin layer of metal. Marie and Pierre Curie, led by the conviction that in the midst of pitchblende, their source of uranium, there must be still another element of a much greater radioactivity, dedicated themselves to its isolation and in 1898 they succeeded in bringing forth the new element as its bromide salt-radium. Radioactivity is used in the treatment of neoplasms, while the destructive work of the uranium bomb thrown on Hiroshima also goes back to the discoveries of Roentgen, Becquerel, and the Curies.
A new era in physics began with these discoveries. And because of the dramatic circumstances under which the Curies pursued their goal—and the story of the illuminating substance they found one evening when they came to their cold and poorly-equipped laboratory—the last of the three discoveries, radium, captured the imagination of people everywhere.
Uranium and radium are elements—the original substances of which the universe is built; they were discovered, not invented. Therefore they were present in nature since the beginning; and since radioactive elements have a limited life-time because of disintegration through radioactivity, there must have been more radioactive elements in the past; and actually, a “radium clock” is used to measure the age of rocks. Radium itself is continuously decaying, yet continuously being replenished from the decay of throium, of which it is a byproduct. The end result of the decay of radium is an isotope of lead. This lead differs from regular lead, and from the ratio of such lead to uranium in rocks, the age of these rocks can be determined. Lead is also the substance that protects best against the damaging effect of radium or other radionuclide irradiation; and thus laboratory radium is preserved in a lead receptacle when not in use for medical or technological purposes.