Tag Archives: Biology

Mystery of the Shamir

This week’s parasha, Terumah, describes the construction of the mobile sanctuary, the Mishkan. While the Mishkan was designed to accompany the Israelites in their travels, the Haftarah for this week’s parasha describes how King Solomon finally built the permanent holy sanctuary in Jerusalem, the Beit haMikdash. The Haftarah tells us that the Temple “was built of stone finished at the quarry, and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” (I Kings 6:7) God did not permit the use of iron tools in constructing the Temple, for iron is an implement of war, and the Temple was a house of peace. So, how were the builders able to cut the stones without any iron tools?

The simplest explanation is that the stones were cut “at the quarry”, as the verse above states, and iron tools were only forbidden “in the house” itself. When God commanded not to use “hewn stones” for the altar (Exodus 20:23), it only meant not to cut the stones or bring iron tools directly onto the holy Temple Mount. The stones could, however, be cut elsewhere and brought to the Temple Mount. This suggestion is further supported by I Kings 5:31, where we read that “The king [Solomon] ordered huge blocks of choice stone to be quarried, so that the foundations of the house might be laid with hewn stones.”

Having said that, Jewish tradition holds that the stones for the Temple were cut entirely without the use of iron implements. Instead, our Sages teach that King Solomon had a unique tool called a Shamir, described as some kind of “worm” or “stone” that was able to penetrate even the toughest materials with laser-like precision. What, exactly, was the Shamir, and what might modern science reveal about this mysterious object?

Shamir in Tanakh and Talmud

The earliest source to mention the Shamir is the prophet Isaiah. In foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem, he said how the city “will be a desolation, it will not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with shamir and thistles…” (Isaiah 5:6) This suggests that the Shamir is something organic and can grow. The notion is confirmed by the next source that discusses it, Jeremiah, who proclaimed that “The sin of Judah is inscribed with an iron stylus, engraved with tzipporen shamir…” (Jeremiah 17:1) Here we see the Shamir described as a tzipporen, loosely translated as a “fingernail” or “talon”. Again, it implies something organic, as opposed to the iron stylus it is juxtaposed with in the same verse.

We next see the Shamir in God’s message to the prophet Ezekiel, when He tells Ezekiel that He will make him like the Shamir, “harder than flint” (k’shamir chazak mitzor). Here we learn the Shamir is a substance of incredible strength. Rashi comments on this verse that the Shamir is a worm that splits rocks, or perhaps a type of hard flintstone, or even a particularly strong alloy of iron. The final direct mention of Shamir in the Tanakh is in Zechariah 7:12, where the nation is said to have hardened their hearts like the Shamir.*

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest’s Breastplate

Next, we learn in the Mishnah that God created ten special, mystical things on the eve of the first Sabbath, at the very end of Creation (Avot 5:6). In this list is included the miracle-working staff of Moses, the Two Tablets of Law, and the Shamir. Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (c. 1445-1515) comments here that the builders would draw a line on a stone, and the Shamir worm would crawl along the line and split the stone. He also points out that it was with the Shamir that Moses created the choshen and ephod, the Priestly Breastplate, and engraved the names of the Tribes of Israel into the precious stones on that breastplate. The source for this is the Talmud:

In Gittin 68a, we learn that Solomon was unsure of how to build the Temple without iron tools, and consulted with the Sanhedrin at the time. They told him: “There is a Shamir that Moses used to cut the stones for the ephod.” Solomon then asked the Sages where to find the Shamir, and this leads to a lengthy story about how he acquired it. (In fact, this is the longest story in the whole Talmud!) The puzzling narrative requires an in-depth analysis of its own, and is beyond the scope of the present discussion. Suffice it to say that it involves the great warrior Benayahu ben Yehoyada, a confrontation with Ashmedai, the “prince of demons”, and the angelic “Prince of the Sea”.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni II, 182) has a slightly different account: Solomon knew how to speak to animals (I Kings 5:13), and he asked them where the Shamir might be found, at which point an eagle flew to the Garden of Eden and brought it to him! He then asked the Sages how to use the Shamir, and they directed him to Ashmedai. The Midrash also notes that the Shamir was so powerful it had to be wrapped in wool and kept in a special lead box filled with barley. The same teaching is found in the Talmud (Sotah 48b), too, where we also learn that the Shamir was the size of a barley grain, and that it ceased to exist following the destruction of the First Temple.

The big mystery is how the tiny Shamir, whether a “worm” or a “stone”, was able to penetrate hard substances and cut them with laser-like precision. While one could simply relegate this to a miracle, we generally hold that even God works through derekh hateva, natural ways, in most cases. Could there be a scientific explanation for the Shamir? Thankfully, our Sages left us a major clue that might help solve the mystery.

Shamir in Science

Our Sages taught that the Shamir had to be kept specifically in a box of lead to avoid danger. We have all probably received an x-ray exam at some point in our lives, and the technician always makes sure to put a lead jacket on the parts of the body not being scanned. This is because lead is an excellent blocker of dangerous radiation. This little detail strongly suggests that the Shamir was likely radioactive. Perhaps it used some kind of high-energy radiation to cut through stone. In fact, today we have nuclear-pumped lasers which use radioactive uranium fragments to create ultra-powerful light rays. Though such lasers are not commercially available at the moment, they have been proposed for use in manufacturing for precision deep-cutting and welding!

(Interestingly, renowned Jewish physicist Edward Teller, often called the “father of the hydrogen bomb”, proposed using such nuclear-pumped lasers in a space defense system that would shoot down enemy nuclear missiles. His “Project Excalibur” was soon scrapped and never realized.)

And then there’s the lithoredo. In 2019, scientists in the Philippines discovered a new species of shipworm, named Lithoredo abatanica. Unlike other shipworms which eat and bore into wood, the lithoredo eats and bores into limestone! They have special tiny teeth to grind away rock. Here is a worm that is actually able to eat through stone, and quite precisely, too. Could the Shamir have been a special version of the lithoredo, or a related species that is now extinct?

There is another tiny organism on the planet that is bizarrely able to withstand incredible conditions, including deadly radiation, dehydration, and even the freezing vacuum of outer space. This organism is the tardigrade, also known as a “water bear”. The hardiest creature on the planet, it can suspend its metabolism and literally go decades without any food or water at all. Uniquely, the DNA of tardigrades is protected by a special protein that blocks radiation, allowing them to survive levels of radiation hundreds of times greater than what would be lethal for humans. Could the Shamir have been some kind of special hybrid organism with qualities of both the tardigrade, capable of living many decades and withstanding immense radiation; and of the lithoredo, able to eat, digest, and cut through stone? Did the Shamir contain radioactive material in its body, or generate something laser-like? It is certainly within the realm of the scientifically-possible.

A real microscopic image (colour-enhanced) of a tardigrade. (Credit: Eye of Science)

Ultimately, we may never know the true nature of the Shamir, for there are those who hold the future Third Temple will not require the Shamir in its construction. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, for instance, taught that since in the messianic era “swords will be beaten into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4), iron will no longer be considered an implement of war and will therefore be allowed in the building of the Third Temple. Others hold that the Third Temple will not require building at all, and will descend fully-formed from the Heavens (see Rashi at the end of Sukkah 41a). Whatever the case might be, may we merit to see it speedily and in our days!

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*For Marvel comics fans: the word shamir was translated into Greek as adamas, and then to Latin as adamans, and to English as “adamant”, the origin of “adamantium”, that super-hard element injected into Wolverine’s skeleton, and that made up the body of Ultron. (For more on Judaism and comic books, see here.) The Shamir was also the inspiration for the adopted last name of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Mind-Blowing Gematriot

In this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, Moses cautions the people in his final song to carefully fulfil “all the words of this Torah, for it is not an empty thing for you” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47). The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments here that, on a deeper level, the words “for it is not an empty thing for you” are referring to gematriot, the numerical calculations and mathematical codes embedded in the Torah, that emanate from the divinity and precision of the Hebrew language. The general public often disparages gematria as being unreal or artificial in some way, a soup where anyone can find anything they are looking for. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While some have certainly abused gematria in unnatural ways, there is a legitimate foundation and system to it. Continue reading

Why is Chicken Forbidden with Dairy?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we find one of three instances in the Torah prohibiting to “cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Deuteronomy 14:21) The most literal understanding of this prohibition is not to cook a baby goat specifically in its own mother’s milk. Certain sources suggest this refers to an ancient pagan practice where idolaters did exactly that. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) writes in his Moreh Nevuchim (III, 48):

Meat boiled in milk is undoubtedly gross food, and makes overfull; but I think that most probably it is also prohibited because it is somehow connected with idolatry, forming perhaps part of the service, or being used on some festival of the heathen. I find a support for this view in the circumstance that the Law mentions the prohibition twice after the commandment given concerning the festivals…

Since twice the Torah juxtaposes this prohibition with celebrating festivals, the Rambam reasons that it must have been something done by pagans on their festivals. Archaeologists have indeed found evidence of a possible ancient Canaanite fertility ritual where they would cook a kid in its mother’s milk, then sprinkle the soup on their farms. Idolatry aside, this ritual is undoubtedly cruel, too. Way back in the 1st century CE, Philo Judaeus wrote in his On Virtues how anyone who does such a thing “is exhibiting a terrible perversity of disposition” (XXVI, 144).

Intriguingly, Philo also explains the meat-dairy prohibition as having more of a mystical reason: There is something spiritually incompatible in mixing meat and dairy, for “it is a very terrible thing for the nourishment of the living to be the seasoning and sauce of the dead…” (143) In other words, milk is that nourishing substance that represents new life, whereas meat requires slaughter and represents death. It is important to remember that God originally prohibited mankind from eating any meat whatsoever. Adam and Eve were vegetarians. Meat was later permitted by God after the Flood, though in a very limited capacity, and mainly for a spiritual reason (as explained in the past here). And spiritually, meat and dairy are simply incompatible.

Now, everyone agrees, as did Philo, that the Torah’s prohibition is not just specifically for goats, but for any domesticated herd flesh such as sheep and cows. Undomesticated animals are a different story, since they are not milked, so it wouldn’t be possible (or it would be extremely difficult) to cook them in their mother’s milk. Birds, of course, are not mammals and have no milk at all. Hence, Rabbi Akiva teaches in the Mishnah (Chullin 8:4) that “an undomesticated animal or bird in milk is not prohibited by Torah law.” Rabbi Akiva also adds non-kosher animals, meaning that a Jew who, say, works as a cook in a non-kosher restaurant would be allowed to mix pork and dairy for the non-Jewish diners. According to Rabbi Akiva, this is why the Torah mentions the meat-dairy prohibition three separate times, to teach that three categories of animals are excluded: undomesticated, birds, and non-kosher.

The Talmud then discusses this Mishnah in more depth. The implication of Rabbi Akiva’s statement is that while those three categories are not prohibited by Torah law, they are prohibited by Rabbinic law (Chullin 116a). However, Rabbi Yose haGelili held that consuming birds with dairy is not prohibited at all, not even by Rabbinic law, and that in his hometown it was normal for Jews to eat fowl and dairy regularly! Then, in a story about the sage Levi, the Talmud presents the possibility that the hometown of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira may have permitted fowl and dairy, as well. Earlier in the Talmud (Chullin 104b), Agra teaches that fowl and cheese are permitted to be eaten together, though his statement is later qualified to mean that he meant they can be consumed one after another, not actually together.

There is no doubt that by the close of the Talmudic period, consuming fowl and dairy was prohibited just as any other meat. And everyone agrees that this is a Rabbinic fence. The big question is: why? The Talmud does not give a reason for the expansion of the prohibition to include fowl. One cannot argue that the Sages simply extended the prohibition to include all animal flesh with dairy, for they did not extend the prohibition to fish and the kosher locusts, which remain pareve. Only fowl became forbidden.

For many years, I searched for a satisfying answer to the problem. Surprisingly, there is a serious scarcity of discussion on the matter. The most oft-repeated reason is that fowl may be easily confused with red meat, so the Sages worried that people might unintentionally break a Torah law, hence the need for a fowl fence. Yet, there doesn’t appear to actually be an ancient source for this answer, nor does it make much sense upon closer examination. If we are worried about appearances, some fish might also be confused with meat (they call tuna the “chicken of the sea” after all), but fish and dairy was not prohibited. Eating a hamburger with artificial pareve cheese, or eating a vegan cheeseburger, have not been prohibited either, and those situations are far more visually confusing. Besides, people are generally careful to know what they are eating—especially Jews who have many dietary restrictions.

A better answer I came across looks at the question more practically. For most of history, red meat was prohibitively expensive.* Cows, sheep, and goats are a lot more valuable alive than dead. One could get years’ worth of nutrition—milk, butter, cheese—not to mention other goods like wool and lanolin, as long as the animal remains living. Also, there is too much meat on these animals for a single family to consume in one sitting, and there were no freezers to keep the leftovers. Thus, red meat was typically only consumed on special occasions and big events. The most common meat was chicken, which was easy and quick to raise and slaughter, not expensive at all, and small enough that there was little waste. Practically speaking, for most people in the past, “meat” meant chicken, and had more day-to-day significance than rare red meat. Thus, it wasn’t much of a leap to include chicken (and thereby other fowl) in the prohibition.

Having said that, another answer might seem totally the opposite. The Mishnah (Bava Kamma 7:7) states that it was forbidden to raise chickens in Jerusalem during Temple times, and kohanim were not allowed to raise chickens at all, anywhere in Israel. This is because chickens are scavengers that will eat anything, including garbage, and might pick up bones and move them from place to place, spreading tumah impurity. One of the peculiar archaeological findings in Qumran—famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls—is that while many bones of cows, sheep, and goats have been dug up, there are absolutely none of chickens! Those Essenes who likely inhabited Qumran were very strictly-observant Jews, so it makes sense that they kept the same purity laws as would be kept in Jerusalem. Considering how much the Essenes influenced Rabbinic Judaism (or reflected an element of that era’s Rabbinic Judaism), it is quite possible that many of the early Sages avoided chicken as well. The Torah itself never mentions chickens at all, the Midrash describes them as “the most brazen of birds” (Shemot Rabbah 42:9), while the Talmud (Berakhot 6a) associates chicken feet with demons.

So, it is quite possible that Jews in those days actually ate little chicken. In fact, we know that the main fowl that was consumed in Israel was pigeon and dove. Perhaps chicken was designated “meat” (for dairy-mixing purposes) because it was uncommon and unfamiliar. Once chicken was prohibited, other birds slowly followed suit. Indeed, the episode in Chullin mentioned above describes how Levi was presented with a peacock and dairy dish, and did not object. Perhaps the fence started with chicken, and over time expanded to include other birds.

A study highlighting one issue of eating meat and dairy together.

Whatever the case, what we find is that during the Second Temple era, consuming fowl with dairy was not prohibited, and shortly afterwards was prohibited Rabbinically. It took several centuries for the prohibition to be cemented and universal. Intriguingly, the Ethiopian Jewish community knew of no prohibition for fowl and dairy, and only accepted it upon themselves when they began settling in Israel in recent decades. (This may be a valuable point of evidence suggesting the Ethiopian Jewish community branched off in the very early years of the exile after the Temple’s destruction, or even earlier). I believe that here, in this chronology, lies one more possible answer as to why fowl and dairy was forbidden. And this answer is a mystical one.

Elevating Birds

Illustration of a kohen washing his hands in the Temple’s copper laver.

From the information above, we can deduce that the critical moment in the birth of the fowl-dairy prohibition was the destruction of the Temple. A great many things changed with that seismic event. Our Sages stated that since we no longer have a Temple altar, the meal table now takes its place (Berakhot 55a, Chagigah 27a). As such, the Sages instituted a number of meal-time rituals to parallel the Temple services. First is netilat yadayim, which parallels the priestly washing in the Temple’s copper laver before service (as well as the washing before their consumption of terumah). Second is dipping bread in salt after hamotzi, since all sacrifices in the Temple had to be salted. Then there’s the final washing, mayim achronim, as explored in depth in Secrets of the Last Waters. Such practices were meant to commemorate, reinforce, and facilitate that what was spiritually accomplished in the Temple before could now be spiritually accomplished at the meal table. So, what is it that we seek to accomplish spiritually here?

Across Jewish mystical texts (particularly the Arizal), it is made clear that the purpose of the Temple was to elevate the holy sparks of Creation trapped in this lower physical world. The soul of an animal that was sacrificed in the Temple was able to break free of the kelipot, and return Above. Any lost holy sparks (nitzotzot) trapped within the animal were restored to their true place in the cosmos. The same goes for eating, which serves to elevate the spiritual matter within the food, thereby rectifying Creation. (See, for instance, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 22; Sha’ar haMitzvot on Ekev; and the Zohar on Ekev.)

In Temple times, a person was able to elevate sparks on things like fruits, vegetables, and fish through eating and reciting an after-blessing. Fowl and herd animals were more difficult to elevate, and generally required sacrifice in the Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed, the spiritual potential within each Jew declined. Now, an additional pre-blessing was necessary to properly elevate the sparks, which is the mystical reason for the Sages having instituted the berakhah rishonah. This works for low-level sparks and kelipot like those in produce or fish, but what about the more difficult fowl and herd animals, which were offered in the Temple? For those, we have the meal table, and thus the necessity of the additional rituals instituted by the Sages, mirroring those in the Temple.

The kelipot within fowl and herd animals are particularly strong, and their souls are greater than other animals. (This has a biological aspect, too, in that birds and mammals are the only two categories of animals that are warm-blooded.) To accomplish their elevation in a spiritually-weaker reality devoid of a Temple, the Sages had to introduce a number of spiritual supports. For instance, there was the directive to preferably leave meat consumption only for Shabbat, when a Jew has an additional soul and more spiritual power. Another suggestion was that only a tzadik should eat meat since the average ‘am aretz is not spiritually refined enough to process it (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Ekev).

I believe that it is for this mystical reason that the prohibition on mixing fowl and dairy emerged. Without a Temple, it became more difficult to spiritually process fowl meat. In the same way that it is biologically harder to digest meat and dairy mixtures, and effectively absorb their nutrients (see here, for example), it is more difficult to spiritually “digest” them together, too. This would also explain why the meat-dairy prohibition did not extend to other animals like fish and kosher locusts, since those animals were never brought as offerings in the Temple anyway. Finally, it would explain why the fowl-dairy prohibition was not instituted by a decree of the Sanhedrin, and was not universal for several centuries, since it would have been taught specifically by the mystics, and the general rule is that we don’t impose mystical stringencies and rituals upon the general public. Of course, due to their power and allure, mystical practices spread widely over time anyway, and become normative halakhah. That could very well be what happened with fowl and dairy.

A study highlighting one issue of eating meat and dairy together.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!


*My parents often relate how lucky we are to have so much meat today, and so cheaply. In Soviet Uzbekistan where they lived, a kilo of beef cost 5 rubles. To put that in perspective, the average monthly salary then, as mandated by the government, was about 85 rubles. So, a single kilo of beef was worth roughly 6% of one’s monthly income. To compare, average monthly income in the US today is $3000, so it would be like paying $180 for a kilo of beef—and that’s not even kosher beef! A whole live chicken, meanwhile, would go for as little as 4 rubles. My mother says how, when she was a child, her mother would ask her to walk down the street to the shochet, and he would do a kosher chicken slaughter for just 5 kopeks! (My mom always put the chicken in a closed box because she didn’t want anyone to see!)