In this week’s parasha, Nasso, the Torah commands that a nazir is to abstain from wine and any other grape products. Wine appears frequently in the Torah, and plays a huge role in Judaism. Every Shabbat and holiday is ushered in with kiddush on wine, and concludes with a wine havdallah. Every wedding has a blessing on wine under the chuppah, as does a brit milah, and in ancient times wine libations were brought in the Temple. What makes wine so special?
The numerical value of “wine” (יין) is 70, a most significant number. It reminds us of the seventy names of God, of the seventy root nations of the world, and the seventy “faces” of Torah understanding. Our Sages famously stated that nichnas yayin, yatza sod, “when wine enters, secrets come out”. More than a simple proverb, it is a mathematical equation since the value of “secret” (סוד) is also 70. So, as seventy comes in, seventy comes out. On the surface level, the statement means that alcohol makes a person more likely to spill their secrets. On the deeper level, though, the Sages meant that one who drinks wine may be able to enter a mental state where they can uncover the secrets of Torah, and see it through all seventy faces. Wine can make “a man’s mind more receptive” (Yoma 76a).
Our Sages taught that wine is unique in that it defies the natural order: whereas other things degrade over time (as encapsulated in the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, that the universe always tends towards disorder), wine improves and gets more valuable over time. Wine has another incredible scientific quirk: Japanese scientists researching electrical superconductors had a party in their lab and ended up accidentally discovering that wine makes certain metals superconductive!
Superconductivity refers to the property of being able to transmit electricity perfectly with no resistance and no energy loss. Generally, superconductivity requires cooling substances to near absolute zero (-273ºC). Some substances are able to superconduct at higher temperatures, around -90ºC, but even this is far too cold to be practical. Scientists around the world are therefore on the hunt for a room-temperature superconductor which, if found, would completely revolutionize the world. It would result in dramatic energy savings, and would allow for other cool phenomena like “quantum levitation”.
The Japanese scientists found that wine makes some things superconductive, especially iron-based compounds. And red wine especially was up to seven times more effective than other alcoholic beverages. No explanation for this has yet been found. It is all the more significant when we consider the central role that electricity plays in Jewish mysticism, and that our brains literally run on electrical signalling (suggesting how wine might make our brains more receptive to Torah secrets!) and that our bodies are full of iron, which makes our blood red, too.
While all of the above is fascinating, it does not explain why wine is so prevalent in Jewish rituals, especially in the recitation of every kiddush. What is the reason for wine? Continue reading →
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.
Vayigash elav Yehudah, “And Judah approached him…” The Zohar begins its commentary on this week’s parasha by briefly citing a well-known Midrash about how the letters of the Hebrew alphabet approached God seeking to be the letter through which God creates the universe. The account is presented in full in an ancient text called Otiot d’Rabbi Akiva, and is also referenced to in multiple places, including the first chapters of Beresheet Rabbah and Yalkut Shimoni. The Zohar itself provides a detailed account in its first pages (I, 2b-3b):
…when the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to create the world, the letters of the alphabet appeared before Him (in reverse order). First came Tav and said: “Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that You create the universe with me, for I am Your seal of Truth [emet], and You are called Truth. It would therefore be fitting for the King to start His Creation with the letter of Truth.”
The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: “You are right and worthy, but I shall not create the universe with you, for you will be the mark upon the foreheads of the faithful, who fulfil the Torah from Aleph to Tav. With your mark, they shall die, for you are the seal of death [mavet].”
Being the last letter of the alphabet, Tav is the “seal” of God, and God’s seal is Truth. Tav argued it should be the letter of Creation—and the first letter of the Torah—because it represents Truth. God responded that Tav also represents death. The Talmud (Shabbat 55a) states that when a person is “marked” for death, the mark is a letter Tav on their forehead. And so, the universe cannot be created with a Tav. Next came the letter Shin: Continue reading →