Tag Archives: Lubavitcher Rebbe

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.

Bibi, Rebbe, and Israel’s Biblical Politics

This past Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu was unseated from Israel’s premiership after twelve continuous years in that role. (Together with his earlier stint as prime minister in the 90’s, Netanyahu was Israel’s longest-serving leader.) The fact that this happened particularly this week is not coincidental. As Torah-observant Jews, we firmly believe that the Torah informs each week and each day of our lives, and the events of the world around us. The weekly parasha and Haftarah are not just repetitive stories, and the dates of Biblical events are not just ancient history, they affect the present reality. With that said, it is incredible to note that this week’s Haftarah tells us about Yiftach, the ninth Judge of Israel. In the official count, Netanyahu is Israel’s ninth prime minister. While this may seem insignificant at first glance, there is actual a profound connection there. Continue reading

The Secret, Secret Story of Stalin’s Purim Death

Josef Stalin in 1920

 – לעילוי נשמת אמנון בן אסתר –

On the night of March 1st, 1953, when Jews around the world had just finished celebrating Purim, attendants of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin found him laying semi-conscious on the floor of his bedroom. He was sick and hemorrhaging blood for the next several days until finally dying on the 5th of March. His death was announced to the public the following day. While most Jews around the world were probably jubilant at the news, little could they know of the incredible events—both political and spiritual—which were transpiring in the fateful days before.

A couple of months earlier, on the 9th of January, state-owned mouthpiece Pravda published a propaganda article about a “Doctor’s Plot” to secretly poison top Soviet leaders, including Stalin. Six of the named doctors were Jewish, and the others were supposedly Jewish-Zionist sympathizers, working together with American spies to destroy the Soviet Union. The article said:

The majority of the participants of the terrorist group… recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence, the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called “Joint”. The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed…

Not surprisingly, a huge wave of anti-Semitism spread across the Soviet Union. Stalin used this as a pretext to order the construction of four new concentration camps in Kazakhstan and Siberia, arguing that he will gather Soviet Jews there, “for their own protection”, to save them from angry Russian mobs.* Stalin’s real intent was to finish what Hitler had started. Records suggest that the deportations were set to begin on March 6th, 1953—ironically, the same day his death was announced. After his death, Stalin’s successors quickly absolved the doctors of any wrongdoing and buried the Doctors’ Plot for good. Stalin’s impending holocaust was scrapped. Millions of Jews across the Soviet Union (my family included), were saved—a Purim miracle. But there is much, much more to the story.

My grandfathers, David Palvanov (1915-1985), left, and Anton Amnon Mirzayev (1923-1981, whose 40th yahrzeit is this Sunday, the 9th of Adar), Red Army veterans of World War II, who served with distinction in both the European and Pacific Theatres.

The Rebbe’s Farbrengen

Back in New York City, on March 1st, 1953, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was starting a motzei-Purim farbrengen. In his discourse, the Rebbe recounted how when the czar was deposed in 1917, the Rebbe Rashab (Sholom Dov Ber, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1860-1920) urged his followers to go vote. After voting, one simple Hasid saw some Russians shouting hoora! and joined in as well, thinking they meant hu-ra (הוא רע), “he is evil!”—happy that the evil, anti-Semitic czars that had caused the Jews so much anguish were finally gone. Bizarrely, the Rebbe (the seventh one, that is) started to shout hu-ra, too, and repeated the same story three separate times, each concluding with more hu-ra’s. No one in the room understood what was going on. They assumed the Rebbe had done a spiritual rectification of some sort.

A farbrengen with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the early 1950s

Nothing more was said of the Rebbe’s strange actions until March 6th, when Stalin’s death was announced. Turns out, at the same time that the Rebbe was making his hu-ra’s—while recounting the fall of an old anti-Semitic Russian dictator—the contemporary anti-Semitic Russian dictator, Stalin, had collapsed in his room and was writhing in pain. It was only then that the Hasidim that were with the Rebbe on the night of March 1st began to piece together what had happened. Did the Rebbe put an end to Stalin? Well, not directly; the Rebbe was no assassin! (Not even a spiritual one.) So, what was really going on that night of March 1st?

Stalin’s Purim Feast

While Jews around the world were enjoying their Purim feast, Stalin was getting together for a feast of his own back in Russia. As recounted in Stalin’s Last Crime (written by Russian historian Vladimir Naumov and Yale professor Jonathan Brent), in his last dinner Stalin was accompanied by secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, Georgi Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev (his soon-to-be successor) and Nikolai Bulganin. Later that night, Stalin had mysteriously collapsed in his room. Yet, no doctor was called in to treat him until the following day. Some believe that Stalin’s friends had gotten him drunk, and then Lavrentiy Beria slipped Stalin a poison. High-ranking Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986, of “Molotov cocktail” fame) would recall in his memoirs that Beria boasted about how he managed to terminate Stalin: “I did him in! I saved all of you!” Others state that Stalin was not much of a drinker, and was unlikely to let himself get drunk. It is more likely that his treatment was purposely delayed until it was too late. Whatever the case, the evidence is very strong that Stalin’s own inner circle killed him. Why?

For Stalin, the Doctor’s Plot was only the start of something much bigger. As we saw from the Pravda article above, Stalin had tied the doctors to American agents in Moscow. His plans were to accuse the US of plotting to nuke Moscow, and he supposedly had proof from a spy captured and interrogated in 1951. Stalin was gearing up to spark World War III (and possibly drawing up plans for an attack on American soil). His inner circle knew that he had absolutely lost it. And Stalin knew that they did not support him anymore, so he planned another purge of the Communist Party to eliminate dissenters. This was confirmed in the 1956 “Secret Speech” given by Khrushchev, who said:

It is not excluded that had Stalin remained at the helm for another several months, Comrades Molotov and Mikoyan would probably have not delivered any speeches at this congress. Stalin evidently had plans to finish off the old members of the political bureau. He often stated that political bureau members should be replaced by new ones… We can assume that this was also a design for the future annihilation of the old political bureau members and in this way a cover for all shameful acts of Stalin, acts which we are now considering.

This is why Beria had boasted that he had saved his comrades. Khrushchev and the others were in on it. They got rid of Stalin just in time to avoid another Jewish holocaust, to save their own skin, and to prevent World War III. What they did was incredibly risky, and no doubt needed help from Above. The Rebbe must have sensed something going on in the Heavens, and perhaps really did play some spiritual role in the plan’s success.

Indeed, it was a great miracle that the plan succeeded. That it happened on Purim specifically is certainly no coincidence.** After all, Purim is all about how the Jews avoided a holocaust in the nick of time: “…on the very day when the enemies of the Jews sought to dominate them, v’nahafokh hu”—everything was turned upside down and the Jews were saved instead. On the very day Stalin planned to start deporting Jews, his death was announced instead.

And Purim is about the defeat of Amalek which, like Communism, is that atheistic force in the universe seeking to undermine Godliness at every opportunity. The Communists tried so hard to expunge religion that they even attempted to change their calendar to a five-day week so that there could be no commemoration of the Sabbath! Thankfully, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, right at the moment when the Messianic Age was set to begin according to ancient prophecy (as explained here). However, Communism is not quite dead, and the forces of Amalek continue to rear their ugly heads around the world today. And so, we continue to read Parashat Zachor each year before Purim, as we will this Shabbat, to remind ourselves that there is yet work to be done until we can celebrate Amalek’s final defeat. May we merit to see it soon.

*According to Stalin’s Last Crime (pg. 294-295), the concentration camps were ordered to house foreign criminals captured in World War II, particularly Germans and Austrians. However, there were no more than 5000 such prisoners in the USSR, so why the need for so many large camps? Besides, the war had ended long ago—why the sudden need for new camps? The real reason was surely tied to the Doctor’s Plot and/or a new impending war.

**In Stalin’s Last Crime, Naumov and Brent point out that one of the hidden heroes in the story was Sophia Karpai. She was one of the Jewish doctors that was accused, then arrested, tortured, and kept in a refrigerated cell. Despite this, Karpai refused to “confess” and maintained the innocence of the Jews. By this point, most of the other doctors had already “confessed” under extreme torture. Karpai held out on her own, which frustrated Stalin and the authorities. They couldn’t have even a single doctor claim innocence, for that would ruin the entire conspiracy. Naumov and Brent write that “It satisfies the imagination to think that the fate of the Jews of Russia might have depended on this latter day, unknown Esther.” (Pg. 307)