Tag Archives: Sotah (Tractate)

The Powerful Link Between Tisha b’Av and Tu b’Av

What is the true meaning of the ancient and little-known Biblical holiday of Tu b’Av? Where did Tu b’Av come from and what does it have to do with Creation? Finally, how does Tu b’Av rectify the problem of Tisha b’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year?

Also discussed is the Jewish view of soulmates, the three types of love, the purpose of the Book of Judges (Shoftim), and a deeper look at the lives of Kings David and Solomon.

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.

Dever: Understanding the Plague

‘The Fifth Plague of Egypt’ by J.M.W. Turner (1800)

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about the first seven of the Ten Plagues that God struck ancient Egypt with. The one that is particularly of interest today is dever, pestilence. While in Egypt, it primarily affected the livestock, the word dever can refer to any kind of pestilence. One of the big questions here is why the plague is called dever (דבר), a term we typically associate more with “speech” and “words”, davar. Perhaps one way to understand it is that a plague that is especially virulent, like the one in ancient Egypt—and the one we are in the midst of currently—can be spread even through speech. The plague (dever, דבר) is invisible and airborne, like a word (davar, דבר) itself.

Another way to understand it is to remember that the Tanakh often tells us that the world exists only through God’s Word. King David wrote poetically that “By the Word [davar] of God the Heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all of their hosts.” (Psalms 33:6) Even more relevant for us now, Moses told us that God “subjects you to hardship” and sends us difficult challenges “in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on all that comes out of the Mouth of God does man live.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) In times of plague, this is a vital message—and while it might be a most difficult one to accept, it is undeniably true nonetheless—that ultimately, who lives and who dies is decreed by the Word of God.

Each person must do their hishtadlut, their effort in proactively preserving health. That means staying active, eating right, reducing stress, and maintaining positive relationships. It means reducing exposure to toxins and mutagens as much as possible, switching to more natural products, installing a good water filter (especially for drinking water), and spending time out in the great outdoors with plenty of fresh air. It also means, in times of plague, to be vigilant of surroundings, wear personal protective equipment when appropriate, maintain the highest standards of hygiene, and do the research in determining which medications are effective and safe. The rest remains in God’s Hands, and there is no need to panic. As the Prophet promised us, “Blessed is the man who trusts securely in God, and God will be his security.” (Jeremiah 17:7)

When it comes to our current pandemic, every person has had a different experience. Some have lost loved ones, others have not. Certain communities have been hit particularly hard while others went entirely unscathed. There are many views regarding how to deal with the plague and the proper way to get out of it. There have also been absurd conspiracy theories pushed on the one hand, balancing out the illogical and unreasonable measures enacted on the other. In fact, perhaps the key problem has been the constant torrent of misinformation, both mainstream and alternative. People don’t know what to think anymore! So, let’s try to honestly sift through the confusion and come to at least a few undeniable facts that everyone can agree on at this point.

A year ago, we were told that the new vaccines are up to 95% effective, and if all we did was take a couple of shots the virus would go away and the pandemic would be over. Here we are now, on the cusp of a third or even fourth shot, and nothing’s changed at all. The restrictions are still in full force, with new lockdowns on the horizon. Despite the high vaccination rates of most western countries, the pandemic has not receded whatsoever. Now, the majority of COVID cases are among the vaccinated. Here in Ontario today, 10436 new cases were reported, of which a whopping 8221 were fully vaccinated! The majority of people hospitalized are also fully vaccinated. In Israel, meanwhile, the first death from the Omicron variant was reported today—and it was a triple-vaccinated woman. Yet, unbelievably, the powers-that-be are still pushing us to vaccinate with even more boosters! As Albert Einstein purportedly once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The data really speaks for itself: vaccines have done little to stop the pandemic besides for reducing symptoms. We were initially told the vaccines would stop transmission, but that message has changed. The vaccinated are undoubtedly transmitting, too. On that note, the push to vaccinate children was primarily made on the argument of not having them transmit it to the elderly, who are most susceptible. But everyone now agrees that the vaccine does not stop transmission! So, what is the point of vaccinating children? Kids are not very susceptible to COVID, and no one disputes that the vast majority of children, with rare exceptions, take it mildly or are entirely asymptomatic.

Worse yet, evidence is building that the spike protein which the mRNA vaccines code for is itself carcinogenic (here is a peer-reviewed study in a scientific journal, and here is another). Why give little children multiple doses of a potentially harmful carcinogen when the virus itself is mostly harmless to them? What might be the horrific long-term consequences of repetitive mass-vaccination? It may very well end up being an enormous crime against humanity.

Finally, regardless of how you feel about the virus and the vaccine, or which side you are on, the new “mandates” being introduced by governments worldwide should concern everyone. People have lost their jobs and livelihoods for simply exercising the right to their own bodies. No one should be coerced into a medical procedure they do not want—especially when the data behind it is so poor, as we’ve seen. Meanwhile, fundamental rights are being stripped for all people, regardless of vaccination status. Freedom of movement? Highly restricted. Freedom of speech? Be careful what you say lest you lose your license! Freedom of religion and belief? Every single person I know who’s applied for some kind of religious exemption or conscientious objection has been denied outright.

You might think it’s okay because desperate times call for desperate measures. However, once these “rules” are in place, it will be almost impossible to repeal them, and they will remain long after the pandemic. Want to go to a restaurant? Let’s see your private medical records! Want to go on vacation? You will first have to take this invasive medical test before and after (and in between)! Want this job? Not if you don’t take multiple doses of a new “treatment” required for all employees! We are setting dangerous precedents and descending ever further down a treacherous slippery slope. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum is openly pushing a “digital ID” for everyone that will store a person’s private information and biometrics, linked to their vaccinations, and bank accounts, too. (See here on their own website.) Is this the future we want?

Let’s not forget what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. How did Pharaoh manage to convince an entire populace to turn on its Jews? The answer is simple, and relayed clearly in the Torah. Pharaoh saw an opportunity, and said: “let us outsmart them!” (Exodus 1:10) He engineered a crisis, and used fear-mongering and propaganda to convince everyone that Israel was the dreaded enemy. Did it happen overnight? Not at all. In fact, our Sages say that the Israelites gave up their rights willingly, one small “harmless” step at a time. This is the meaning of the famous statement that Israel was enslaved b’farekh (בְּפָרֶךְ, Exodus 1:13), meaning b’pe rakh (בְּפֶה רַךְ), with a “soft mouth”, gradually, through a set of small “gentile” mandates (Sotah 11b). It was for the good of society after all! It took thirty years until they were fully enslaved. By then, it was too late to go back.

We are now seeing the same playbook of fear-mongering followed by incremental restrictions. Now is the time for everyone—across the social and political spectrum, vaccinated or not—to stand up and fight to preserve freedom. The more people that speak out, resist (peacefully), and refuse to comply, the better it will get. The government needs to be sent a clear message, for the government is only as powerful as the governed allow them to be. If people do not speak out, or continue to stay silent for fear of ostracism, things will only get worse. And then, again, it will be too late.

We began by exploring the connection between dever and davar, the plague and the Word of God. Here may lie the real core of the matter. The test right now is one of faith in God. As our Sages taught, “All is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven.” (Berakhot 33b) The question is who is aligning with God’s Will, and who is not. (It is worth mentioning that the mystical term for the Will of God is Keter which, when translated into Latin, is literally “corona”.) It could very well be that the challenges we are facing now are meant to strain out those who have faith in God, think for themselves, and put Torah law first, from those who have faith in men, let the media think for them, and follow the corrupt laws and mandates of wicked people. Long ago, the prophet Zechariah (13:8-9) foresaw that a day would come when

Throughout the land—declares God—two-thirds shall perish, shall die, and one-third of it shall survive. That third I will put into the fire, and I will smelt them as one smelts silver, and test them as one tests gold. They will invoke Me by Name, and I will respond to them. I will declare: “You are My people.” And they will declare: “Hashem is our God!”

We have a general rule in Judaism that a negative prophecy does not have to be fulfilled, since it is given as a warning. Unfortunately, the warning usually falls on deaf ears, and the prophecy is realized anyway. If Zechariah’s prophecy is fulfilled, only a third will survive the coming calamity, and it is the third that trusts in God. Still, it will not be easy for that third, as they will be put through tremendous tests. We should learn from this that no matter what happens in the coming days, and how excruciating it might get, we must only strengthen our resolve and continue to declare loudly: “Hashem is our God!”