‘The Prophet Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell (1859)
This week’s parasha, Balak, features the infamous gentile sorcerer and prophet Bilaam. We see him riding a donkey, being confronted by an angel, and attempting to curse Israel. The Torah later states that Bilaam was slain by the sword when Israel warred with Midian (Numbers 31:8), and according to tradition he was killed by Pinchas. In the Book of Joshua (13:22) we are told again that Bilaam was slain, and here he is called hakosem, “the magician” or “the diviner”. The Sages ask (Sanhedrin 106a-b) why Scripture uses this language; after all, was Bilaam not a true prophet? The answer is peculiar and seemingly makes no sense: “This is in accordance with what people say, that she came from princes and rulers, but was licentious with carpenters.” What does this have to do with anything? More perplexingly, the Talmud goes on to make two more bizarre points about Bilaam.
First, our Sages stated that Bilaam was killed by Pinchas Lista (Sanhedrin 106b). The word lista means something like a “criminal” or “gangster”. There is certainly no way that our Sages could refer to the great and holy Pinchas as lista! Second, the same passage in the Talmud says that Bilaam was killed when he was 33 years old. This is absolutely impossible. We know that Bilaam was an advisor to Pharaoh back in Egypt when Pharaoh had decreed to drown the male children, and we know that Bilaam’s sons instigated the Golden Calf incident some 39 years prior to the events of this week’s parasha. Bilaam must have been a very old man at this point. How could our Sages say he was only 33? How do we make sense of this puzzling Talmudic passage?
Long ago, scholars had pointed out that the description of Bilaam above does not at all match the Torah personality of this week’s parasha, but it does seem to closely resemble another ancient figure. That last number 33 may have given it away, since it is often associated with a person who was killed at that age: Jesus. Could it be that the Sages were actually speaking about Jesus in code, to avoid alerting the Christian censors? Indeed, Jesus was executed at the command of the cruel Roman governor Pontius Pilate—whom the entire Jewish people at the time despised as we know from historical sources—and this is probably why the Talmud says Bilaam was killed by “Pinchas Lista”, ie. Pontius the criminal! And now we can understand the cryptic statement about the woman who “was licentious with carpenters”, since Jesus and his father were carpenters. It seems abundantly clear that the Sages were not actually speaking of Bilaam, but secretly alluding to Jesus.
The big question is: why would the Sages use Bilaam as a stand-in for Jesus? And what is all of this even supposed to teach us? Continue reading →
This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Emor, which begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the kohanim and to teach them. This is one of the key verses having a clear reference to the Oral Torah. Moses relayed not just the five books of the Written Torah, but also many more oral teachings and explanations that were passed down over the millennia. Another source for the Oral Law is Exodus 34:27, where God tells Moses to write down the words of Torah, and then adds that al pi—literally meaning “orally” or “on the mouth”—of these words of Torah, God is making a covenant with us. The Sages point out that this is another major allusion to the Torah sh’b’al peh, the Oral Torah (see Gittin 60b).
The necessity of an Oral Torah is actually self-evident since Torah laws are very brief and usually come with no explanations or details. For instance, we are told numerous times to bind certain signs upon our arms and to tie fringes on our clothes, but there is no description of what these things should look like. Another classic example is Deuteronomy 12:21 where we are told to slaughter animals for consumption “as I have instructed you”, yet no instructions or slaughtering procedures are written anywhere in the Torah. The obvious implication is that Moses relayed many teachings and instructions that were not recorded.
Eventually, those teachings did come to be recorded in the Mishnah. The term Mishnah comes from the verb lishnot (לשנות), “to repeat”, since these laws and teachings were originally learned through constant repetition, to reinforce the knowledge and memorize it crystal clear. Less known is that, since the same exact verb is leshanot (לשנות), meaning “to change”, the Oral Law was not meant to be written down in order to keep it fluid and flexible.* Judaism is always evolving, and halakhah must change under varying circumstances and as new problems emerge. The central idea behind having an Oral Law was so that it would not come to be “set in stone” like the written law. The Torah thus remains fresh in every generation, and open to new ideas, applications, and chiddushim. This is really the beauty of the Oral Torah. (In fact, when the Arizal relates the different aspects of Torah to the mystical Sefirot, he points out that the Mishnah specifically is in Tiferet, “Beauty”, see Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh.)
On a more mystical level, Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters and numerical value as Neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, for while the Written Torah is the “body” of Judaism, the Oral Torah is its inner dimension and true essence. (This is also why it is customary to recite Mishnayot in honour of the dead, to elevate their souls.) It is important to clarify that while the Mishnah is certainly not the entire Oral Torah, it is the first text of the Oral Torah and the foundation for the rest. 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.