Tag Archives: Terumah

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.

A Brief Summary of Tithes and Charity

An illustration of bringing bikkurim to the kohen (from the Providence Lithograph Company)

This week’s double parasha, Behar and Bechukotai, begins with the laws of Sabbaticals and Jubilees, and ends with some laws related to tithes. We see here the Torah’s incredible concern for public welfare and social justice—far ahead of its time. The Torah outlines a lengthy system of rules to ensure that the impoverished and the disadvantaged are taken care of, that people have equal opportunities, and that both wealth and land is redistributed to address the disparity between rich and poor, which inevitably results in most societies.

We see, for instance, that at the Jubilee year (every 50th), all lands reverted to their original owners. In Biblical times, when a person purchased land, they were really only leasing it for a number of years, no more than the number of years left until the next Jubilee. So, even if a family had become destitute in the intervening years, and had to sell off all of their land, they could rest assured knowing that they would eventually get their ancestral plot of land back, and have an opportunity to rebuild their wealth. This would ensure that the mega-rich do not swallow up land and grow ever richer (as we unfortunately see all too often today, such as Bill Gates being the largest owner of farmland in America, and Mark Zuckerberg buying nearly an entire Hawaiian island despite the protest of locals). Continue reading

Secrets of the Mishkan

A Modern Replica of the Mishkan in Timna, Israel

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins with God’s command for the Israelites to build a Mishkan, an Earthly “dwelling place” for the Divine. God tells Moses (Exodus 25:2-8):

Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins dyed red, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the incense; shoham stones and filling stones for the ephod and for the choshen. And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst…

God requests that each person donate as much as they wish to construct a Holy Tabernacle. He concludes by stating that when the sanctuary is built, He shall dwell among them. The Sages famously point out that the Torah does not say that God will dwell in it, but in them. The sanctuary was not a literal abode for the Infinite God—that’s impossible. Rather, it is a conduit between the physical and spiritual worlds, and a channel through which holiness and spirituality can imbue our planet.

In mystical texts, we learn that the Mishkan was far more than just a temple. Every piece of the Mishkan—every pillar and curtain, altar and basin, even the littlest vessel used inside of it—held tremendous significance and represented something greater in the cosmos. In fact, the whole Mishkan was a microcosm of Creation. This is the deeper reason for why the prohibitions of Shabbat are derived from the construction of the Mishkan. The passage we cited above appears one more time in the Torah, in almost the exact same wording, ten chapters later. In that passage, we read the same command for each Israelite to donate the above ingredients to build a sanctuary. The only difference is that in the second passage, the construction of the Mishkan is juxtaposed with (Exodus 35:1-2):

Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that God commanded to make. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to God; whoever performs work on this day shall be put to death…”

From this clear connection, the Sages learn that the actions required to construct and maintain the Mishkan are the same ones we must abstain from on the Sabbath. There are 39 such melakhot in all. On a more mystical level, these 39 works are said to be those same actions performed by God in creating the universe! For example, the first prohibited work (see Shabbat 7:2) is zorea, “sowing”, or seeding the earth, just as we read in the account of Creation that God said (Genesis 1:11) “Let the earth bring forth grass, herb-yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, in which its seed is found on the earth.” Perhaps the most famous prohibition, mav’ir, “lighting” a flame, parallels God’s most famous Utterance, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Such is the case with all 39 prohibited works. In this way, when a Jew rests on the seventh day from such actions, he is mirroring the Divine Who rested from these works on the original Seventh Day.

A Periodic Table of the 39 Melachos, by Anshie Kagan

The Mishkan and the Holidays

The Zohar (II, 135a) comments on this week’s parasha that the ingredients of the Mishkan symbolize the Jewish holidays. The first ingredient is gold, and this corresponds to the first holiday of the year, Rosh Hashanah. The second ingredient, silver, corresponds to Yom Kippur. This is because silver and gold represent the two sefirot of Chessed, “kindness”, and Gevurah, “restraint”. The latter is more commonly known as Din, “judgement”. In mystical texts, silver and gold (both the metals and the colours) always represents Chessed and Gevurah. Rosh Hashanah is judgement day, which is gold, and Yom Kippur is the day of forgiveness, silver.

The third ingredient, copper, corresponds to the next holiday, Sukkot. The Zohar reminds us that on Sukkot, the Torah commands the Israelites to sacrifice a total of seventy bulls, corresponding to the seventy root nations of the world. This is why the prophet Zechariah (14:16) states that in the End of Days, representatives from all nations of the world will come to Jerusalem specifically during Sukkot to worship God together with the Jews.

‘Vision of the Four Chariots’ by Gustave Doré

The Zohar explains that copper is Sukkot because copper (at least in those days) was the main implement of war, which the gentiles use to build their chariots and fight their battles. This, the Zohar explains, is the meaning of another verse in Zechariah (6:1), which states that “…there came four chariots out from between the two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of copper.” The Zohar concludes that the Torah prescribes the sacrifices to be brought in decreasing order (thirteen on the first day, twelve on the second, eleven on the third, etc.) to weaken the drive for war among the gentile nations.

The next ingredient is the special blue dye called techelet, which corresponds to Pesach. As the Talmud (Sotah 17a) states, techelet symbolizes the sea, and the climax of the Exodus was, of course, the Splitting of the Sea. Only at this point, the Torah states, did the Israelites believe wholeheartedly in God, and his servant Moses (Exodus 14:31). The Zohar therefore states that techelet holds the very essence of faith.

Following this is the purple dye called argaman, which is Shavuot. It isn’t quite clear why the Zohar relates these two. It speaks of purple being a fusion of right and left, perhaps referring to the fact that purple (or more accurately, magenta) is a result of a mixing of red and blue. This relates to the dual nature of Shavuot, having received on that day the two parts of the Torah (Written and Oral), and later the Two Tablets, in the month whose astrological sign is the dual Gemini. There is a theme of twos, of rights and lefts coming together. We might add that Shavuot is traditionally seen as a sort of “wedding” between God and the Jewish people, with the Torah being the ketubah, and Mt. Sinai serving as the chuppah.

The sixth ingredient, tola’at shani, red or “crimson” wool, corresponds to the little-known holiday of Tu b’Av. Although the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) states that on Tu b’Av the young single ladies of Israel would go out in white dresses to meet their soulmates, the Zohar suggests that they also wore crimson wool, based on another Scriptural verse (Lamentations 4:5).

Tu b’Av is actually the last holiday that the Zohar mentions. The remaining nine ingredients correspond to the nine days after Rosh Hashanah, through Yom Kippur, ie. the “Days of Repentance”. This brings up a big question: The Zohar relates the ingredients of the Mishkan to the major Torah holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the three Pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot). Naturally, it omits Chanukah, Purim, the fasts and minor holidays, which are not explicitly spoken of in the Torah. So, why does it mention Tu b’Av? Before we even begin to answer this question, we should already recognize the huge significance of Tu b’Av, strangely one of the most oft-forgotten holidays on the Jewish calendar.

Tu b’Av: a Torah Holiday

The holidays that are not explicitly commanded by God in the Torah were all instituted by future Sages. Purim was instituted by Esther and Mordechai, and first celebrated in Persia. Yet, the Talmud tells us that the majority of the Sages in the times of Esther and Mordechai initially rejected their call to establish Purim as a holiday! (See Yerushalmi, Megillah 6b-7a.) Interestingly, historians and archaeologists have not found a single Megillat Esther among the thousands of Dead Sea Scrolls and fragments, suggesting that the Jews who lived in Qumran did not commemorate Purim. Clearly, it was still a point of contention as late as two thousand years ago.

Chanukah, meanwhile, is not found in the Tanakh at all. Although two Books of Maccabees exist, the Sages did not include them in the final compilation of the Tanakh. Similarly, the later Sages of the Mishnaic and Talmudic era did not find it fit to have a separate tractate for Chanukah, even though there is a separate tractate for every other big holiday.

The fast days are not festivals, but sad memorial days instituted by the Sages to commemorate tragic events. Tu b’Shevat appears to have no Scriptural origins. Yet, Tu b’Av does. The Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) tells us that one of the historical events that we commemorate on Tu b’Av is the fact that the tribe of Benjamin was permitted to “rejoin the congregation of Israel”. In the final chapters of the Book of Judges, we read how a civil war emerged in Israel, pitting all the tribes against Benjamin because of the horrible incident where a woman was brutally raped in Gibeah. The tribe of Benjamin was subsequently cut off from Israel, with their men forbidden from marrying women of other tribes. The ban was eventually lifted on Tu b’Av. The men of Benjamin were told:

“Behold, there is a festival of God from year to year in Shiloh, which is on the north of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah.” And they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying: “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards; and see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards, and take every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin…” (Judges 21:19-21)

The Tanakh is clearly describing what the Talmud says would happen on Tu b’Av, when the young ladies would go out to dance in the vineyards to find their soulmates. The exact Scriptural wording is that this day is a chag Adonai, “festival of God”. This is precisely the term used by Moses during the Exodus (Exodus 10:9), possibly referring to Pesach, or more likely to Shavuot (as Rabbeinu Bechaye comments). It is also the term used later in the Torah to describe Sukkot (Leviticus 23:39). Thus, Tu b’Av is evidently a Torah festival, too! And this is why the Zohar singles it out from all the other, “minor” holidays. It seems Tu b’Av is not so minor after all.

The Zohar concludes its passage on Terumah by saying that although we do not have the ability to offer Terumah today, and there is no Mishkan for us to build, we nonetheless have an opportunity to spiritually offer up these ingredients when we celebrate the holidays associated with them. When one wholeheartedly observes Rosh Hashanah, it is as if they offered up gold in the Heavenly Temple, and during Yom Kippur one’s soul brings up silver. Over the days of Sukkot, there is an offering of copper up Above, and on Pesach it is techelet; on Shavuot, argaman, on Tu b’Av, tola’at shani, and on the Days of Repentance the remaining ingredients. On these special days, we help to construct the Heavenly Abode. And this is all the more amazing when we remember that Jewish tradition maintains the Third Temple will not need to physically be built as were the first two, but will descend entirely whole from Heaven.

Courtesy: Temple Institute