This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Korach, about the eponymous revolutionary who sought to change the social structure of the nation in the Wilderness. Korach infamously accused Moses and Aaron of consolidating all the power for themselves and their family. After all, the supreme leader was Moses, the high priest was his brother Aaron, the military chief of staff was best friend Joshua, and the chief of the Levites was cousin Elitzafan. The final straw may have been when, at the end of last week’s parasha, God promised the kohanim numerous privileges for their priestly service (Numbers 15). Understandably, many did not like this. Korach argued that “we are all holy”, not just the priests. As Rashi comments, Moses did agree with Korach in principle, however, the reality is that people are not the same. Moses replied to Korach with something often echoed today by those on the political right against those on the left: equality does not mean sameness.
Interestingly, the Zohar (I, 17a) tells us that Korach represented the left side of Gevurah, while Moses and Aaron stood on the right side of Chessed. It seems the divide between Left and Right already existed over three millennia ago! There is an important message here for today: we would actually expect the platform of Korach to be on the side of Chessed, “kindness”, the side of unlimited giving—after all, they want everyone to be equal and the same and receive the same benefits. And we would think that Moses should be on the left side of Gevurah, “severity”, separation, and restraint. Yet, the Zohar says it is exactly the opposite. Trying to make everyone the same is not an act of kindness at all, and will ultimately fail. The real Chessed is the position of Moses and Aaron: we are indeed equal, and should have equal opportunities, but people are not the same, and sameness cannot be imposed on society.
The total failure of the Soviet Union proved the futility of attempting to impose sameness in the form of communism and excessive socialism. The kibbutz movement in Israel was closer to the original communist ideals, and was voluntary, not imposed. It enjoyed far more success than the USSR for a time, but ultimately floundered anyway. Such utopian societies sound good in principle, but never work in reality. As the old saying goes, one who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart, and one who is still a socialist at age 40 has no brain. Still, Jews have played prominent roles in communist history, and antisemites often accuse Jews of pushing socialism. (Ironically, antisemites also accuse Jews of being greedy capitalists at the same time!) What is the actual Jewish approach to proper government and social structure? How does the Torah envision the ideal society? 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.
At the end of this week’s parasha, Bo, the Israelites are finally free and set forth out of Egypt. We are told that along with the Israelites came out an Erev Rav (Exodus 12:38), a “mixed multitude” of people that joined them. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) explains that these were non-Jewish people that wished to convert and become part of the Jewish people, having seen such great wonders and miracles. Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, c. 1089-1092) adds that they were mostly Egyptians, and Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865) says they were Egyptians that had intermarried with Jews. He proves it from Nehemiah 13:3, where the non-Jewish “erev” were separated out of the returning Jewish population. The Zohar (II, 291a) states that many of the Erev Rav were Egyptian magicians, witches, and wizards, who would perform their tricks in the erev ravrava, the “great evening”. The time between sunset and midnight is when the impure forces are most active, hence a “great evening” for those wicked people.
The Zohar teaches that God warned Moses not to accept the Erev Rav, for they would cause nothing but trouble, but Moses had a hard time keeping them away and thought that perhaps they could be redeemed. Not surprisingly, God was right. The Erev Rav went on to cause havoc and mayhem both to the Exodus generation itself, and throughout all of Jewish history, until the present. As we shall see, they orchestrated the Golden Calf and the Midianite catastrophe, among other calamities. While the term “Amalek” is reserved for Israel’s external nemesis, the Erev Rav is the far more dangerous enemy from within. It is of them that the prophet Isaiah said “…those who destroy you and ruin you emerge from within you.” (Isaiah 49:17) Now, more than ever, we need to understand: Who is the Erev Rav? How can we identify them today? And, most importantly, how do we stop them? Continue reading →