one: How the shamir*
cut through the Temple stones, readying them for building
According to legend, the stones themselves built the Holy Temple in the
days of King Solomon. In the Book of Kings it is written : "For the house,
while it was in the building, was built of stone made ready at the quarry;
and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the
house while it was being built."
The midrash tells us: The stones moved of their own accord; they flew
and rose up by themselves, setting themselves in the wall of the Temple
and erecting it."
According to another tradition (according to the opinion of R. Judah),
it was a little worm called the shamir who readied the stones,
so that the stones emerged hewn from the quarry, ready for placement in
Solomon's Temple. Solomon remembered the biblical injunction: "....if
you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones;
for if you lift up your tool upon it, you have polluted it."
The tools of iron symbolized the sword, the instrument of war and death,
while the altar and temple were the symbols of peace and life. Solomon
desired that not only the altar, but all the stonework in the sacred temple
be made ready at the quarry without using any metal tool or instrument.
Solomon was informed by a wise counselor of a most marvelous creature,
about the size of a single grain of barley, which was so strong that it
could cut through any substance on earth, even the hardest of diamonds;
in fact, it could cut stone better than the sharpest tool of iron.
He then learned from the demon Ashmedai that since the days of Moses (who
had employed the shamir when writing on the tablets of stone),
the worm had been entrusted to the care of the Prince of the Sea who has
given it into the charge of the hoopoe bird (or woodcock). Solomon's servant
set out to find it, and succeeded in delivering it safely to King Solomon.
With the help of the miraculous worm, the wise king built the Temple;
thereafter the shamir disappeared and to this very day no one knows
where it is to be found.
two: How the shamir cut chiseled through the precious stones in
the priestly breastplate
Judah. R. Nehemiah differed with R. Judah (in a Talmudic discussion),
claiming that the verse from the Book of Kings simply implied that the
stones were made ready for building at the quarry site, and then brought
in to the Temple site. The shamir, he insisted, was used only in
readying the stones for the shoulder pieces on the ephod and the
stones for the breastplate . It is written in Exodus that the precious
stones for the ephod and the breastplate were to bear the names of the
twelve tribes, engraved "like the engravings of a signet".
And yet, we know that ordinary metal cutting or cleaving tools (such as
chisels) were not to be used to make an incision in the stones, inasmuch
as Scripture requires that the stones remain "in their fullness." Voilà
le shamir! At the appearance of the shamir, the stones,
of their own accord, split at the markings, like a fig that opens up during
the summer and nothing thereof is lost, or like a valley that opens up
during the rainy season and nothing thereof is lost.
three: Early days of the shamir
From where did this marvelous shamir come? How was it kept? And
who brought it (if your vote is with R. Judah) to Solomon? Here's the
creating the shamir on the sixth day of creation,
God gave the shamir to the hoopoe-bird (in some versions, a woodcock)
for safekeeping. The hoopoe promised to guard it with her life; for eons,
she kept it with her at all times, safe in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes,
when the hoopoe flew throughout the earth, she kept the little worm tight
in her beak, departing with it only to cleft open rocks on desolate mountains,
that she might seed them and cause vegetation to blossom forth and provide
her with food.
One day God borrowed it back for a special task. It was then that the
Israelites were wandering on their forty-year journey in the wilderness.
Aaron, the high priest, was ready to take on God's holy work in the Tabernacle,
but for this sacred work, he needed a special breastplate made of twelve
precious stones, one for each tribe. How could the Israelite artisans
engrave the tribes' names on these stones without splintering them? For
to etch the words required great strength but also the greatest accuracy
and craft. Only the miraculous shamir was capable of such a task.
So Bezalel and his artisans inscribed the names in ink on each of the
stones: ruby, topaz, smaragd, garnet, sapphire, emerald, zircon, agate,
amethyst, beryl, jasper, onyx. And then God sent the shamir to
perform its work, etching the names into the shimmering surface of the
stones, working with such astonishing skill that not one atom of stone
Then God returned the shamir to the hoopoe's charge.
Where did the hoopoe keep such a powerful creature? What ordinary vessel
could possibly hold it? Since lead alone could resist the hoopoe's bite,
the bird sealed up her precious charge inside a box of lead, wrapped in
a woolen cloth nestled among a handful of barley grains. And there she
might have kept it forever had not Solomon needed it to build the Holy
Temple in Jerusalem.
But that story you already heard.
Shamir, in Latin: smiris corundum,
a very hard stone, second only to the diamond. [Back]
1 Kings 6:7 [Back]
 Pesikta Rabbati 6, 28a [Back]
 Exodus 20:25 [Back]
 Exodus 28:11 [Back]
 Avot 5:6 [Back]
story of the shamir's origins is retold by Ellen Frankel in
The Classic Tales: 4.000 Years of Jewish Lore, Publ. Jason
Aronson, 1996. English language sources: Ginzburg, Legends of the
Jews I, 66-69. Hebrew sources: Pirkei Avot 5:6; Sifre Deut. (ed. Friedmann),
355; Midrash Tannaim 219; B. Pesahim 54a; Avot de Rabbi Natan 37,
95; Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer 19;
Tosefta Sotah 15:1-Bavli 48b; Yerushalmi 9, 20d.