The Shamir

Part 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."[1] 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."[2]

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."[3] 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.

Part 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".[4] 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.

Part 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 full story.

After creating the shamir on the sixth day of creation,[5] 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 was lost.

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] 1 Kings 6:7 [Back]
[2] Pesikta Rabbati 6, 28a [Back]
[3] Exodus 20:25 [Back]
[4] Exodus 28:11 [Back]
[5] Avot 5:6 [Back]

The 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.



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