Thursday, February 19, 2015

Is This The Fabulous Shamir?

I have to interrupt the topic of "Why Do Centrist Orthodox Jews Send Their Kids to Extreme Charedi Yeshivos?" to share a fascinating news item. Scientists have discovered the strongest biological substance known to date. It's the teeth of a tiny creature in the snail family - the limpet, a small conical creature which is a familiar sight on rocks at the seashore.

This is of potential relevance to Judaism for two reasons. One is that it might relate to the shamir. This is the mysterious and fabulous creature that was used to carve the stones of the Temple, or (according to another view) the gemstones of the priestly breastplate.

Actually, the Gemara does not state that the shamir was an animal - it just describes it as something the size of a barley kernel, which had to be kept in a lead tube. In my book Sacred Monsters, I discussed Immanuel Velikovsky's original idea that this refers to a radioactive substance. Rambam and Rashi, however, describe it as a worm-like creature. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler suggests that it is a snail from the genus Euchondrus, which carve gouges in rocks in the Negev desert. However, as I noted in my book, these limestone rocks are much softer than the gems of the breastplate. But, I noted, there are marine mollusks with much stronger dental equipment, and therefore it is therefore not beyond the realms of biological possibility to posit that there is (or was) a species of invertebrate that could indeed engrave the gemstones of the priestly breastplate. The limpet might be such a candidate, although it is difficult to see how it could have actually been employed in this way.

A second way in which this discovery relates to Judaism is in the symbolism of it. The Gemara says as follows:
"The Rabbis taught: There are five fears with which the fear of the weak is upon the mighty: The fear of the leontophone upon the lion, the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant, the fear of the gecko upon the scorpion, the fear of the swallow upon the vulture, and the fear of the kilbit-fish upon the whale. R. Yehuda said: What is the scriptural source? “He grants the robbed one power over the mighty” (Amos 5:9). (Shabbat 77b) (See the forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom for discussion of this passage.)

The idea here is that the very smallest creatures in the world are often the strongest in some way. This reminds us not to attribute too much power to the physically intimidating. The very strongest biological substance of all is not the fangs of a lion or the tusks of an elephant - it's the teeth of a humble snail.

26 comments:

  1. Is This The Fabulous Shamir? answer- No

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  2. In Yirmiyahu 17:1, the shamir is described as having nails, which would correspond to the teeth of the limpet. Do we have any information about whether the teeth of the limpet were used in ancient times?

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  3. The Incredible Mr. Limpet!

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  4. Re Velikovsky's point, this is from my own book on Tanach:

    The word “shamir” literally mans a “hard substance”, such as a diamond. According to many famous Midrashim (including Midrashim mentioned in Shas), familiar even to school-children, the Shamir was actually a type of worm, which, when placed on the surface of a stone, would automatically cut it, and thus the Jews engraved the stones in the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. (Actually, L. Ginzberg in Legends of the Jews makes the important point that the Midrashim themselves do not say explicitly whether the Shamir was a mineral, plant or animal. However, as he himself points out, the language implies as much. At any rate, most of the Rishonim understand it to be some sort of worm.) Because of its destructive capabilities, the worm had to be stored in strips of cloth, from which it could not escape. Indeed, some have suggested that the special precautions needed to safeguard the animal – shamirah - gave it its name. Even the Rambam seems to agree with the Midrash, in his commentary to Avos, where the Shamir is mentioned (ch.6) as one of 10 things created on the 6th day of creation. The only outlier I have found is the Abarbanel in Kings, where he writes that the blood of the Shamir was used to mark cutting locations, and by following that trail the artisans were able to create perfect work. Although he thus agrees to the existence of the creature, he denies the magical properties attributed it to by our sages.

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    1. Except that shamir does not mean a hard substance. It means something preserved.

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    2. In Jeremiah 17 and Zechariah 7 the word Shamir means something hard.

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    3. Except it does. I wrote the above years ago, but here's a proof from exactly five seconds of googling. Ignore the rest if you will, just look at the etymology:

      The shamir (from shamira in Aramaic, meaning "like a flint stone") was a supernatural organism. The word "shamir" in biblical Hebrew was used in two senses: a) a penpoint made out of a hard substance (Jeremiah 17:1); or b) sharp thorns (Isaiah 5:6).

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  5. My two cents: You should get back to more of these fascinating, insightful stories and observations, and move away from the self-serving, preaching-to-the-choir, anti-Chareidi rhetoric.

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  6. Sorry, the limpet's 'teeth' don't correspond to the aggadic accounts of the Shamir. The conventional understanding, at least, has the Shamir as a creature - not some extracted 'tooth' which allegedly dissolved the hardest substances. More importantly, the limpet 'teeth' may be very strong but they are not very hard. The article lists a Moh's hardness of 5. This material can not scratch true gemstones which tend to have Moh's hardness of 8-10. Hence, the 'tooth' or creature would be useless for engraving some of the Choshen gemstones and it is too small for use in hewing out building stones.. Let's face it, the Shamir is a mythical creature which was really not needed for either hewing stones for the temple construction or for engraving the Choshen gemstones. The temple building stones were finished either at the quarry or off the temple mount where iron chisels could be used. The Choshen gemstones were engraved, presumably, with a diamond tipped tool.

    Y. Aharon

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  7. Ignoring the exact nature of the shamir for a second, I don't see why the midrash needs to say that the shamir was used to engrave the stones on the breastplate. For the stones of the Temple, there is at least a verse in Melachim (haftara of Teruma) stating that the sound of metal [hammers] was not heard in the temple while it was built, but what forces the midrash to need a shamir for the breastplate stones? Surely people could have used a diamond stylus as mentioned by Y. Aharon.

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  8. I. Pollack, the issue with the Choshen gemstones is the high degree of hardness or 'scratchability' of some gemstones such as ruby (odem?) and sapphire (sapir). These have a Mohs scale hardness of 9 and require a diamond tipped tool, diamond dust, or the mythical shamir for engraving. Apparently, diamond tipped or slurried engraving tools were uncommon in the talmudic world so that there was an apparent need for a more mysterious agent.

    Y. Aharon

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  9. Ignoring the exact nature of the shamir for a second, I don't see why the midrash needs to say that the shamir was used to engrave the stones on the breastplate. For the stones of the Temple, there is at least a verse in Melachim (haftara of Teruma) stating that the sound of metal [hammers] was not heard in the temple while it was built, but what forces the midrash to need a shamir for the breastplate stones?

    Sotah 48b (referenced from link that I posted previously.

    WHEN [THE SECOND] TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED, THE SHAMIR CEASED etc. Our Rabbis taught: With the Shamir Solomon built the Temple,16 as it is said: And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready at the quarry.17 The words are to be understood as they are written;18 such is the statement of R. Judah. R. Nehemiah asked him, Is it possible to say so? Has it not been stated: All these were of costly stones … sawed with saws!19 If that be so, why is there a text to State, There was neither hammer, nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in the building?20 [It means] that they prepared them outside and brought them within. Rabbi said: The statement of R. Judah is probable in connection with the stones of the Sanctuary, and the statement of R. Nehamiah in connection with [Solomon's] house. For what purpose, then, according to R. Nehemiah, was the Shamir necessary? — It was required as taught in the following: We may not write with ink upon these stones,21 because it is said: Like the engravings of a signet,22 nor cut into them with a knife because it is said: In their settings;23 but he writes with ink upon them, shows the Shamir [the written strokes] on the outside, and these split of their own accord,24 like a fig which splits open in summer and nothing at all is lost, or like a valley which splits asunder in the rainy season and nothing at all is lost.

    Surely people could have used a diamond stylus as mentioned by Y. Aharon.

    Given that this is the literal meaning of Shamir, perhaps that is what is actually being referred to, and then various Midrashim were attached to it over time. See wikpedia on Hardstone Carving:


    Most hardstones, certainly all quartz types and jade, have a crystalline structure that does not allow detailed carving by edged tools without great wastage and a poor finish. Working them has always been very time-consuming, which together with the cost of rare materials often traded from very far away, has accounted for the great expense of these objects. After sawing and perhaps chiselling to reach the approximate shape, stones were mostly cut by using abrasive powder from harder stones in conjunction with a hand-drill, probably often set in a lathe, and by grinding-wheels. Emery has been mined for abrasive powder on Naxos since antiquity, and was known in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Some early types of seal were cut by hand, rather than a drill, which does not allow fine detail. There is no evidence that magnifying lenses were used by cutters in antiquity. The Chinese sometimes tipped their straight drills with less-valued diamonds.[27]

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  10. This Shamir post has gotten me thinking about engraving diamonds - assuming that diamond was one of the Choshen gems. Diamond is a rather unique as well as very expensive material - at least for gem quality. Besides its unique hardness, each diamond gemstone is a macro-molecule. That is, each diamond crystal contains myriads of carbon atoms each having single covalent bonds to 4 neighbors and so on throughout the crystal. Hence your 1 carat diamond engagement ring consists of 10^22 bonded carbon atoms (that's 1 followed by 22 zeros). That makes for a physically very strong and heat conductive material. It is susceptible to oxidation, where the carbon turns into CO2, in air at high temperatures, however. This susceptibility can be used, in principle, to engrave the diamond using a very hot stylus.

    Y. Aharon

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  11. David Ohsie, thanks for the sources. One aspect that was not raised by Rabbi Shama is the idea that normal halachic decision making becomes irrelevant regarding some past event. "What was, was". Conjecture can't change what has already occurred. Thus either a Shamir was or was not used for engraving tribal names on the Choshen gemstones, or the finishing of building stones for Shlomo's temple - or did not exist; The relative authority given to the various Tanna'itic disputants is not relevant here. I also question Rabbi Sassoon's derivation that not using iron implements on the temple mount is biblically mandated. It is certainly not explicit in the same sense as the torah prohibition to finish off the altar stones with an iron implement. Rabbi Sassoon's interpretation of the word 'aleihem' to refer to anything in the vicinity of the altar is his own construction. I would argue that it was a matter of showing proper respect for the temple mount during construction. Hammering, chiseling, sawing, and other building activities generating much wastage and dust does not honor the place if such activities can be conducted elsewhere. The supporting verse that I would use is, "...v'et mikdashei tira'u".

    The Tanna'itic statement (B'raitah) later in Sotah 48b that the gemstones could not be engraved with a stylus because the torah uses the word, 'bemilu'am' (taken to mean intact) leads me to consider that perhaps the stones were not physically engraved, but etched. A combination of some acids (including HF) could etch most gemstones. Diamond, if used in the Choshen could be engraved by an incandescent stylus, as previously mentioned. The virtue of the etching or heat treatment is that no particles of the gemstone are removed (the removal process consists, instead, of dissolution or vaporization). That may satisfy the ostensible 'bemilu'am' requirement.

    In any case, we don't have the Shamir (assuming it ever existed), so we need to consider building a temple using ordinary steel implements (or diamond edged cutting wheels) - just not on the temple mount. If the ancient Choshen and Ephod is not recovered, then we will need to consider engraving the stones with a diamond tipped stylus or etching, etc. However, all of this will require consultation with a certified prophet. So, it's a purely academic concern at the moment.

    Y. Aharon

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  12. It is interesting that nobody mentions the discussion about the shamir/worm being used for building the Temple. In a conversation with R. Eliyahshav zt"l I asked him concerning the 'din' of ink for Sta'm and that it is required to be black but not מותר בפיך i.e. that it does not have to be made of kosher ingredients but its only condition is it for to be black. He then cited the מחלקת ראשניים on this subject about the שמיר.

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  13. to reb aharon

    do u know of any way of cutting into [or a] stone without cutting anything away? is there a natural mean of engraving so the stone naturatrly gets engraved?

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    1. The only way to form grooves in a surface without any loss of its material is by reshaping that surface through plastic flow. By this I mean that a material which can flow under the conditions of the friction induced temperature and applied stress will deform under the stylus. An example would be writing on a waxed tablet. However, the gemstones will not generally behave that way. They are brittle rather than plastic (deformable) materials, and will tend to undergo microfracturing and loss of particles when the stress of the very hard stylus is applied. Such consideration in connection with the interpretation of the word 'bemilu'am' regarding the Choshen stones to mean 'intact' rationalizes the adoption of the Shamir scenario, i.e., some 'supernatural' phenomenon.

      Y. Aharon

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  14. Unknown, your comment is ambiguous. Are you questioning the 'legitimacy' of using a non-kosher creature to finish the stones of the Mikdash or to form letters on the Choshen gemstones? That should not be an issue since the prohibition of using a treif species in writing a sefer torah and similar holy objects (STAM) is based on a specific verse in Joshua, "This torah scroll shall not be removed from your mouth and you shall pore over it day and night". The use of the term 'mipicha' was taken by the sages to mean that which is permitted in your mouth, i.e, from a kosher species. That prohibition does not lend itself well to generalization. In fact, various non-kosher species produced items that were used in the construction of the Mishkan. The most evident is the blue techeilet dye which was taken from the Hilazon a shelled sea creature (current evidence identifies that creature as the Hexaplex (Murex) Trunculus sea snail). The purple argaman dye is believed to be derived from the same or a very similar creature. The crimson tola'at shani dye is taken from the eggs of a tree louse (Kermes). In addition, the tachash skins used to cover the Mishkan were very likely from the Dugong sea mammal (the Arabic for that mammal is Tucash).

    Y. Aharon

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  15. there should b a way
    http://forum.otzar.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=16294&hilit=%D7%A9%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%A8

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  16. "That should not be an issue since the prohibition of using a treif species in writing a sefer torah and similar holy objects (STAM) is based on a specific verse in Joshua, "This torah scroll shall not be removed from your mouth and you shall pore over it day and night"

    The ink for STAM need not been kosher only black. That is hardly ambiguous.

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    1. I wasn't questioning that, only the point of your comment. "It is interesting that nobody mentions the discussion about the shamir/worm being used for building the Temple." What discussion?

      Y. Aharon

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  17. to RABBI aaron


    did u check out link with new find?
    http://forum.otzar.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=16294&hilit=%D7%A9%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%A8

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  18. חיתוך וביקוע באמצעות קרינה
    לאחרונה הולך ומתרחב השימוש בקרינה לצורך חיתוכים שונים הדורשים יכולת חיתוך בעוצמה רבה, יחד עם דיוק מירבי ועבודה נקיה. כך מוצאים אנו את מכשירי ההקרנות במקומות שונים ומגוונים, החל ממלטשות יהלומים, ועד חדרי ניתוח.
    הקרינה הינה כידוע תופעה טבעית - כמו החשמל ושאר כוחות טבע, אשר הדרך להפקתה מן הטבע התגלתה רק בדורות האחרונים, ונחשבת לאחת התגליות הנכבדות של העידן המודרני.


    מפליא לגלות שחכמי תורת ישראל אשר חיו לפני קרוב לשלשת אלפי שנה, סמוך לבנין בית המקדש הראשון, הכירו מתוך התורה את אפשרות החיתוך העדין והביקוע המדוייק באמצעות קרינה. במסגרת סודות הטבע אשר גילה בורא העולם לעמנו-עם ישראל, מתוך הצורך בידיעתן לשם אפשרות קיום מצוה או מצוות.
    אילו חכמי תורת ישראל דאז היו חיים עימנו כיום, סביר להניח שהיו מביטים באנשי המדע דהיום כעל משתמשים בדרכים עוקפות ובאמצעים מלאכותיים להפקת הקרינה מן הטבע. שהרי הם הכירו את כח הקרינה המקורי ביותר והישיר ביותר שבטבע! הם הכירו את תולעת השמיר.


    לשם הבנת הדברים והציטטות המובאות לקמן, נקדים, כי לחכמי תורת ישראל היה צורך בידיעת ובהכרת סוד - כח טבע זה לשם חיתוך האבנים אשר ישמשו לבנין בית המקדש, ללא כלי ברזל. וככתוב: "והבית בהבנותו וכו' ומקבות והגרזן וכל כלי ברזל לא נשמע בבית בהבנותו" (מלכים א' ו, ז). שימוש נוסף מצומצם יותר בהיקפו נעשה במידע חשוב זה בתקופת משה ודור המדבר כארבע מאות שנה קדם בנין בית המקדש, לצורך חריטת שמות השבטים על שתי האבנים היקרות אשר היו באפוד, ועל שתים עשרה האבנים היקרות אשר היו בחושן המשפט שבבגדי הכהן הגדול, וכדלהלן.
    בספר קהלת (ב, ח) מעיד שלמה המלך על עצמו שעשה שימוש בשדים (לפי אחד הפירושים). ובתלמוד (גיטין סח, א) מבואר כי השימוש שהשתמש בהם שלמה היה לצורך גילוי מקום המסתור של תולעת השמיר. ואלה דברי התלמוד (מתורגמים מארמית):

    "...שנאמר והבית בהבנותו וכו'. אמר להם שלמה לחכמי התורה: כיצד אעשה (לבנות את בית המקדש באבנים שלא נחתכו על ידי כלי ברזל)? אמרו לו, יש תולעת שמיר שהביא משה לאבני האפוד. אמר להם, היכן ניתן למוצאו? אמרו לו הבא שד ושדה וכפה אותם לגלות" וכו'. (וראה עוד שם את דרך השגת השמיר)

    דרך פעולת החיתוך והביקוע של השמיר לא היתה באמצעות עצם חד הבולט מגופה וכדו', אלא באמצעות קרינה הבוקעת ממנה. וכמבואר בתלמוד (סוטה מח, ב):

    "אבנים הללו (-שבאפוד ובחושן) אין כותבין אותן בדיו, משום שנאמר פתוחי חותם. ואין מסרטין עליהן באיזמל, משום שנאמר במילואותם (-שיהיו שלימות גם לאחר פיתוח שמות השבטים עליהן. והאיזמל מחסר מהן). אלא כותב עליהם בדיו (-לסימן), ומראה להן שמיר מבחוץ, והן נבקעות מאליהן - כתאינה זו שנבקעת בימות החמה ואינה חסרה כלום".

    כלומר, כדי לחרוט באבן היקרה לא היה כלל צורך בנגיעת השמיר באבן. אלא מציב את השמיר באויר ממול המקום הרצוי, והחריטה היתה מתבצעת באמצעות הקרינה אשר היתה בוקעת ממנה!!


    נסיים פרק זה בנתון נוסף, מפליא ומאלף לכשעצמו.
    לאחרונה התגלה שאף על פי שאיחסון קרינה רדיואקטיבית וקרני לייזר אינה יכולה להתבצע בשום חומר, מפני שהקרינה תחדור אליו ותעבור דרכו החוצה, חומר אחד ישנו שהוא יוצא מן הכלל - והוא העופרת. העופרת חסינה מפני קרינה.
    וכיצד היו מאחסנים את השמיר? הנה ציטוט לשון חז"ל בדבר השמיר ודרך איחסונו:

    "משחרב בית המקדש, בטל שמיר. מה טיבו של שמיר זה? בריה היתה מששת ימי בראשית. משנותנים אותו על גבי אבנים, על גבי קורות, מתפתחות (-מתבקעות) לפניו כלוחי פנקס. ולא עוד אלא כשנותנים אותו על גבי ברזל הוא בוקע ויורד מלפניו. ואין כל דבר יכול לעמוד בו. כיצד עושין לו (-לשומרו)? כורכין אותו במוכין של צמר ונותנים אותו לתוך כלי של עופרת מלא סובין של שעורים". (תוספתא סוטה טו, א וראה עוד בתלמוד סוטה מח, ב)




    הרי לנו דוגמה נפלאה נוספת לגילוי סוד טבע נדיר, על ידי בורא העולם לעמו-עם ישראל, לשם מתן אפשרות קיום מספר מצוות ממצוות תורתו.

    and mayb its this
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium

    or Carborundum

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  19. zvil, First of all I'm not a rabbi, just a scientist with at least some familiarity with torah sources. While the sources that you cite are imaginative (the citation in your last post), they are ultimately unsatisfactory. You cite the Tosefta that the Shamir is a creature. I am unaware of a living thing that produces sufficient radiation to engrave markings in a hard gemstone. After all, such energetic radiation would be harmful to the creature. Besides, it would require some auxiliary agent such as acid in order to etch the areas that have been bombarded by the radiation. Such etching involves loss of material from the stone. It would also require contact of the Shamir organism with the stone, or a means of collimating and directing the radiation to achieve the writing. Even a laser (I can't even imagine a laser organism) requires a focusing lens to provide a sufficient energy density to vaporize areas on the gem surface. None of the associated technology was known in ancient times - even if it would pass muster with the 'bemilu'otam' restriction.

    The previous link to an essay about R' Saadia Gaon's approach to the Shamir issue is also unsatisfactory. First it speaks of a liquid (mayim) that is attracted to the stone and causes it to form the letters. That has a mystical ring, i.e., non-physical. In the end, the author concludes that R' Saadia's 'mas' is like diamond dust used by engravers and cutters of hard stone. The latter runs into the 'bemilu'otam' problem. I do agree with one aspect, engraving the gemstones with a focused laser would be a neat way of forming the engravings and a more realistic proposition than waiting for the return of the Shamir.

    Y. Aharon

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  20. thanks

    mayb one day we will find a magnetic [or else, (we now have magnetic propelled trains)] power source within a stone [or else] that will radiate opposite powers.
    thanks again

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