To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on the Shamir worm, which King Solomon used to build the first temple in Jerusalem.
Day 2: The Shamir Worm
King Solomon wanted to build a temple to honor the one God. He prepared huge blocks of granite and marble, and the nearby King of Tyre sent him cedar and cypress to adorn the temple’s internal walls. Famous architects drew up plans for the temple, and laborers from far lands came to help the construction. But King Solomon grew worried, because according to the law of Moses and Israel no iron could be used in a sacred building. Why not? Because iron was the tool of weaponry and death. So how else to cut the huge blocks of stone?
He called together his wise men, and one of them told him about the “shamir” worm. “Ten things came into being on the sixth day of creation,” one wise man told the king. “One of them is the shamir worm. One touch from the little critter is enough to split the hardest stone. If you were to obtain one, you could cut the stone without iron tools and give glory to the God of Israel.”
Solomon was intrigued. The only problem was, he had no idea where to find such a shamir worm!
“No human knows,” said the wise man. “But it is said the shamir dwells in a land ruled by demons. Perhaps if you ask demons for their help?”
Later, while alone in his chambers, Solomon used his magic ring, inscribed with the various names of God, to call on two demons to help him. “Where can I find this wondrous shamir worm?” he asked the demons. And they replied, “Only Ashmedai, who dwells far from Jerusalem in a high mountain, knows the location of the shamir. Ashmedai has dug a well and filled it with water, and covered the top with his seal. Each day, Ashmedai flies up from the Earth to pause before God’s throne and listen to the celestial music of the angels and the hosts of heaven. He awes in the view of far-off worlds and stars. In the evening he flies across the universe and returns to his well. If his seal is unharmed, he drinks deeply from it, then rests before another day.”
Solomon heard their words and was pleased. The next morning, he called his most valiant soldier Baynash to him and set him on a task to capture Ashmedai. Baynash was eager to please his king and he set off with supplies and men and carriages full of the sweetest and most aromatic wine from the king’s vineyard. Each cask was decorated with a golden chain, upon which was inscribed with God’s name.
After many days’ journey, Baynash reached Ashmedai’s mountain. Baynash dug a hole in the mountain deep enough to reach Ashmedai’s well. He and his companions drained Ashmedai’s well of water and stopped it up with wool. Then they dug another well above the old one and poured all their wine into it. The wine, through gravity, would drain into Ashmedai’s well. Then they hid all evidence of their work, and waited in the shadows.
When the last of the sun’s rays dipped behind the mountain a darkness swept over the Earth, and a strong wind blew up fierce clouds of dust. Lightning flashed, and there stood mighty Ashmedai, taller than trees, born upon bright blue wings. Ashmedai examined his well, and finding that the seal was unbroken, he drank heartily. But Ashmedai was no fool. He knew the taste of wine and wondered, “How did wine, this sense-dulling, wisdom-killing fluid, get into my well?” He spit out the wine in anger, but the wine was sweet and refreshing, and soon a great thirst overcame him. There was no better wine than Solomon’s in all the earth. And he drank. “I shall only have a sip,” Ashmedai said. But it was too good, and he drank heartily.
Ashmedai fell into a deep, wine-induced sleep. Baynash snuck over carrying one of the golden chains from the caskets inscribed with the name of God. He threw the chain around Ashmedai’s neck. The moment the gold touched Ashmedai’s skin, the demon shrunk from his gargantuan frame to the size of a human man. When Ashmedai awoke, he thrashed about as if he were tied with heavy rope, but it was only the chain with the name of God that held him secure. Ashmedai soon realized he was bested, and he allowed Baynash to drag him back to Jerusalem.
Baynash entered the city with much fanfare, and King Solomon gave him a banquet seat at the place of honor. After they had eaten a full meal and Baynash recounted his story, the chained Ashmedai was brought in. Ashmedai lifted a stick from the ground and drew a rough rectangle. “You have all the power on Earth now, but when you die, you will have no more than this,” Ashmedai said, pointing to the rectangle.
But King Solomon was too wise for his demon captive. “King of Demons, Ashmedai, I do not seek power. I seek to build a temple for the glory of God. For this, I need the shamir worm. Tell me, where can I find it?”
Ashmedai said, “After Creation, God gave it to the Prince of the Waters, but he didn’t keep it. He gave it to a hoopoe, a large bird, who swore she would never let it fall into the hands of another, so great is its power.” Then Ashmedai told where they could find the shamir, in the middle of a great desert, hidden in a cave.
No sooner did Solomon hear this than he set Baynash out on a journey again. Baynash traveled for months to reach the distant desert, passing ever more barren lands, and Baynash wondered if they would ever find the shamir. At long last they found the mountain Ashmedai had spoken of, and there upon its face was the secret cave. Inside Baynash and his men found only fledgling hoopoe birds, not the mother bird they sought. But Baynash, thinking cleverly, used his men to place a large boulder before the cave mouth. When the mother returned some time later with food in her beak, she saw the boulder and gave a shrill cry. She dropped her food outside the cave and squeezed her body through a small opening a mouse could barely fit through. She came out with the shamir worm clasped in her beak. With the barest touch, she placed the tiny worm onto the great boulder, and the rock split into a thousand fragments. Baynash leaped out from his hiding place and gave a loud cry, startling the bird. She dropped the shamir, and Baynash caught it between his fingers.
Victorious, he returned to Jerusalem with the worm, and using its great power, Solomon was able to build the Temple as God had commanded, without using iron, the metal of war. In the seven years of its construction, neither a hammer nor a chisel was heard at the building site. And there they made the holy place to consecrate God.
The Myth’s Origins
The story of the Shamir worm comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 68, as a way to interpret to the following two passages: In Deuteronomy 27:5 it says, “Build there an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not use any iron tool on them.” And in Kings 6:7 it says, “For the house, when it was in 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 in building.” The proscription was clear. They could not use iron tools to build the Temple in Jerusalem, because the iron used to fashion the tools might once have been used in a sword or other weapon, and that would defile the Temple, the holiest of places.
The ancient rabbis wondered then, how then did King Solomon build the Temple if he had no iron for which to cut and shape the stone? Thus the myth of the Shamir worm was born.
In commentary from Maimonides and Rashi, both great and learned rabbis of their day, they suggest that the shamir is a living creature. In The Testament of Solomon, an apocryphal book which describes how Solomon called before him a host of demons to aid him, the book describes the shamir explicitly as a green mineral.
According to these sources the shamir was created on the sixth day of creation, before the first sabbath, along with nine other creatures. According to R’Bachiya in the Talmud, the shamir was first used at the time of the construction of the Tabernacle to engrave the names of the tribes on the precious jewels of the High Priest’s breastplate.
The Shamir’s Physical Appearance
Some sources say the shamir was as small as a barleycorn (less than one centimeter). Other sources depict the worm as millipede like, with many legs and huge eyes. In Aramaic, “shamir” means “like a flint stone.” In an Abyssinian legend the shamir was a kind of wood or herb, but it’s hard to imagine plant fiber cutting stone. But there is a well known ancient art of using wood, swelled with water, to split stone. The Talmud says that one “glance” from the shamir could cut stone, which explains why some depictions show the worm having huge eyes.
The shamir could not be held in any kind of metal vessel, including iron, because it would instantly be split apart. So it was kept wrapped in wool, and placed in a lead basket filled with barley bran, according to the Talmud, Sota 48b. This placement in lead and the mention in the Testament of Solomon that the shamir was a green mineral has led some to suggest that the shamir may have been uranium ore. How an ancient people could have harnessed the power of uranium to split stone is a mystery I don’t believe will be solved anytime soon.
Most of the midrashic texts suggest the shamir was a supernatural creature created on the sixth day of creation, and thus has no analog in nature.
Thoughts on the Myth
I find this myth fascinating for many reasons. It’s interesting to note the strange dichotomy. It was forbidden for the Jews to use iron, i.e. the implements of war, to build the Temple. Yet King Solomon calls up demons to do his bidding at the drop of a hat. If demons are those who reject God and turn away from him, why is their aid necessary to build the holy Temple? The first Temple in Jerusalem was not fashioned with any weapons of war, yet it was made through the help of demons, and none other than the demon king, Ashmedai, himself. Perhaps the rabbis accepted this because Solomon’s demons were used in the service of God, enslaved to Solomon through his magic ring and chains. Or perhaps, in the time of the writing of the Talmud, demons were not seen as they are today, servants of evil and darkness, but as a kind of enslaved angel, or messenger of God. The ancient Greek word δαίμων (daimon) from which our word comes from denotes only a supernatural essence, and not a malevolent one.
Generally, I find the idea noble: an ancient people wanted to create a holy place, free from any remnant of violence or war. (The Temple was so holy in fact that only certain ritually purified high priests could enter its inner sanctuary at only certain times of the year.) A sword that once slew a man could not be melted down and used as a chisel to carve a stone to honor the exalted God. Therefore, to explain how the Temple was built, the myth of the shamir arose. It’s a nice message — one tiny creature used to construct the place to praise the ineffable God — and suggests there is great power in small things.
Tomorrow’s myth: The Shattered Vessels.
September 25, 2018 at 5:23 am
Barukh ata Adonai Elihienu melkh ha’olam
Modeh ani amen. Shalom…
June 19, 2019 at 10:55 pm
Those drawings look a lot like this recent discovery of a “worm” that specifically eats rock.
June 20, 2019 at 3:46 pm
Well, it eats it *very* slowly, so probably not very efficient for masonry. But yeah, maybe this little guy led to the myth. That would be fascinating.