Recapturing the Shamir’s Power from the Angels

The Mishnah teaches that when the Temple was destroyed, the “Shamir” and the “sweetness of honeycomb” disappeared along with it.  The Shamir was an essential element in King Solomon’s building of the Temple.  The Torah prohibited the King from building it out of cut stones, effectively banning the use of blades and other instruments of war.  The Shamir, “Shamira” or flint stone in Aramaic, is often rendered as a tiny worm.  Although it appears as a kind of wood or herb in Abyssinian legends, our commentators, including Rashi and Maimonides, describe it as a living creature whose “glance” would cause wood and stone to split.  The Shamir would be placed outside of the stone, and the stone would split of its own motion, without resort to steel or other blunt instrument.

Modern scientists have explored natural forces that could explain the “glance.”  The Shamir may have produced waves that disrupted the molecular structure of materials.  It could have acted as a laser beam.  Or it could have had radioactive potency, which might explain why over time its radioactivity may have decayed.  Whether or not those physical attributes can be traced back to Nature, our tradition squarely ascribes the Shamir to Divine power, created after Nature on the twilight of the first Erev Shabbat along with other super-natural forces:  the demons, the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac, Moses’ staff, and even the mouth of Balaam’s donkey.  Indeed, King Solomon is said to have obtained the ultimate location of the Shamir after consulting the king of the demons, and to have captured it from a mysterious bird who had gotten the Shamir from the angel of the sea.

Unless one of us has credible informants among demons and angels, then, we would be hard pressed to recapture the Shamir and to launch upon the rebuilding of the Temple in accordance with tradition.   Our Mussar giants teach, however, that the Shamir and its proximity in the Mishnah to the “sweetness of honeycomb,” connote a human quality that we have the capacity to recapture today:  the ability to speak truth and to rebuke one another without brutalizing our interlocutors, and to open another’s heart without driving an emotional blade through it.

The Shamir’s piercing glance outside of the stone is akin to the truth that we are obligated to speak, to peers and power alike, to condemn abuses and to rebuke those who stray from that which is proper and just.  Truth can hurt, especially when it challenges one’s ability to live according to ethical precepts.  The Shamir stood by the side of the stone, the narrative goes, and by its sheer power caused it to split open voluntarily.  While words of reproach hurt, when they are sweetened with honeycomb, the love for the Other that infuses them may open their hearts to feel the message that lies beyond the initial bitterness of the medication.

Our Sages yearned for a generation who would “know how to accept rebuke or how to offer it.”  (Arachin 16b).   The sweetness of a Torah heart filled with Ahavat Israel, combined with a Shamir-like piercing glance that speaks truth to peers and power alike, has the magical potential to inspire and elevate us into opening our hearts of our own emotional understanding.

As we mourn the destruction of the Temple in these Nine Days of Av, and as the stridency of societal debates can be deafening, let us remember that we have the power to recapture the Shamir, not by bargaining with the king of the demons, but by calling it up from the better angels of our nature to work side-by-side with the sweetness of honeycomb.

Shabbat shalom.


Pinhas Halevy Horowitz, Sefer Panim Yafot

Paul Goldstein, Modern Physics and the Shamir,

About the Author
Ari Afilalo ( is a professor of law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He grew up in France, the son of a Jewish Moroccan family, in an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood. He has published extensively in the field of international law. He is the current president of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.