The use of radiation in various cutting processes has expanded considerably in the past two decades, primarily due to the development of extremely powerful tools capable of making highly accurate and clean incisions. Laser cutting tools are used in a wide variety of processes, from diamond cutting to operating rooms.

Like electricity and countless other natural forces, radiation appears in nature, although the way to harness it was discovered only recently, and is considered one of the most important discoveries in modern times.

It is fascinating to discover that thousands of years ago, the sages knew, from the Torah, of the existence of a force similar to radiation and its ability to perform fine cutting. The Creator of the universe has revealed many of nature’s secrets to the Jewish people, in order for them to use such knowledge to fulfill the Divine commandments. And if the ancient sages were with us today, they might well think that scientists are using roundabout, artificial means to produce radiation – because they were acquainted with the most original and direct form of radiation available in nature, namely, the shamir worm.

In Place of Iron

This mysterious natural force was needed for the construction of the First Holy Temple (Solomon’s Temple) in Jerusalem, since the use of metal tools was forbidden. The Tanach tells us (Melachim I 6:7):

“For the house, during its construction, 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 construction.”

Iron tools could not be utilized in the construction of the Temple, because iron was used to produce military weapons, and it was inappropriate to use instruments of war in building the House
of Peace – the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the Divine Presence resided.

In truth, the shamir worm had already been used some four centuries before the Temple’s construction, during the time of Moshe Rabbenu. Jewish tradition teaches that the shamir was used to inscribe the names of the 12 tribes on the two precious stones set into the shoulder straps of the high priest’s outer garment (the ephod), and on the 12 precious stones set into his breastplate (hoshen mishpat). Commenting on the aforementioned verse in Sefer Melachim, the Talmud writes:

“[King Solomon] said to the sages, ‘How shall I manage [without iron tools]?’ They replied, ‘There is the shamir, which Moshe brought for the stones of the ephod.’”

The shamir worm had no sharp edges protruding from its body, or any similar feature with which it could perform cutting. It cut and cleaved with a form of radiation that it emitted from its body.

The Talmud (Sotah 48b) records how the worm was used to engrave the names on the stones of the ephod:

We do not write upon these stones with ink, because the verse states [that the writing must be] “like the engravings of a signet.” Nor can we engrave them with a knife, because it states, “in their settings” [implying that the stones had to be placed in settings that remained whole, and a blade would have removed some of the material]. Rather, a person writes with ink upon them [as a template], shows theshamir [the written strokes] from the outside, and they split of their own accord, 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.”

In other words, there was no need for the shamir worm to actually touch the stones. It was merely held above the pre-marked letters and they were engraved into the stones by a type of radiation emanating from the worm.

Lead Containers

The remarkable power of the shamir worm gives rise to the question of how and where it was stored. If it had the ability to cut even stones, how was it kept in captivity?

The sages tell us:

After the Temple was destroyed, the shamir worm ceased to exist. What was the nature of the shamir? It existed since the six days of creation. When placed upon a stone or a beam, it split apart like the pages of a book. When placed on iron, the metal broke apart and fell away. Nothing could withstand it. How did they store it? They wrapped in soft wool and placed it in a
lead box filled with barley bran.

According to tradition, the only material that can withstand the shamir is lead. This is true as well of radioactive material – it must be stored in lead containers, for any other material would allow it to leak out.

Obviously, no attempt is being made here to establish exactly what type of radiation was emitted by the shamir, because we have lost all further knowledge of this amazing worm and have no samples upon which to conduct research. In consideration of the sages’ comments, however, we can say that it emitted a very unique type of radiation, with the ability to cut and cleave, similar to a laser, and which could only be stored in lead, similar to radioactive substances.

Rabbi Zamir Cohen is the founder of the Hidabroot organization and has written several books on the topics of Jewish thought and law, including his national bestseller, The Coming Revolution.