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KRONOS Vol VI, No. 1
Copyright (c) 1980 by the Estate of Immanuel Velikovsky
In the Talmud and Midrashim there are many references to Shamir. Unusual qualities were ascribed to it. For instance, it reputedly could disintegrate anything, even hard, durable stones. The rabbinical literature describes it as being employed in engraving the breastplate of the High Priest. Among Solomon's possessions it was the most wondrous. But, strangely, it lost its abilities and became inactive several centuries later, about the time the Temple of Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
What was Shamir ?
In the opinion of medieval authors Rashi, Maimonides, and others Shamir was a living creature, a worm.(1) It was argued that Shamir could not have been a mineral because it was active. The names of the tribes of Israel were produced on the semi-precious stones of the breastplate of the High Priest, not by carving but by writing with ink and "showing" them to Shamir , or exposing them to its action. In the opinion of more modern authors the expression - "was shown to Shamir " - "clearly shows it was the glance of a living being which effected the splitting of wood and stones".(2) It is admitted, however, that "in the Talmudic-Midrashic sources it is never explicitly stated that the Shamir was a living creature".(3) An old source, The Testament of Solomon , a work written in Greek that probably originated in the early third century C.E., refers to Shamir as a "green stone".(4) But how could a greenish stone cut the hardest of minerals, the diamond, with its glance?
"The Shamir is about the size of a barleycorn. . . No hard substance can withstand it."(5)
Over a hundred and twenty-five years ago a Jewish scholar in Germany printed a paper to prove that Shamir was a mineral,(6) but modern authorities agree with the medieval rabbis, saying that they were "undoubtedly correct".(7)
The manner in which Shamir was kept secure may give us some clue. "The Shamir may not be put in an iron vessel for safe-keeping, nor in any metal vessel: it would burst such a receptacle asunder."(8) "They wrap it in tufts of wool and place it in a leaden tube full of barley bran." This last sentence is quoted from the Tractate Sotah, 48b, of the Babylonian Talmud, an ancient source. "Oferet" of the text is properly translated as "lead".
This quote contains an important clue: Folkloristic fantasy would not make a leaden box of greater resistance than an iron or gold one; lead is a soft metal. Therefore, this must be a description based on fact. And with the knowledge of our own age we may easily guess who, or what was Shamir: It was a radioactive substance; and radium salts, for example, acting upon certain other chemical substances can emit a luminescence with a yellow-green hue.
The breastplate of the High Priest was engraved in the following manner. The letters were written with ink, and the stones upon which the letters were written were exposed, one after another, to the "glance" or radiation of the Shamir. This ink must have contained powdered lead, or lead oxides, or possibly sugar of lead, which is the salt of acetic acid solution a readily available reagent for the ancients, as acetic acid is the major constituent of vinegar. The parts of the stones which were unprotected by lead were disintegrated without leaving any dust particles, which, according to the Sotah, 48b, appeared especially remarkable. Those parts protected by leaden ink stood up in relief on the surface of the gems.
The word batel , used to describe the end, or demise, of Shamir , (9) has only one meaning: "To become inactive." Therefore, when occasionally it is said that the Shamir "vanished" at about the time the Temple was destroyed, this is incorrect.(10) The term for a paralysed member in Hebrew is ever batel ; a loafer is batlan ; inactivity is batala ; all these words come from the root batel. In the four hundred years that passed from the building of the first Temple till its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in -587, a radioactive substance could become inactive.(11)
In 1896, one year after Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen of Wurzburg discovered X-rays, Antoine Henri Becquerel, son and grandson of two great physicists, discovered radioactivity by serendipitously placing a photographic plate near a uranium salt.
Uranium at ordinary temperatures emits an invisible radiation which resembles X-rays, and can affect a photographic plate protected by a thin layer of metal.
Marie and Pierre Curie, led by the conviction that in the midst of pitchblende, their source of uranium, there must be still another element of a much greater radioactivity, dedicated themselves to its isolation; and in 1898, they succeeded in bringing forth the new element as its bromide salt radium.
A new era in physics began with these discoveries. And because of the dramatic circumstances under which the Curies pursued their goal and the story of the illuminating substance they found one evening when they returned to their cold and poorly-equipped laboratory the last of the three discoveries, radium, captured the imagination of people everywhere.
Radioactivity is used beneficially in the treatment of neoplasms, while the destructive work of the uranium bomb thrown on Hiroshima also goes back to the discoveries of Roentgen, Becquerel, and the Curies.
Uranium and radium are elements, among the original substances of which the universe is built. They were discovered, never invented. Therefore they were present in nature since the beginning; and, since radioactive elements have a limited lifetime because of disintegration through radioactivity, there must have been more radium in the geological past. Moreover, a "radium clock" is used to measure the age of rocks. The end result of the decay of radium is an isotope of lead. This lead differs from regular lead, and from the ratio of such lead to radium or uranium in rocks, the age of these rocks can be found. Lead is also the substance that protects best against the damaging effect of radium or other radionuclide irradiation; and thus laboratory radium is preserved in a lead receptacle when not in use for medical or technological purposes.
The information found in ancient sources that Shamir was a greenish material; that it was as large as a barleycorn; that it could damage anything, even metals and other minerals, save lead, and the only protection could be found by placing Shamir in a leaden box; that it had a "glance" which disintegrated things without leaving filings or dust; that it became inactive after a period of four hundred years all reveal the true nature of Shamir.
REFERENCES1. Rashi, Pesahim, 54a; Maimonides, Commentary on Abot, 5 .6.
2. L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Vol.V (Phila.,1925), p.53, n.165.
4. C. McCown, The Testament of Solomon, Leipzig (1922), pp. 105ff. F. C. Conybeare, "The Testament of Solomon," Jewish Quarterly Review XI (1898), p. 12, date it to ca. 100 AD
5. I. Epstein, ed., The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah.
6. S. Cassel, "Ein arch-aologischer Beitrag zu Natur- und Sagenkunde," Denkschrift der Koniglichen Akademie gemeinmitziger Wissenschaften in Erfurt (19 July 1854), pp. 48-112.
7. Ginzberg, Legends, loc. cit.
8. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 34.
9. Tractate Sotah (Seder Nashim), 9.2.
10. E.g., Ginzberg, Legends I, p. 34.
11. Radium loses about one percent of its radioactivity every 25 years.