The shamir is described in the Talmud and Midrash as a tool capable of slicing through solid stone, iron, and diamond – but was it a worm, a laser, or a radioactive rock?
The shamir is a religious mystery: while there are references to the shamir by name in the Talmud and Midrash (and alluded to in the Quran) and its magical properties are also described, exactly what it looked like and even whether it was alive or not are up for debate.
The shamir was supposedly one of the ten miraculous gifts made on the 6th day of creation, in the final minutes before the very first day of rest. Those gifts, according to Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers):
Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbat eve. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam’s] well; the mouth of [Balaam’s] donkey; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses’] staff; the shamir; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs.Ethics of the Fathers
The shamir could supposedly cut through almost anything with its laser-like gaze: solid stone blocks, hard iron, and even diamond. According to some stories, King Solomon was tasked with building the First Temple without any iron tools; the shamir was the tool that enabled him to do this, by cutting through solid rock.
The process by which it worked is described as turning the shamir’s “gaze” onto the target material, so many scholars have interpreted this to mean the shamir was something alive: a worm, for example. There have even been attempts to connect it to certain stone-boring worms in the Philippines. On the other hand, the shamir was supposedly kept in a case of lead – because lead was the only material it could not pierce.
If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, the presence of lead in this story is quite a tantalising possibility… particularly when combined with another description of the shamir as a glowing green stone. Some people have hypothesized that the shamir could have been some kind of radioactive substance, with the emitted radiation weakening and breaking the materials set before it.
Now, I know it’s a bit of a fool’s game to look for natural explanations for supernatural or divine items and events – so it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have a good answer about the true identity of the shamir. It’s still a fun hypothesis to kick around, that Solomon was carrying around a radioactive blow-torch.