A Wonder Worm
“When The Temple Was Destroyed The Shamir…Ceased”
The shamir was a worm that could cut any stone. The Gemara (Gittin 68a) relates – based on the verse (I Kings 6:7), “And the House [the Holy Temple] when being built was constructed of whole quarried stone” (stone made ready before it was brought there) – that King Solomon sought to capture this worm in order to build the Temple.
Our mishna (48a) relates that the shamir vanished when the Temple was destroyed. The Gemara (48b) cites a dispute between R. Yehuda and R. Nechemia. R. Yehuda cited the Gemara’s simple understanding of the following verse (I Kings 6:7) “And the house, when it was in the building, was built of stone made ready at the quarry” [“made ready” means in their perfect natural state, therefore he] is of the opinion that any cutting and hewing of the building material [beyond that] employed in the construction of the Temple was done utilizing the shamir. R. Nechemiah disagrees, citing another verse (I Kings 7:9): “All these were [built] of precious stones the size of hewn stones sawed with saws…”
The Gemara offers a compromise. Inside the Temple the shamir was used, in accordance with the view of R. Yehuda. However, outside the Temple, in the preparatory stages of construction, there was no need for the shamir – in accordance with the view of R. Nechemiah.
Rambam (Hilchos Beth HaBechira 1:8) rules in accordance with the compromise of the Gemara – that all the hewing of stones for the Temple was done outside the Temple area and they were then brought into the edifice. Yet, basically, the compromise aligns itself more with the opinion of R. Nechemiah.
The Gemara now asks: According to R. Nechemiah, who sees no need for the shamir in the construction of the Temple, one can ask what use it served. The Gemara answers that the shamir was used for the stones of the ephod – the apron that was worn by the High Priest, which could not be cut by any tool, as the verse states (Exodus 28:11): “… like the engraving of a signet ring shall you engrave the two stones…” and it states further (28:20): “… be’miluotam – … in their entirety.”
The rule that applies to the stones of the ephod is equally valid for the stones of the choshen (the breastplate).
When Did it Vanish?
Tosafos (Gitin 68a, s.v. “ika shamir”) deduce from the Gemara in Kiddushin (31a) that the ephod was also worn by the High Priest during the Second Temple era. This indicates that the shamir still existed at that time since it was needed to engrave the stones of the ephod.
Thus, Tosafos conclude that when our mishna states that the shamir vanished at the destruction of the Temple, the reference is to the Second Temple.
Ramban (Exodus 25:7) maintains that the requirement of being engraved as a signet ring – pituchei chotam … be’miluotam – in their entirety applied only to the choshen (the breastplate). The stones on the apron were not required to be “complete.” Therefore, the names of the tribes could be chiseled into the stones without the use of the shamir. Explaining the Gemara in Gittin (68a), where we see the rules for the stones of the breastplate applied to the stones of the apron, Ramban notes that the two terms are often interchangeable.
Accordingly, there is no proof that the shamir existed beyond the destruction of the First Temple. Possibly they no longer had the choshen (the breastplate) at that time and therefore it was only the ephod [the apron] that was worn by the High Priest.
The Iyyun Yaakov (Gittin 68a) adopts the position that the shamir vanished at the time of the destruction of the First Temple and suggests that in the absence of the shamir to properly engrave the ephod stones, the High Priest wore blank stones. He argues that engraving the stones with the names of the tribes is a mitzvah but is not essential to the validity of the ephod.