By all accounts, the First Temple was a magnificent edifice built with cedars from Lebanon and enormous quarried stones. When contemplating the manner in which the Temple was constructed, one comes across a unique conundrum. In Exodus, God clearly states: “And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you lift up your tool upon it, you have profaned it” (Exodus 20:21). This rule forbidding tools of metal applied to the building of the Temple as well. So how could one build this incredible structure out of enormous stones without metal tools?
King Solomon, who built the First Temple, asked this exact question. He “said to the rabbis, ‘How shall I manage [without iron tools]?’ They replied: ‘There is the shamir, which Moses used for the stones of the ephod’” (Gittin 68b).
According to legend, the shamir was a tiny, worm-like creature, the size of a barley-corn, that was one of 10 things created at the very end of the sixth day of creation (Pirkei Avot 5:6). The shamir was able to cut through any hard substance (Sotah 48b). The first instance in which the shamir was put to work was to etch the names of the tribes on to the twelve gemstones of the High Priest’s breastplate.
After the sages told Solomon about the shamir, he went to great lengths to find it (even asking demons for help - Gittin 68a), and he had to capture it from the care of a certain hoopoe bird. Thus it is recorded that the Temple “was built of stone made ready at the quarry; and there was neither hammer nor ax nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building (I Kings 6:7).
Upon the completion of the building, the shamir was wrapped in wool and kept in a lead container. “When [the Second] Temple was destroyed, the shamir ceased [to exist] (Sotah 48b).
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