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Thursday
Sep052019

The Rock-Eating Worm

Recently, marine biologists have made an exciting discovery: a rock-eating worm found only in one river in the entire world. The worm, which lives in a small section of the Abatan River in the Philippines, is known to the local population as “antingaw,” and nursing mothers eat it to increase their milk supply. The worm is so unique that scientists assigned it its own genus and species, Litnoredo abatanica. It is a bivalve, like a clam or mussel, commonly known as a shipworm. However, typical shipworms eat wood, while this worm eats limestone.

While the discovery of this worm was a surprise to scientists, it is familiar to students of Torah. The midrash describes a rock-eating worm that was essential in constructing the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

One of the stipulations in the Torah is that iron cannot be used to hew the rocks for the altar. After all, the purpose of the altar is to bring peace between G-d and mankind, and iron is used for weapons of war. If no iron or steel could be used, how were they to fashion the altar? The answer was the shamir—a tiny worm that had the power to split stone with remarkable precision.

But what was the shamir? Ethics of our Fathers lists the shamir as one of ten wonders that was created on Friday eve at dusk. Twilight on Friday is an in-between time, suspended between weekday and Shabbos, the profane and the holy. The objects created then were miraculous, meant to serve a specific purpose but not quite part of the natural order of the world. After the construction of the Temple, the shamir disappeared.

It is not clear exactly what species of worm the shamir was, or whether it was a worm at all. It is described in the Talmud as smaller than a grain of barley. There are some opinions that it was actually a radioactive stone, which would explain how it was able to cut through stone without leaving a trace. It was kept wrapped in wool in a lead vessel, the only receptacle that could contain it without being broken down, which further supports the theory that it was radioactive.

So, can this rock-eating shipworm be the mystifying shamir? It seems unlikely, because it is not tiny; in fact it is considerably larger than typical shipworms. In any event the construction of the Holy Temple does not depend on the shamir. Other methods of hewing stone can be used, as long as iron is not involved.

The bottom line we can take out of this intriguing phenomenon is the importance of peace. G-d created a supernatural creature that could cut through stone just to underscore its value. We know that the Holy Temple was destroyed due to senseless hatred, and the way to bring it back is through senseless love. By treating each other with respect and kindness, we hasten the Redemption, when all wars and conflict will cease.

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