The Worm That Built Solomon’s Temple

Did a mysterious little creature, the enigmatic "Shamir", really help build the First Temple?


The Book of Kings contains a precise description of the building of the First Temple: its dimensions, the cedar and cypress beams that covered the walls, the gilded ornaments and carvings, and the two cherubim that stood wing to wing above the Ark of the Covenant. It also includes this puzzling verse: “And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone finished at the quarry, and there was neither hammer nor axe (nor) any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” (1 Kings 6:7)

How could it be that no hammers, chisels or iron tools were used to carve the stones of the Temple, while the Bible also states that the stones were hewn? The Jewish sages offer a simple answer:  the stones were prepared in another location and transported from there to the construction site at the Temple Mount. The Book of Kings even brings support for this explanation: “And the king commanded, and they quarried great stones, heavy stones, to lay the foundation of the house (with) hewn stone.” (1 Kings 5:31).

But our interest here is the alternative explanation, appearing in Rabbinic literature, according to which the stones were hewn with the help of something called Shamir. The obscure Shamir appears in the Bible itself, though not in the Book of Kings. In Ezekiel (3:9) it is written that Shamir is “stronger than flint.” The Hebrew text of Jeremiah 17:1 also makes mention of Shamir, though English versions have translated the word as “flint” or “diamond”: “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, with a diamond [Shamir] point, engraved on the tablet of their heart and on the horns of your altars.” These passages clearly suggest that Shamir is a hard material of some kind.

The Talmud provides additional information about the mysterious Shamir. For example, in Tractate Avot, Shamir is mentioned as one of the ten things created on the “Sabbath eve,” before the completion of the act of Creation. The substances created in that moment were somewhat enigmatic in nature, including the Shamir which had the power to hew stones. Tractate Sotah (48b) explains that the Shamir was used to engrave the stones inserted into the Priestly breastplate (Hoshen), which were cut “like a fig which splits open in summer.” It also says there that because nothing could withstand the Shamir’s strength, it is stored in tufts of wool in a lead box filled with barley bran.

Model of the Temple from a book of photographs of Temple models donated to the National Library of Israel in the 1930s

The Talmud, Tractate Gittin (68a) contains the most detailed legend surrounding the Shamir. According to the story, King Solomon asked his advisors how the stones for the Temple could be prepared without the use of an axe or chisel, as it was inappropriate to use tools of bloodshed and war to construct such a building. They told him of the miraculous Shamir but did not know where to find it. The king then summoned forth spirits and demons, but these were also unable to say where it might be found. They did, however, suggest that Solomon consult their lord, Asmodeus, king of demons, who might know the answer. King Solomon sent his general, Benayahu son of Yehoyada, who subdued Asmodeus and brought him to the king’s palace. Asmodeus (or Ashmedai) revealed to Solomon that the Shamir was in the possession of the Lord of the Sea, guarded by a certain bird, a woodcock according to most English versions of the story. Solomon quickly sent off another of his servants who prevailed over the woodcock and managed to steal the Shamir away. From here the story continues, with further twists and turns. You can read a version of the legend in Louis Ginzberg’s classic, “The Legends of the Jews”, as well as a Hebrew version which is available online here (in Kol Agadot Yisrael, ed. Israel Benjamin Levner, Tushiya Publishing).

“…and He named it ‘Shamir’, and placed it to rest in safekeeping, in a place unknown to humans“, a page from the legend of King Solomon and Asmodeus, Kol Agadot Yisrael, I. B. Levner

In Rashi’s commentary to the legend, he deduced that the woodcock was in fact a hoopoe (duchifat in Hebrew, דוכיפת), which became a popular fixture in the legends of King Solomon. But more to the point, he suggested that the Shamir was not a stone or other inanimate object at all, as can be assumed from some of the versions of the legend, but was in fact a living creature—a worm. The source of Rashi’s explanation is unclear, but the phrase “Shamir worm” was born and even made its way into the writings of Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovic, 1836–1917), who mentions the Shamir as one of the wondrous creatures that Benjamin the Third sets out to find in his travels.

Illustration for the legend of King Solomon and Asmodeus. Illustrator: J. Apter. From the book Shlomo Hamelekh – Agadah Ketuva Beyad, [Hebrew] H.N. Bialik, Frankfurt, 1923

The religious commentators do not agree on whether the Shamir was a living creature or a kind of stone with miraculous powers. On the other hand, based on the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 48b), they determined that after the Temple was destroyed, the Shamir was obliterated from the world. However, about two years ago, a team of researchers in the Philippines discovered a worm capable of eating through limestone. While limestone is a relatively soft form of rock, nevertheless, the existence of a stone-carving worm might not be such an unrealistic notion after all…

The Temple Menorah in Kabbalistic Manuscripts

Kabbalistic literature looked for ancient symbols through which it could express its daring innovations. It found such a symbol in the Menorah...

The Sefirot, Temple implements and Jacob’s ladder, 14th c. Russian State Library, (Ms. Guenzburg 82)

Are the branches of the menorah a symbol of the ten Sefirot (divine emanations) in the Kabbalah? This, at least, is what some kabbalists thought.

Like all Jewish innovators before them, in order to convey their bold new ideas, the kabbalists adopted Judaism’s oldest symbols, in this case—the Menorah. Dozens of illustrated examples in manuscripts and in print offer proof.

A pinkas of blessings and prayers, Fürth, 1738, the National Library of Israel, (Ms. Yah. Heb. 143)

How did these kabbalists view the Menorah? In his article “Wisdom, the Eighth Emanation: The Menorah in Kabbalah,” [Hebrew] Moshe Idel discusses two heavenly interpretations of the Menorah. One, developed by the Castilian kabbalist Rabbi Joseph ben Abrhamam Gikatilla, sees the artifact as a symbol of the seven planets. Gikatilla writes, “Just as the entire Menorah is pure radiance and indeed the candles are intended to illuminate just as the seven planets are intended to illuminate, so the seven candles are analogous to the seven planets.”

The Menorah’s seven branches represented the seven planets according to Gikatilla. The materials from which the Temple menorah was fashioned — gold, silver and copper – in turn hint at the three realms—the upper, middle and lower: “Behold, the secret of the lamp is explained” (Sefer Ginat Egoz, Jerusalem, 1988/89, p. 269).

Sha’arei Orah, Josef ben Abraham Gikatilla, 1485-90, Spain, Bibliothèque National de France (Ms. Oratoire 71)

A more common interpretation sees the Menorah as a symbol of the higher powers, the attributes of God – the Sefirot. Rabbi Asher Ben-David, a kabbalist who lived in the first half of the 13th century in Provence, suggested that the Menorah’s candles “hint at the seven edges,” referring to the seven lower Sefirot.

The seven branches of the menorah were interpreted as the seven lower divine emanations, divided into two groups of three. At their center is the Sefirah of Tiferet (glory), that is the shamash, the middle branch that divides the two halves. Whereas Gikatilla focused on the materials from which the Menorah is made, the kabbalists who interpreted the Menorah as a symbol of the Sefirot focused on the material that lights it—the oil.  The oil and the light of the Menorah provided a solution to the great question of the Kabbalah: How do we reconcile the existence of the one God with the ten Sefirot of the kabbalists?

Asis Rimonim, Shemuʼel Galiḳo, 16 & 17th centuries, the Russian State Library, (M.s Guenzburg 170)

In ancient times, the Menorah was a sign and a symbol of the divine presence—the Shekhinah that rests over the Temple, and over all of Israel. The Kabbalistic theory separates the hidden God—the infinite—from His attributes and powers revealed in the world—the ten Sefirot that emanate from the infinite.  The oil poured into the seven branches and the light that is lit from them are, as Idel writes, “the abundance which comes from infinity, which is absorbed by the mid-line, which divides them among the six Sefirot, or edges.”

The shape of the Menorah according to Psalm 67, 1558, University of Frankfurt Library, Germany (Ms. Oct. 203)]


These Rediscovered Melodies Survived the Holocaust. Now They’re Online

Tunes from his childhood accompanied Yitzchak Freilich through the camps and on to his new life in America. Recorded by his son, they are now online as part of the National Library of Israel collection

"The rituals of Shabbes and holidays and the lively Hasidic niggunim as well as their soulful prayer marked the happiest and deepest memories of my father’s prewar life." [Image from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection]

My father Yitzchak Freilich’s stories of survival during the Holocaust were laced with liturgical references. In recounting his first Shabbes (Sabbath) as a prisoner in the Pustkow camp in southeastern Poland early in the war – forced for the first time to violate the Sabbath by performing hard labor – he returned to his barracks exhausted and despondent and fell into a deep sleep.

Dreaming that he was at home with his family for Seudah Shlishit, the afternoon Sabbath meal, he woke himself up singing zmirot, songs traditionally sung around the table.

His long and harrowing tale ended on a similar note: five camps and years later, as his Russian liberators approached Theresienstadt, my father and some of the other prisoners spontaneously burst out singing “Avinu Malkeinu“, the hallowed prayer of the High Holidays. By then, he was the only survivor of his immediate family.

This sort of musical bracketing of his wartime experiences is not surprising given my father’s upbringing. The fourth of five children born to a Hasidic family in 1922 in Radomyszl Wielki, a tiny Polish shtetl, his father, Asher Freilich, was a traveling Ba’al T’filah, an itinerant prayer leader.

Asher Freilich (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

My grandfather’s route was guided by a quest for Hasidic davening (prayer) that dug deep into his soul, and he was frequently accompanied by my father and my uncle Naftuli, my father’s older brother. Occasionally my grandfather or others in the shtetl hosted visiting Hasidic dignitaries, such as the Dembitzer or Zabner rebbes, who might leave behind a little known but striking tune, known as a “niggun” (pl. “niggunim“), that was then incorporated into the family’s repertoire.

The rituals of Shabbes and holidays and the lively Hasidic niggunim as well as their soulful prayer marked the happiest and deepest memories of my father’s prewar life. The household was poor, but my father’s memories were invariably warm, loving and inextricably linked to the music he had heard at home when his family had been intact.

In the late 1990s, with my father’s health failing and his depression deepening, my brother, Mel Freilich, had the brilliant inspiration to sit my father down over the course of a number of Shabbes and holiday eves to videotape him singing the t’fillot (prayers), piyyutim (liturgical poems), zmirot, and other songs that had formed the soundtrack of his childhood.

Yitzchak Freilich (lower left) and his family before the war (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

Mel also asked him to recall the rituals surrounding the holidays and the origin of the niggunim, insisting that my father speak in Yiddish – an astute directorial prompt, as it allowed my father to vividly channel his boyhood memories including the folkways of the town’s Jews.

On Fridays, his mother prepared a lunch of farfel and tzikker arbis (lima beans), a modest meal to ensure that they came to the main meal that night with a keen appetite. On Purim, the matzos were baked in a communal oven and hung from the attic rafters until Pesach to keep the mice at bay.

On the morning of Lag Ba’Omer, the rebbe of the kheder (children’s religious school) took them to the woods; they carried hard-boiled eggs and bagels and crude bows and arrows (“a feil und boigen“), made of two sticks and a string. They would merrily shoot into the air, vaguely in the direction of the birds so that it was never a surprise when they failed to capture any quarry. He recounts the precise order of t’fillot and niggunim on Friday night: what was recited after the fish; which zmirot were sung at Seudah Shlishit.

My father passed away in 2002, and only my brother – the keeper of the family’s flame – watched the videos in toto, my sister and I not having the heart.

Mel Freilich, keeper of the family’s flame (Courtesy: Mel Freilich)

A few years ago, my sister’s husband died and suddenly the mortality of our generation became all too real, as was the anxiety that these memories would pass along with us if we didn’t ensure their preservation.

I became an Israeli citizen a couple of months ago, joining my sister, who made Aliyah in 1968 and lives on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. My parents are buried on the kibbutz, and most of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren either live in Israel or think of it as a second home, so it made sense for our father’s tapes to find a home here as well. I reached out to my friend, Naomi Schacter, who heads International Relations at the National Library of Israel, and she put me in touch with Dr. Gila Flam, the Head of the Music and Sound Archives, Collections and Reading Room, who welcomed our precious legacy to the NLI’s ethnographic collection.

The videos are now preserved and available online for all to see.

Click to view two clips of Yitzchak Freilich singing various songs and niggunim, including some traditionally sung on Purim, Passover and the High Holidays, now part of the National Library of Israel collection
Click to view two clips of Yitzchak Freilich singing Shabbes and Shavuos songs from his childhood, now part of the National Library of Israel collection

Once the videos were online, I began to watch them more assiduously, finding new connections between the origin stories of these niggunim and my father’s Holocaust stories. For example, my father sang an outstanding and exceedingly rare rendition of “Yah Ribon Olam“, the popular table hymn sung on Shabbat. It was not until I listened to my brother’s recording that I heard the source of this niggun, which my father attributes to the “Melitzer rebbe,” Reb Yitzchokele Horowitz. “Melitz” rang a bell and I realized it was the Yiddishized reference to the town of Mielić, where my father had been imprisoned as a slave laborer in the city’s aircraft factory, which had been appropriated by the Nazis and turned into a camp. It was also where he had received his distinctive tattoo – a large KL on his right wrist, an acronym for Konzentrationslager Lager (concentration camp). But when asked, my father would declare that KL stood for “koidesh l’Hashem” – Holy to God.

My mother, Chana Perl Freilich, also a survivor from a Hasidic shtetl in Poland, punctuates the videos with a few well-timed and powerful cameo appearances. The Yom Kippur eve recording is particularly difficult to watch as my father repeatedly breaks down. Following his third or fourth failed attempt (before finally rallying), my mother comes into frame, kisses him on his head and says in Yiddish, “You know what? Today is Yom Kippur eve… And I don’t think you have so much to repent – you haven’t sinned very much.”

Anna and Yitzchak Freilich, 1947 (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

Implicit in her comments is the grudge many observant survivors bore toward God for the unwarranted catastrophe visited upon pious Jews. My mother would frequently wave a rhetorical fist at the heavens, saying “Ikh hub a din v’khesbon mit dem Riboineh Shel Oilem” – “I have an accounting with God”.

It was at once an expression of unquestioning faith yet resentment toward God, testifying to a longstanding and weary, yet intimate relationship.

Yom Kippur was a loaded day for my mother as well as my father, a day heavy with memory and fate. There’s a particularly chilling story related to Yom Kippur and my mother’s shtetl, Szydłowiec. The Jews of her ghetto were rounded-up and transported to the camps two days after Yom Kippur, on September 23, 1942. A surviving eyewitness recounts that as they were gathered in the central square before being deported to Treblinka, the rabbi of the shtetl, Chaim Yekusiel Rabinowitz, said, “Yidden, we will not even have anybody left to say Kaddish for us, so we are obligated to say Kaddish for ourselves.”

Jewish cemetery in Szydłowiec (Photo: Jerzy Budziszewski). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

All of the assembled began to wail and chant Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer: “Yisgadal v’yiskaddash shemei rabba.”

A day earlier, my mother along with a married cousin and her husband, Gitele and Yossel Friedenson, had been fortunate to escape to the nearby town of Starachowice, having secured forged work papers for the labor camp. They barely survived the brutal conditions and were transported to Auschwitz on Tisha B’Av, July 30, 1944.

On the Shabbes tape, my father says that it was the custom among the Hasidim in his region

to begin the Friday davening with a “kapitl Tehilim” – “a little bit of Psalms”, and he begins to chant the customary Psalm 107, reaching the following words:

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.

He finishes midway through the Psalm and says, “You see, I didn’t want to end on hunger, thirst, and bondage.”

And so, I will stop where he chose to end:

He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Story of the Star of David

The six pointed star represents peace and harmony in Buddhism, while alchemists believed it symbolized nature—how did the Star of David acquire its significance in Judaism?

Something of man’s secret enters into his symbols.”

—Gershom Scholem


The Star of David originated long before it was adopted by the Jewish faith and the Zionist movement; it appeared thousands of years ago in the cultures of the East, cultures that use it to this day. In the past, what we know today as the Star of David was a popular symbol in pagan traditions, as well as a decorative device used in first-century churches and even in Muslim culture.

But how is the Star of David tied to the fate of the Jewish people?

In the Hebrew context, the Star of David is actually referred to as the “Shield of David” (magen David), a phrase first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, not as a symbol, but as an epithet for God [Pesachim 117b]. Another link to the shield concept is a Jewish legend according to which the emblem decorated the shields of King David’s army; what’s more, even Rabbi Akiva chose the Star of David as the symbol of Bar-Kochba’s revolt against the Roman emperor Hadrian (Bar-Kochba’s name means “son of the star”).

The Star of David only became a distinctly Jewish symbol in the mid-14th century, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted the Jews of Prague the right to carry a flag, and they chose the six-pointed star. From Prague, the use of the Star of David as an official Jewish symbol spread, and so began the movement to find Jewish sources that traced the symbol to the House of David.

The Star of David displayed in Prague’s Old New Synagogue, photo: Øyvind Holmstad

On the other hand, the renowned Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem claimed that the Star of David does not originate in any way in Judaism. Though he noted the symbol was identified on a Jewish seal from the seventh century BCE found in Sidon, as well as in 3rd–4th century CE synagogue decorations, the star was found alongside other symbols that were known to not be of Jewish origin.

So where can we find representations of the hexagram (a six-pointed star) in other cultures?

The hexagram has been used in India for thousands of years, and can be found on ancient temples and in daily use; in Buddhism it is used as a meditation aid to achieve a sense of peace and harmony, and in Hinduism it is a symbol of the goddess Lakshmi—the goddess of fortune and material abundance.


Hexagrams abound in alchemy, the theory and study of materials from which the modern science of chemistry evolved. Magical symbols were commonplace in this ancient theory, and alchemists recruited the six-pointed star to their graphic language of signs and symbols: an upright triangle symbolized water, an inverted triangle symbolized fire, and together they described the harmony between the opposing elements. In alchemical literature, the hexagram also represents the “four elements”—the theory that all matter in the world is made up of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire—effectively, everything that exists. One could say that the star is the ultimate alchemical symbol.



Alchemy borrowed the idea from the classical Greek tradition that masculinity symbolizes wisdom, while femininity symbolizes nature; man is philosophy and woman is the physical world. The illustration below, which appears in an 18th century alchemical text, shows a man holding a lantern as he follows a woman holding a hexagram –  wisdom being the key that reveals the secrets of existence.

“The philosopher examining nature” – an illustration appearing in an alchemical text from 1749, the Sidney Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

In Islam, the hexagram is referred to as the “Seal of Solomon,” and it adorns many mosques around the world. Until 1945, the emblem was also found on the Moroccan flag. It was changed to the five-pointed star (pentagram), when the six-pointed star became the emblem of the Zionist movement. The use of this symbol has diminished throughout the Islamic world for the same reason. The hexagram can also be found in medieval and early modern churches—although not as a Christian symbol, but as a decorative motif.

The hexagram in Islam, photo: Vikramjit Singh Rooprai

Despite its use in other cultures, the Star of David is emblazoned on the Israeli flag, and thus it is considered the undisputed symbol of the State of Israel, regardless of its origin. A symbol’s power ,after all,  is in the meaning we give to it.


[Sources for this article are courtesy of Chaya Meier Herr, director of the Edelstein Collection for the History of Science, and Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel]