Splitting like a Fig

T'tzaveh, Exodus 27:20−30:10

D'Var Torah By: Jonathan K. Crane

We often encounter paradoxes in life, things that appear to be mutually incompatible. Paradoxes sometimes appear in the unlikeliest places, and they deserve our close attention, like the one hiding in this week's parashahParashahפָּרָשָׁהTorah portion. The five books of the Torah are divided into 54 parashiyot or portions. Each week, Jewish communities read one parashah (singular of parashiyot); in this way, Jewish communities read the entire Torah over the course of a year.  Depending on the calendar, some weeks will feature a “double-portion.” The name of each portion is taken from the first few significant words of the portion; plural: parashiyot .

While describing the ornate pieces of the KoheinKoheinכֹּהֵןA descendant of the priestly class; according to traditional Judaism, Kohanim will only attend the funeral and burial of their immediate family as they are otherwise forbidden to come near a corpse.   Gadol's (high priest's) wardrobe, Moses speaks of the ephod (shoulder cape or mantle) and the choshen (breastpiece). The ephod is to be made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarn and linen twisted together and worked into designs and shall have two lapis-lazuli stones each engraved with six names of the sons of Israel, and those stones are to be framed by gold (Exodus 26:8).

The choshen is to be similarly made of yarn, stones, and gold. Instead of two stones, the choshen will have 12, each with the name of a different tribe. On one hand, they are to be "framed with their gold in their mountings (b'milu'otam)" (Exodus 28:20). The Targums Jerusalem and Pseudo-Jonathan (ancient Jewish-Aramaic translations of the Bible) both understand this phrase to mean "they shall be set in gold, in their completeness," that is, the stones are to be full and unblemished. Yet, each stone "will be engraved like seals (pituḥei ḥotam)," just as the ephod stones are engraved (Exodus 28:11,21).

Given that engraving a stone requires gouging out bits and shards to make physical markings, how could choshen stones be both flawless and engraved?

How can we respond to this (or any) paradox?

Let's begin with another biblical paradox about stones.

King Solomon built the Temple with "whole stones cut at the quarry, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was built" (I Kings 6:7). Yet these same stones were "sawed with saws inside and out" (I Kings 7:9). How could they be both unhewn and sawed?

The Talmudic sages solved this enigmatic contradiction in two ways, according to Sotah 48b in the Babylonian Talmud. The first approach confidently argues that the unhewn stones were used for the Temple itself, whereas the tooled stones were used to build the king's home. By insisting that the Bible does not reference the exact same stones, this strategy dismantles the paradox altogether.

The second strategy tries to solve the paradox by invoking a further mystery. It claims that Solomon built the Temple by using a shamir. According to many classic commentators, the shamir was a small worm, the size of a barleycorn. It reportedly had special powers: rocks would split asunder when exposed to this worm (Barternura on Pirkei Avot 5:6; Rashi on Ezekiel 3:9 and Zechariah 7:12). Since nothing could withstand its gaze, the shamir was wrapped in tufts of wool and placed within a leaden vessel full of barley (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48b). The shamir was so unusual that it was one of the things created at twilight before the first Shabbat (Pirkei Avot 5:6; Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 54a). But, sadly, the shamir became nullified (batul) after the destruction of the Second Temple (Mishnah Sotah 9:12; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48a). The shamir's origins are as mysterious as its absence.

The rabbis posited that Moses used the shamir on the engraved yet untarnished choshen stones. They thought Moses painted the names of the tribes on the choshen stones, and when he showed the stones to the shamir, the stones split along the lines of the ink of their own accord, "like a fig that splits in the summer without losing anything" (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48b).

Rabbi Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, Israel, offers a naturalist's attempt to understand theshamir. He suggests that it could be an Euchondrus desertorum, a tiny snail of the Negev desert that eats lichen just below a rock's surface, but only limestone rock, not hard gemstones like those on the choshen. Maybe the shamir was the chiton, a marine mollusk, whose magnetite teeth are the toughest material created by an animal. On the other hand, since the shamir was kept bottled up inside a lead tube, maybe it was not a creature but a reaction, specifically a radioactive one.

If this were the case, the lapidaries working on the choshen could paint a stone with some kind of lead or lead-oxide ink, and when that stone was exposed to the shamir, unpainted bits would crumble away, leaving the face of the rock etched like an engraved seal. The stone would corrode and split like a ripe fig without "losing" anything. Insofar as the potency of radioactive materials decreases over time, this helps explain the rabbinic assertion that after the destruction of the Second Temple, the shamir was null. It's not that the shamir didn't exist; what remained of it was ineffective.

Though the shamir is fascinating and we could spend years studying it, the original paradox remains. Neither strategy - dismantle and avoid the paradox or offer a distracting mystery - truly satisfies. However, paradoxes do not require solving; they need to be appreciated.

Consider some of the other enigmas Judaism embraces that are apparently self-contradictory: humans are simultaneously ethereal and material, we are made b'tzelem Elohim b'tzelem Elohimבְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִיםLiterally "in the image of God;" the concept—from Genesis 1:27: “God created humankind in God’s image”—that because all humanity is created in the image of God, each person is equally valued.  and from dust. Do we have free will even though God knows all? Pharaoh's hardened heart is a good illustration of that question. Finally, there's the commandment to remember to forget Amalek, which we encounter every year at our Purim celebrations when we remember the downfall of his descendant, Haman.

The issue is not the existence of such paradoxes, but how we respond to them. Do we coolly reject and dismantle paradoxes with great certainty that only one answer truly satisfies? Or do we posit further mysteries and enigmas to distract us from the original conundrum? However enticing such strategies may be, they resist the fact that life is frequently, inescapably, and often beautifully "both/and". By allowing ourselves to linger longer in the enigmatic heat of life's paradoxes, we may find ourselves splitting like figs, bursting with appreciation of life's complexities. And in that heat, we can adorn ourselves with personalized ephod and choshen that show the amazing paradoxes of our own lives.

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