Sorry for the slow update rate – hopefully, with the nearing term break, I’ll be able to speed things up a little.
In this post, I’m going to relate two of the many legends about King Solomon. With a thousand wives and unequalled wisdom, Solomon was the envy and role-model for the sages. The Targum Sheni, a collection of tales pertaining to the book of Esther, describes him thus:
And the Lord gave him dominion over all the people of the world, and He has given him so much wisdom that he was wiser than any man. And he also reigned over the animals and beasts and the fowls and the reptiles, and the spirits and demons of the world.
The legend I am going to relate here begins in the Babylonian Talmud, in tractate Gittin. Chapter 6 of 1 Kings tell of the building of the first temple, and mentions that the stones brought to the construction site were already so perfectly smoothed so that the stonemasons required no iron tools to fit them into the walls. To the sages, this was explained not by the unsurpassed skills of the Phoeneician artisans, but by the use of a magical worm.
The word Shamir appears several times in the Bible, and is translated as diamond in the King James Version. The sages, however, read it to mean either a magical rock-cutting worm, or a magical rock-cutting herb. The Talmud counts it among the ten wonders created on the eve of the first Sabbath, just before God has finished creation. As such, these wonders are exempt from the normal rules physics. The Shamir was first used by Moses to carve the stones of the Ephod, the ornate amulet of the High Priest. Years later, it was used by Solomon to build the first temple.
In tractate Gittin 68a, the sages begin an argument about male and female demons – an argument that quickly deteriorates into a contest of tall tales. And thus they tell us:
Solomon said to his scholars, How shall I manage [without iron tools]?
— They replied, There is the Shamir which Moses brought for the stones of the Ephod.
He asked them, Where is it to be found?
— They replied, Bring a male and a female demon and tie them together; perhaps they know and will tell you. He did so, and they said to him, We do not know, but perhaps Ashmedai [Asmodeus] the king of the demons knows.
He said to them, Where is he?
— They answered, He is in such-and-such a mountain. He has dug a pit there, which he fills with water and covers with a stone, which he then seals with his seal. Every day he goes up to the sky and reads in the Synagogue of the sky, and then he comes down to earth and reads in the Synagogue of the earth, and then he goes and examines his seal and opens [the pit] and drinks and then closes it and seals it again and goes away.
Solomon sends to this task Benaiah, commander of King David’s army of mercenaries, to catch Ashmedai. For this purpose, he uses a chain and a ring with the explicit name of God – YHWH – engraved upon it. Like the Babylonians, the Jews believed that true names hold power, and that YHWH was the most powerful name of them all.
Benaiah digs into Ashmedai’s sealed well, empties it and then fills it with wine. When Ashmedai comes, he is at first reluctant to drink it – quoting verses from Proverbs about the dangers of getting drunk. Eventually he gives up, drinks his fair share of wine and falls asleep. Benaiah binds him and takes him to Jerusalem. On his way, while bound in the reinforced chain, Ashmedai shares some of his demonic insight with Benaiah:
He saw a blind man straying from his way and he put him on the right path. He saw a drunken man losing his way and he put him on his path. He saw a wedding procession making its way merrily and he wept. He heard a man say to a shoemaker, Make me a pair of shoes that will last seven years, and he chuckled. He saw a diviner practising divinations and he chuckled.
Benaiahu said to Ashmedai, Why when you saw that blind man going out of his way did you put him right? He replied: It has been proclaimed of him in heaven that he is a wholly righteous man, and that whoever does him a kindness will be worthy of the World to Come. And why, when you saw the drunken man going out of his way, did you put him right? He replied, They have proclaimed in heaven that he is wholly wicked, and I conferred a boon on him in order that he may consume [here] his share [of the future world]. Why when you saw the wedding procession did you weep? He said: The husband will die within thirty days, and [to get married again, the wife] will have to wait for the brother-in-law who is still a child of thirteen years. Why, when you heard a man say to the shoemaker, Make me shoes to last seven years, did you laugh? He replied: That man has not seven days to live, and he wants shoes for seven years! Why when you saw that diviner divining did you laugh? He said: He was sitting on a royal treasure: he should have divined what was beneath him.
Finally Ashmedai is brought before King Solomon, and reveals the location of the Shamir, which means Benaiah is sent on yet another epic quest.
[Ashmedai] took a reed and measured four cubits and threw it in front of [Solomon], saying, See now, when you die you will have no more than four cubits in this world. Now, however, you have subdued the whole world, yet you are not satisfied till you subdue me too.
He replied: I want nothing of you. What I want is to build the Temple and I require the Shamir.
He said: It is not in my hands, it is in the hands of the Lord of the Sea who gives it only to Tarnegol HaBar, to whom he trusts it on oath.
The Lord of The Sea (also called Rahav or Rahab) is an interesting being in itself. In the ancient Jewish mythology, the demons, the devils and the evil spirits all bow before God and serve Him. In the whole of creation, The Lord of the Sea is the only creature actively opposed to God. He is mentioned a few times in the Midrashim, and will likely get its own post one day.
Tarnegol HaBar (or Nagar DeTura – “Mountain-Splitter”) is mythical bird, which is translated as woodpecker or wood-grouse in the Epstein edition. Rashi interprets the expression as referring to the Hoopoe. Whatever bird it is, it must have been a very loyal one, considering its tragic end:
What does the bird do with [the Shamir]? — He takes it to a barren mountain and puts it on the edge of the rock which thereupon splits, and he then takes seeds from trees and brings them and throws them into the opening and plants grow there.
So they found out Tarnegol HaBar’s nest with young in it, and covered it over with glass. When the bird came it wanted to get in but could not, so it went and brought the shamir and placed it on the glass. Benaiahu thereupon gave a shout, and it dropped [the shamir] and he took it, and the bird went and strangled itself because it broke its oath.
Thus the legend of Solomon’s Shamir ends, and the more famous legend of Solomon’s exile begin:
Solomon kept [Asmodeus] with him until he had built the Temple. One day when he was alone with him, he said… what is your superiority over us? He said to him, Take the chain off me and give me your ring, and I will show you. So he took the chain off him and gave him the ring. He then swallowed it, and placing one wing on the earth and one on the sky he hurled him four hundred parasangs.
The legend of Solomon’s exile has quite a few versions. Rather than sticking to the Talmudic text, I bring here the more piquant version found in Midrash Al Yithalel:
Ashmedai took Solomon’s signet ring from his finger, assumed his appearance and sat on his throne, so that everyone in Israel believed he was Solomon. At that time, Solomon wandered about in the villages and in the towns, saying I am the Teacher, son of David, who was King of Israel. This continued for three years.
What did Ashmedai do? He went to all of Solomon’s wives, until he reached one of them who was forbidden due to her having her period. When she saw him, she said, “why are you acting differently, wanting what you did not want before?”. He remained silent, and she said, “you are not Solomon”. He also went to Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, and said “I want you to do such-and-such”. She said to him, “my son, do you seek pleasure in the place from whence you came?”.
She went to Benaiah, and told him what has happened. He was shocked; he mourned, saying, “God forbid! That is surely not your son Solomon but Ashmedai, and the boy wandering about saying ‘I am the Teacher’ is Solomon himself”. He sent for that boy and told him, “Son, who are you?”. He replied “I am Solomon, son of David”. He asked, “Son, how did such a thing come to pass?”. Solomon replied, “One day I was sitting at my throne and a storm came forth and tossed me away, and from that day I have lost my mind, and became a wanderer.
As Benaiah heard his words, he called the court, and told them what has happened. He also said, “write the explicit name of God and set it against your hearts”. They did so, and returned to Benaiah. Beniah went with them. He took a sword and dealt Ashmedai a mighty blow. He took his signet ring, and wanted to kill him. A divine voice said, “do not harm him; it was My will that was done, because Solomon has broken the divine law”. They returned Solomon to his throne, and put the signet ring on his finger. Solomon immediately assumed his old appearance, and was restored to his former splendour.
This story, and its numerous variations, serve to explain the book of Ecclesiastes, the most morbid and cynical book in the Old Testament. The book is usually attributed to King Solomon, and saying it was written by Solomon when he was in exile, while the demon king was sitting on his throne and screwing his wives and mother help to reconciles the differences between the bitter and solemn Teacher and the gluttonous and lustful Solomon.
Personally, the more I read the book of Ecclesiastes, the more convinced I become that the legend is wrong. Surely, such a book could only have been written by Ashmedai.