How to Brick OS X El Capitan Ruby Gem

Here’s the punchline:

sudo gem update --system

Now you have a gem that is incapable of installing gems which provide binaries. I don’t recommend running this command.


Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan shipped a feature called “system integrity protection” (SIP), also known as “rootless.” What this means is that, even as root, there are directories that cannot be written to.

One such directory is /usr/bin, where most system binaries are installed. Trying to touch /usr/bin/foo, even as root, will give a “permission denied” error. This is probably overall a good thing.

Obviously, though, there are legitimate reasons to write to this directory, such as installing new binaries from Ruby gems. It seems that, in order to solve this problem, Apple has somehow blessed the system gem binary with the power to write to /usr/bin. But this blessing does not extend to just any gem binary.

What happens when you try to update the system Gem?

  1. Run sudo gem update --system.
  2. Current gem uses its blessing to overwrite /usr/bin/gem with a new version.
  3. New gem no longer has blessing.

And then this happens:

$ sudo gem install rouge
ERROR: While executing gem ... (Errno::EPERM)
  Operation not permitted - /usr/bin/rougify


I’ve yet to find a real fix for this. There doesn’t seem to be any way of getting the original gem binary back.

The workaround is to disable system integrity protection entirely.

  1. Reboot into recovery mode by holding the Command and R keys.
  2. Open a terminal from the “Utilities” menu.
  3. Run csrutil disable.
  4. Reboot normally.

The full story

Perhaps you, like Apple, think that wanting to update the system Gem is an unreasonable thing to expect to work. There are, after all, a plethora of ways to avoid using the system Ruby at all.

But on my own MacBook, I haven’t been doing any serious Ruby development, so I hadn’t bothered with any of those. I just needed Jekyll so I could render this site locally. Which is where this story starts.

Thanks, GitHub

In a recent blog post, GitHub announced that Pages would now be running Jekyll 3.0. Great, except they also dropped support for the Redcarpet markdown renderer and the Pygments.rb highlighter, both of which I was using.

So I set about migrating to Kramdown and Rouge, which was surprisingly easy, except that I was having trouble getting the site to render the same locally as it did on GitHub Pages.

At some point, I figured that an incorrect version of a dependency was being used, but I couldn’t narrow it down. There was no error, the output just wasn’t right. Since Jekyll was pretty much the only Ruby I was using, I decided it would be easier to just uninstall all my gems, then reinstall all the latest versions.

A quick Google told me that this could be done with gem uninstall --all, but that the option was only available in Gem 2.1 and newer. The system Gem in El Capitan is only 2.0, so I did the logical thing: updated the system Gem.

Somehow, the gem uninstall command worked after this. It doesn’t seem to care if it can remove binaries or not.

Upon trying to reinstall the needed gems, however, everything stopped working.

ERROR: While executing gem ... (Errno::EPERM)
  Operation not permitted - /usr/bin/jekyll

This really confused me. I was using sudo. How was I getting a permissions error? I tried just writing a random file in /usr/bin as root. Permissions error. And then I remembered: system integrity protection.

Thanks, Stack Overflow

Another quick Google for how to disable SIP and I was on my way. I could install Jekyll again, and my site rendered properly.

But since I think that SIP is generally an okay thing, I wasn’t happy with the workaround. I wanted my original gem back so everything would be back to normal.

I tried to find out how to reinstall the system Ruby on OS X. A Super User thread gave me some bad advice. It recommended downloading the OS X installer and finding Essentials.pkg, inside a .dmg, inside the .app. It claimed that this package contained Ruby, and that installing it would reinstall Ruby.

I was a fool to trust this information.

I waited a few hours for the installer to download, and then waited probably half an hour more for Essentials.pkg to do its thing. When it was done:

$ gem --version

I still didn’t have the old version of gem. Oh well. At least I could still use the one I had. I moved on.

But I am an administrator!

Later that night, I wanted some music, so I launched Radiant Player. It had been a while, so it prompted me for an update.

After the update was downloaded, it again prompted me, this time for an administrator password. This isn’t too unusual, as some software needs elevated privileges to install.

Usually when this happens, the “Username” field is filled in, and you just need to enter your password. This time, both fields were blank. Weird.

So I typed my username and my password. That didn’t work. I tried a few more times. I tried “root”, but I don’t think I ever set a root password. I couldn’t unlock it.

Looking in the “Users & Groups” pane of “System Preferences”, sure enough, I was a regular user. A regular user. I was horrified. I even tried unlocking that pane, only to be prompted with the same request for adminstrator credentials. I tried sudo, which told me I wasn’t a sudoer. It felt like my own computer had turned against me.

That Essentials.pkg clearly overwrote something, it just wasn’t gem.

Back to recovery mode

I love recovery mode. I really do. It makes me feel safe. And it gives me a root terminal.

I figured I could just run passwd as root, then use that to unlock the “Users & Groups” pane and make myself an administrator again.

sh-3.2# passwd
sh: passwd: command not found

That’s not good. Thankfully, further Googling revealed that recovery mode instead has a resetpassword command, which launches a GUI for some reason.

In the end, I managed to reinstate myself as administrator, but gem is still unholy and SIP is turned off. Things are working, for now, but I think it’s probably a good time to just reinstall OS X.

One last goof: remember the OS X installer I downloaded for hours? I deleted it as soon as I was done with Essentials.pkg.