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The breastplate of the High Priest.

The priestly breastplate (Hebrew hoshen חֹשֶׁן) was a sacred breastplate worn by the High Priest for the Israelites, according to the Book of Exodus. In the biblical account, the breastplate is sometimes termed the breastplate of judgement, because the Urim and Thummim, which were used in divination, were placed within it.[1][2]

Hebrew Bible

According to the description in Exodus, this breastplate was attached to the ephod, by gold chains/cords tied to the gold rings on the ephod's shoulder straps, and by blue ribbon tied to the gold rings at the lower parts of the ephod (Exodus 28:15-19) the biblical description states that the breastplate was also to be made from the same material as the Ephod - embroidered linen - and was to be a square, a cubit in width, two layers thick, and with four rows of three engraved gems each embedded upon it, each jewel being framed in gold.[3] The description states that the square breastplate was to be formed from two equal rectangular pieces of cloth - suggesting that its appearance was similar to a backless waistcoat, with a pouch inside to contain the Urim and Thummim. The term for the breastplate, hoshen, appears to be connected either to its function or to its appearance; some scholars think that it is probably derived from Hebrew hasuna, meaning "beautiful," while others think that it is more likely to derive from Hebrew sinus, meaning "a fold for containing something."[4]

According to the Talmud, the wearing of the Hoshen atoned for the sin of errors in judgement on the part of the Children of Israel (B.Zevachim 88b).

The Jewels


Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen in ancient Judah.

The twelve jewels in the breastplate were each, according to the Biblical description, to be made from specific minerals, none of them the same as another, and each of them representative of a specific tribe, whose name was to be inscribed on the stone. There is no consistent view in classical rabbinical literature as to the order of the names; the Jerusalem Targum, for example, argued that the names appeared in the order of the birth of each tribe's patriarch according to the Book of Genesis; Maimonides argued that the names were all engraved on the first stone, with the words [these are] the tribes of Jeshurun being engraved on the last stone; kabbalistic writers such Hezekiah ben Manoah and Bahya ben Asher argued that only six letters from each name was present on each stone, together with a few letters from the names of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or from the phrase [these are] the tribes of Jeshurun, so that there were seventy-two letters in total (72 being a very significant number in Kabbalistic thought).[1]

Unfortunately, the meaning of the Hebrew names for the minerals, given by the masoretic text, are not clear,[1] and though the Greek names for them in the Septuagint are more clear, scholars believe that it cannot be completely relied on for this matter because the breastplate had ceased to be in use by the time the Septuagint was created, and several Greek names for various gems have changed meaning between the classical era and modern times.[5] However, although classical rabbinical literature argues that the names were inscribed using a magic worm because neither chisels nor paint nor ink were allowed to mark them out,[6] a more naturalistic approach suggests that the jewels must have had comparatively low hardness in order to be engraved upon, and therefore this gives an additional clue to the identity of the minerals.[7]

The jewel stones are as follows (the first item in each row is probably the right hand side, as Hebrew is a right to left script):

First row

  • Odem (in the masoretic text) / Sardios (in the Septuagint) - both names mean red (Odem is cognate with Adam), and probably refers to Sard, an immensely common stone in classical cultures.[7] Ignoring the Septuagint, Odem might also refer to Carnelian, which was flesh-coloured, or to Jasper, which was usually a deep blood-red, was valued as a charm against bleeding, and was common in the surrounding nations of Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria.[1] The Chinese Union Version refers to this stone as being a ruby.
  • Pit'dah (in the masoretic text) / Topazios (in the Septuagint) - despite the suggestion of the Septuagint that it was Topaz, Topaz was barely known at the time the Book of Exodus was written (according to both the traditional dating of the book and that by textual scholars);[7] in the classical era, topazios referred to an island on which a particular yellow mineral was mined (topazios means to seek, in reference to the difficulty in finding the island).[1] The word pit'dah is thought by scholars to be connected with the Assyrian word hipindu, which refers to something that flashed (presumably meaning shimmered), and thus the jewel in question would fit the description of Chrysolite, a translucent greenish yellow mineral, common throughout the Levant,[1] and particularly found on a particular island in the Red Sea, under the control of the Egyptian Pharaoh.[8]
  • Bareket (in the masoretic text) / Smaragdos (in the Septuagint) - Bareketh etymologically means shimmering/shiny; Smaragdos is cognate with Emerald, and literally means green stone, but is somewhat of a false friend as it was used to refer to a number of different green gems, not just the Emerald in particular. Bareket doesn't refer to any particular colour, while Smaragdos was often used in Greek literature to refer to an intensely bright crystal found in columnar formations.[1] The only minerals fitting these details are heliodor (taking into account the implication of Smaragdos that it was green) and rock crystal (ignoring the literal meaning of Smaragdos, since the masoretic text doesn't appear to specify colour);[7] there is much to be said for Smaragdos being either of those.[9]

Second row

  • Nofekh (in the masoretic text) / Anthrax (in the Septuagint) - while Anthrax simply means coal (presumably here referring to the colour of burning coal), the Vulgate here has Carbunculus, referring to the Carbuncle, which was red.[7] Nofekh appears to be a loan word; it may derive from the Egyptian term m-f-k-t, referring to Malachite or Turquoise, both of which are a greenish blue;[7] it may instead derive from lupakku, a term appearing in the Amarna letters, referring to a mineral of unknown colour which was sent in tribute to Akhnaten from Ashkalon. In classical rabbinical literature there is some debate between whether Nofekh was red or greenish blue; Exodus Rabbah and the second Jerusalem Targum favour it being red, while the Babylonian Targum and first Jerusalem Targum favour it being green.[1]
  • Sapir (in the masoretic text) / Sapphiros (in the Septuagint) - despite appearing to refer to Sapphire, Sapphire was essentially unknown before the era of the Roman Empire, and even once it became more known was treated as merely being a form of hyacinth or of jacinth.[1] It is more likely that the term Sapir referred to a mineral of similar colour to Sapphires, and that the name gradually came to refer to the latter mineral, on account of its colour; scholars think the most likely candidate is lapis lazuli, which was frequently sent as a gift to Akhnaten from Babylon.[1][7]
  • Yahalom (in the masoretic text) / Onychion (in the Septuagint) - in some other places the Septuagint instead has Beryllios where the masoretic reads Yahalom.[7] The word Yahalom appears to be connected with the Hebrew meaning strike hard, and possibly with the word hallamish meaning flint;[10] hallamish is connected to the Assyrian word elmeshu, referring to a precious stone which was hard, and possibly white, or at least with an insignificant colour, and from which whole rings were sometimes made.[11] A few scholars have suggested that Yahalom may refer to diamonds, owing to their hardness, though the skill of cutting diamonds had not been discovered before the classical era.[1] Although the Septuagint's Onychion is the Greek term for Onyx, Onyx was not mined prior to the era of classical Greece. Onyx is derived from the Greek for fingernail, due to the pink-white veining.[12]

Third row

  • Leshem (in the masoretic text) / Ligurios (in the Septuagint) - the names here seem to refer to places - Leshem and Liguria, respectively.[7] Pliny described the Ligurios as having certain electrical properties, which a number of scholars have taken to imply that it referred to amber,[1] which was one of the first items to have been discovered to have electrical properties; the English stem electric- derives from the Greek word for amber (elektron). Theophrastus mentions a mineral named liggourrion, indicating that the name is a corruption of lykos ouron,[7] meaning white urine, presumably in reference to its colour, and the Midrash suggests that the mineral had a colour similar to the white of antimony.[1] Putting these details together, scholars draw the conclusion that it must have been similar to the pale colour of natural gold (as opposed to the colour known as gold);[13] Saadia Gaon, and other medieval rabbinical commentators, argued that the gem itself was an Agate (presumably of a golden colour). Some have supposed that this stone was the same as the jacinth, others believe that it was the opal or amethyst.
  • Sebo (in the masoretic text) / Achates (in the Septuagint) - Achates definitely refers to agate, and Sebo may be cognate with the Assyrian term Subu, meaning agate.[1][7] Agates were common in Egypt and Assyria, and were regarded as a potent talismans.[14] The Exodus Rabbah appears to argue for the jewel in question having been a sky blue variety.[1]
  • Ahlamah (in the masoretic text) / Amethystos (in the Septuagint) - Amethystos refers to Amethyst, a purple mineral which was believed to protect against getting drunk from alcohol (Amethyst's name refers to this belief, and literally translates as not intoxicating),[1] and was commonly used in Egypt.[7] Ahlamah appears to be derived from a term meaning strong, though it may equally be derived from Ahlamu, a place where Amethysts were found;[1] in the Babylonian Targum, Ahlamah is translated into a term meaning strong drinking, which appears to reference beliefs about the Amethyst, but in the Jerusalem Targum, it is translated into a term meaning calf's eye.[1]

Fourth row

  • Tarshish (in the masoretic text) / Chrysolithos (in the Septuagint) - in some other places the Septuagint instead has Anthrax (meaning Coal) where the masoretic reads Tarshish.[1] Tarshish is thought by scholars to refer to Tarshish, in reference to the main source of the mineral being Tarshish.[1][7] Chrysolithos does not refer specifically to Chrysolite, which was named much later, but is an adjective which translates as gold-stone, meaning either that it was golden, or that it contained flecks of gold.[7] With golden flecks it could refer to lapis lazuli,[15] which would fit the Targums' description of the gem being the colour of the sea.[1] As a golden material if translucent, it could refer to Topaz[7] or to amber,[1] and since Chrysolithos came to mean Topaz in particular by the classical era, some scholars favour this as being the most likely use, though it would be jarring for there to be two different translucent yellow gemstones so close to one another on the breastplate.[7] If an opaque golden material, it could refer to a yellow form of Jasper or of serpentine, which were commonly used in Egypt and Babylon.[16] It may even be the case that the Septuagint is mistaken, and the masoretic text's Tarsis is a corruption of Asshur (they are similar when spelt using the Hebrew alphabet), referring to Assyria's quintessential exported mineral - flint.[7] There is little certainty among scholars in regard to which of these is the most likely to be the jewel in question.[1]
  • Shoham (in the masoretic text) / Beryllios (in the Septuagint) - in some other places the Septuagint instead has Onychion, or Smaragdos, or the phrase leek-green stone, where the masoretic reads Shoham;[7][17] Beryllios refers to Beryl but earlier to the blue-green colour of the sea, Onychion refers to Onyx, and Smaragdos literally means green stone and refers to a bright columnar crystal (either Beryl or rock crystal).[18] Onyx is an opaque and banded stone, while Smaragdos is translucent, and Beryl is cloudy, and all these come in several colours. Shoham could be derived from the Assyrian word Samtu, meaning dark or cloudy;[7] it could be derived from the Arabic word meaning pale, in which case it fits more with Onyx and certain forms of Beryl, excluding the Emerald,[19] with Heliodor being the form of Beryl fitting the leek green description; it could be derived from the Arabic word musahham, meaning striped garment, and therefore very definitely describing something like Onyx;[20] or it could be a place name, for example there is a place in the Yemen named Soheim.[21] Jewish tradition generally favours leek-green Beryl (Heliodor) as the likely meaning of Shoham, though scholars think it is more likely to be Malachite, which can be green enough to be compared to Smaragdos and the blue-green colour of the sea (the original meaning of beryllios), is cloudy enough to be compared to a cloudy form of Beryl, and is striped and opaque enough to be confused for a form of Onyx.[1][7]
  • Yashfeh (in the masoretic text) / Iaspis (in the Septuagint) - in reference to the Septuagint and Josephus, scholars suspect that Yasepheh may be the original reading.[1][7] Although Yasepheh and Iaspis are cognate to Jasper, they don't quite have the same meaning; while Jasper is usually red, the mineral which the Greeks called Iaspis was generally a richly green one (the most prized form of Jasper), and scholars think this is most likely to be the colour referred to by Yasepheh;[1] the ambiguity of the term is present in the Targums, where the jewel is variously identified as a ruby (which is red), as a hyacinth (which is yellow), or as an emerald (which is green).[22]

12 Jewels in the Christian New Testament

In the New Testament Book of Revelation is the description of a city wall, with each layer of stones in the wall being from a different material; in the original Koine Greek, the layers are given as iaspis, sapphiros, chalcedon, smaragdos, sardonyx, sardion, chrysolithos, beryllos, topazion, chrysoprason, yacinthos, amethystos.[23] This list appears to be based on the Septuagint's version of the list of jewels in the Breastplate - if the top half of the breastplate was rotated by 180 degrees, and the bottom half turned upside down, with Onchion additionally swapping places with Topazion, the lists become extremely similar; there are only four differences:

  • Onchion (literally Onyx) has become Sardonyx (red Onyx)
  • Anthrax has become Chalcedon (literally meaning Chalcedony, of which the red variety is the most common). Anthrax literally means coal, presumably meaning the red colour of burning coal, while Chalcedon literally means Chalcedony, of which the red variety is the most common.
  • Ligurios has become Chrysoprason. Scholars suspect that Ligurios was a pale yellowish mineral, and although Chrysoprase now refers to a specific gemstone - Chrysoprase - which is generally apple-green in colour, in earlier times it referred to gems of a yellowish leek-green, such as Peridot; Chrysoprase literally means golden leek.[7]
  • Achates (Agate) has been replaced by Yacinthos (Jacinth). According to classical rabbinical literature, the specific agate was of a sky-blue colour, and though Jacinth now refers to a red-tinted clear gem - the Jacinth - this wasn't the case at the time the Book of Revelation was written, and at that time Jacinth appears to have referred to a bluish gem; Pliny describes Jacinth as a dull and blueish amethyst, while Solinus describes it as a clear blue tinted gem - the modern Sapphire.[7]

Whether there is any pattern to the choice of gemstones depends on their identity. Taking the majority view of scholars in regard to the identity of the gems, and including the implication from the Book of Revelation that the Onyx at the end of the fourth row was a Sardonyx, there are four colours - red, green, yellow, and blue - each represented by a clear gem (red - Carbuncle, green - Heliodor, yellow - Chrysolite, blue - Amethyst), an opaque gem (red - Carnelian/red Jasper, green - green Jasper, yellow - yellow Jasper/yellow Serpentine, blue - Lapis Lazuli), and a striped gem (red - Sardonyx, green - Malachite, yellow - pale golden Agate, blue - sky-blue Agate).[7] The four colours of red, green, yellow, and blue, are the first four colours (apart from black and white) distinguished by languages, and are distinguished in all cultures with at least six colour distinctions (the other two being black and white);[24] these colours roughly correspond to the sensitivities of the retinal ganglion cells (the retinal ganglia process colour by positioning it within a blue to yellow range, and separately positioning it within a red to green range).[25] The colour scheme generally corresponds with the colour scheme of the Amarna letters.[1][clarification needed]

See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 Jewish Encyclopedia
  2. Comparing religions through law: Judaism and Islam - Page 156 Jacob Neusner, Tamara Sonn - 1999 "The high priest also wears the breastplate, apron, upper garment, and frontlet (M. Yoma 7:5A—C). ... The breastplate would atone for those who pervert justice: "And you shall put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim" "
  3. ibid
  4. Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
  5. ibid
  6. Sotah 48b
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 7.13 7.14 7.15 7.16 7.17 7.18 7.19 7.20 7.21 7.22 7.23 Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. ibid
  11. ibid
  12. "OED," "Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition" and "The American Heritage Dictionary, College Edition" has "onyx" derives from the Greek term, "onux," meaning "(finger-)nail," "claw" or onyx-stone. The connection between "nail" or "claw" and the stone is that the onyx stone is usually found with a vein of white on pink background like the linula of a fingernail. There's no indication, in these or other desk dictionaries, that the word "onyx" could be derived from a word meaning "ring"
  13. ibid
  14. ibid
  15. ibid
  16. ibid
  17. leek green stone appears at Genesis 2:12 in the Septuagint
  18. ibid
  19. ibid
  20. ibid
  21. ibid
  22. ibid
  23. Revelation 21:19-20 (Nestle-Aland edition)
  24. Berlin and Kay (1969), Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution
  25. ibid

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