By Yaĝé Enigmus
Countless civilizations throughout history have held gemstones in high regard, very often because of the beliefs that surround them and not just their mere beauty. Many of these practices are mirrored across neighbouring cultures, or in some cases arise independently of one another, but are always echoes of the same core respect for gemstones that reside in the human heart. One such example of these practices that has had a long-lasting impact on not only the people from whom it originated, but on contemporary western society as a whole, can be seen in the Priestly Breastplate of ancient Judaism.
In ancient times, modern day Israel/Palestine was a united monarchy between the Israelite kingdoms of Judah and Israel, beginning with the reign of King Saul in the 11th century B.C.E. After its construction in the 10th century B.C.E. under the reign of King Solomon, the religious practices of the Israelite peoples were centered around the holy Temple of Jerusalem. The temple was believed to be the earthly residence of the Hebrew god Yahweh, and it was where the Ark of the Covenant was said to have been kept. A number of ritualistic practices surrounded the temple as well, and these were guided by members of the priestly class (Hebrew: kohen [ןֵהֹכּ], plural: kohanim [םיִנֲהֹכּ])
The priests of this period were believed to be direct patrilineal descendants of the first high priest, Moses’ brother Aaron, and were responsible for making various offerings to God at the temple. Archaeological evidence suggests that while a priestly class existed during the time of Solomon’s temple, it is likely that Aaron and his family did not control the priesthood until the time of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E. The role of Aaron and his family in the Book of Exodus is consequently thought to have been added during this period, as this was also when the final and current form of the Torah would have taken shape.
The high priest of Jerusalem had specific duties and privileges that were not held by other priests. He was the one priest responsible for the rituals of atonement that were held on the holy day of Yom Kippur, and was the only priest allowed into the room called the ‘holy of holies’ where the Ark was housed and one was said to be in direct contact with Yahweh. The high priest also could officiate the rituals held by other priests, and had the power to supersede their offerings to God with his own if he desired. Along with these ritual duties, the high priest wore special vestments when ministering the temple.
All priests would wear a tunic called a kutonet (תֶנֹתֻּכּ), a sash/girdle called an avnet (טֵנְבאַ), and special turban called a mitznefet (תֶפֶנְצִמ), over simple linen undergarments called miḵnəsē-ḇāḏ ( דָב־יֵסְנְכִמ), but the high priest also wore a sleeveless blue robe known as the ‘Me’il’ (ליִעְמ), a gold plate fastened to his turban inscribed with “Holiness unto Yahweh” written in Hebrew, an embroidered vest known as the ‘Êphōḏ ’ (דוֹפֵא) with two carved šhoham (םַהֹשׁ) stones on the shoulders, and the Priestly Breastplate attached to the front of the Êphōḏ . The Priestly Breastplate, also sometimes called the “Breastplate of Aaron” or the “Breastplate of Judgment”, was a revered ritual object that was believed to have originally been made by Moses for his brother Aaron. The instructions for the creation of this object were very specific and said to have been given directly to Moses by Yahweh.
The Priestly Breastplate, known in Hebrew as the ‘ᕼošhen’ (ן ֶשֹׁח), contained twelve jewels that were meant to represent the twelve tribes of Israel and had the name of the corresponding tribe inscribed on the front of each stone. According to accounts in the Book of Exodus, the breastplate was made using the same embroidered wool and linen fabric used to make the ephod. The piece of fabric used was supposedly one third of a cubit long and two thirds of a cubit wide, so that it could be folded one third of a cubit over to form a pouch with its final silhouette being a square one third of a cubit on all sides. The pouch was meant to hold the ‘Urim’ and ‘Thummim’ (םיִמֻּתַּהְו םיִרוּאָה), two sacred oracular objects used by the high priest when engaging in cleromancy and other divination practices. On the front of the breastplate, the twelve engraved jewels were arranged in four rows of three. These stones, understood to have been somewhat rectangular and cut in a smooth or domed manner much like the cabochons of today, were said to be about two inches tall by two and a half inches wide, each residing in their own gold setting. Legend says that each Israelite tribe carried a flag with them on their journey through the Sinai desert to the Holy Land, and that each flag’s colour matched that of the tribe’s corresponding breastplate stone. The names of each of these stones and their location on the breastplate are explicitly stated in the Book of Exodus.
Below is a depiction of how the stones were arranged on the Priestly Breastplate, including the Hebrew name used in Exodus to identify each of them, the colour each stone may have been, and which Israelite tribe they were thought to most likely represent:
Click here to read Part 2 for further exploration of the Priestly Breastplate, and investigations into what stones the twelve jewels were likely carved from.