The Two Sardonyx Stones

Two sardonyx stones were fixed in settings of gold on the High Priest's shoulders; one on the right, and one on the left. The names of the tribes of Israel were engraved upon these two stones, according to the instructions of the verse: "And you shall take two sardonyx stones, and engrave upon them the names of the children of Israel; there shall be six names on one stone, and six names on the second stone in the order of their birth." (Ex. 28:9-10)


"Remembrance Stones"

The Bible calls these two stones "remembrance stones," as it is written, "And you shall place the two stones on the two shoulder pieces of the ephod as remembrance stones for the children of Israel. And Aaron shall carry their names before G-d on his two shoulders as a remembrance." (Ibid. v. 12)

The sages explain the meaning of this expression: when the High Priest entered into the holy place dressed in the ephod, the Holy One saw all the tribes of Israel inscribed before Him and He was moved to have mercy on His people.

Another two square gold settings were fixed on the High Priest's shoulders, directly under the sardonyx stones. Golden chains extended from these settings to the golden hooks in the rings of the breastplate, in order to fix the breastplate to the ephod.


II. The High Priest's Breastplate

"And you shall make the breastplate of judgment, the work of an artist; after the manner of the ephod shall you make it: of gold, sky-blue, dark-red, and crimson dyed wool, and of twisted linen shall you make it." (Ex. 28:6,15)

This garment is called choshen mishpat in Hebrew, which means the "breastplate of judgment" or "decision." Square-shaped and worn over the heart, it was called so because of the unique role which it played in helping to render fateful decisions.

According to the Biblical instructions and rabbinical traditions, the breastplate is a patterned brocade like the ephod. The threads of its fabric are gold, sky-blue, dark red and crimson wool, and twisted linen. The garment itself is set with four rows of small square stones, in settings of knitted or braided gold. Each row contained three stones-totaling twelve stones, one stone representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The name of the corresponding tribe was engraved on each stone.


The Stones

"And you shall set it with four rows of mounted stones; the first row: a ruby, an emerald, and a topaz. The second row: a carbuncle, a sapphire, and a quartz crystal. The third row: a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst. The fourth row: a chrysolite, an onyx, and an opal. These stones shall be placed in gold settings. The stones shall contain the names of the twelve children of Israel, one for each of the twelve stones; each one's name shall be engraved as on a signet ring, to represent the twelve tribes." (Ex. 28: 17-21)


Names that Defy Translation

Although we have provided a translation for these twelve stones as listed above, it is by no means definitive. We simply prefer to use these names, when faced with the alternative... that is, to present the original Hebrew names transliterated but untranslated. Our listing is rather more like a synopsis, or a sampling, representing different schools of thought. The exact, conclusive identification of these stones is actually one of the most difficult and elusive of all Temple-related studies. This is because the original Hebrew names of these stones as they appear here in the Bible are extremely obscure. They are not commonly used, and no description of the stones appears anywhere in the verses themselves. In the course of many years, as nations flourished and fell, and civilizations migrated to new lands, languages evolved and the meanings of words changed. Thus in one location, a word may have one meaning and connote a particular concept, while in another land, the same word may carry the exact opposite meaning.

Over 30 Different Opinions

Faced with this sort of situation, it becomes necessary to engage in what can be called "linguistic sleuthing" in an effort to arrive at a working conclusion. The names of these stones is particularly enigmatic: there are over 30 varying opinions as to the final identification of the 12 stones. These opinions include scholars and commentators from the entire historical spectrum of rabbinical literature and tradition, beginning with the most ancient-and therefore, in this case the most reliable opinions-those of the Aramaic translations of the Bible. And as is usual when it comes to eye-witness testimony, the information provided by Flavius Josephus is of interest and importance, since he himself was a priest who served in the Holy Temple.

In addition to the translational difficulties in this study, there are also other factors which should be taken into consideration in order to arrive at a realistic decision as to the true nature of these gems. These factors include various geological and gemological conditions and criteria, such as the respective degree of hardness and brightness of any candidate stone (since the stones are described by the sages as being both exceedingly bright, and strong as well - in order to withstand the engraving), and the regions on the earth where they can be found.


The Colors Correspond to the Tribes' Banners

In reality, the only fact which is known with absolute certainty is the color of each stone. Although absent from the Biblical passages, this is recorded by the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7) where it is stated that each tribe's stone on the breastplate matched the background color of its flag (the tribes of Israel camped and journeyed according to their ensigns during the years of their desert travels).

Thus even if some doubt exists with regard to the scientific classification of the gems themselves, we can still be certain as to their appearance based on the Midrashic description of their colors (again, arbitrarily using the 12 "most representative" names we have chosen for the purpose of listing them):

  1. Ruby - Reuben - Red
  2. Jade - Shimon - Green
  3. Agate - Levi - Red, White, and Black Striped
  4. Carbuncle - Judah - Bluish-Green
  5. Lapis-Lazuli - Issachar - Blue
  6. Quartz Crystal - Zebulun - Clear
  7. Turquoise - Dan - Blue
  8. Amethyst - Naftali - Purple
  9. Agate - Gad - Grey
  10. Aquamarine - Asher - Blue-Green
  11. Onyx - Joseph - Black
  12. Opal - Benjamin - A Stone Possessing All the Colors

  Exhaustive Research Concluded by the Temple Institute

It will be of great interest to the reader to learn that over the course of nearly a decade, scholars at the Temple Institute of Jerusalem have conducted intensive research into the identity of the breastplate's stones, in an effort to reach a working conclusion that will allow the Institute's artisans and craftsmen to actually construct a kosher breastplate, which will fulfill the Biblical requirements for the stones-and thus be able to be worn by the next High Priest.


"The Engraving of a Signet Ring"

"The stones shall contain the names of the twelve children of Israel, one for each of the twelve stones; each one's name shall be engraved as on a signet ring, to represent the twelve tribes." (Ex. 28: 21)

What process is this engraving, similar to that which appears on a signet ring?

In a Talmudic analysis (BT Sotah 48:B), the sages taught that because of these instructions, the words were not written with any sort of ink. Nor were they carved out or chiseled with any metal tool - for the verse (ibid. v. 20) specifically indicates that the stones must be set into their golden settings while yet "in their fullness;" in order to carve or to scratch out from the surface, some of the stone itself would inevitably be missing.

Rather, a most unique method was utilized to carve the names into the stones of the breastplate. It was accomplished naturally, by one of G-d's creations. A worm called the shamir existed that could cut stones merely with its glance. According to the rabbis, this creature was brought into existence during the original six days of creation, but ceased to exist following the destruction of the First Temple.

It is taught that Moses himself used the shamir for the stones of the original ephod and breastplate while yet in the desert, for the Tabernacle.

"Initially, the words are written on the stones in ink. Then the stones are simply exposed to the shamir, and the letters are cut into the stones automatically, of their own accord... like a fig which ripens and splits open in summer; it splits open but yet no part of it is missing. And a valley splits open during the rainy season, but it too lacks nothing." (BT Sotah 48:B) - thus the stones remained "in their fullness."


How Were the Tribes Arranged on the Breastplate?

Above, regarding the two sardonyx stones that were placed on the High Priest's shoulders, we have quoted the verse "And you shall take two sardonyx stones, and engrave upon them the names of the children of Israel; there shall be six names on one stone, and six names on the second stone in the order of their birth." (Ex. 28:9-10)

When it came to those two stones, this verse clearly indicated that the names of the tribes should be engraved upon them in the order of their birth.

But in the context of the stones of the breastplate, scripture gives no such indication. Therefore, there is some controversy as to the order in which these names appeared.

In the opinion of Yonatan ben Uziel, author of an Aramaic translation/commentary on the Bible, the children of Israel's names were inscribed on the breastplate's stones in the order of their birth, and were therefore arranged in the following manner:

  • Reuben Simeon Levi
  • Judah Dan Naftali
  • Gad Asher Issachar
  • Zebulun Joseph Benjamin

Another Aramaic translation, the "Targum Yerushalmi," places the order of the tribes according to the Matriarchs; the six sons of Leah, two sons of Bilhah, two sons of Zilpah and two sons of Rachel. Thusly:

  • Reuben Simeon Levi
  • Judah Issachar Zebulun
  • Dan Naftali Gad
  • Asher Joseph Benjamin

When the reader tries to visualize the breastplate based on this information, he should bear in mind that in both cases, the order which meets the eye is actually reversed-since Hebrew reads from right to left.

It should be noted that both of these commentaries (which date back to the time of the Temple) are held in the highest regard as sources of both wisdom and authoritative knowledge. For the sake of brevity we have only presented these two opinions, but there are more schools of thought among the great sages: some hold that the names appeared in downward columns, rather than inrows across; some hold that the names of the tribes appeared on the breastplate in the same order in which they camped in the desert.

There is also a tradition which Moses received at the Sinai revelation, that all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet should be present on the stones. Since all of these letters are not found in the names of Jacob's progeny, several other words were also engraved upon the stones: the names of the patriarchs, Abraham Isaac and Jacob, and the words "the tribes of Jeshurun." One opinion is that the words Abraham, Isaac and Jacob appeared at the top of the first stone, over the name Reuben, and the other words on the last stone. Others maintain that all these extra letters were divided among the stones.


"A Remembrance"

Like the two sardonyx shoulder stones, the Bible states that the purpose of the twelve stones is "to be a perpetual remembrance before the L-rd" (Ex. 28:29). When the High Priest bore the breastplate into the holy place, Israel was remembered for peace. The sages taught that the ephod served to invoke the cause of Israel's sustenance and material welfare, and the breastplate - her salvation, and deliverance from her enemies.



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