Note: I wrote this back in 1988 and it probably needs a new revision. But for those who find such topics interesting, here it is for your enjoyment.
Q. What were the types of stones used in Aaron’s breastplate? What were the reasons a particular stone represented a particular tribe?
A. Ibn Ezra in his commentary to Exodus 28, noted that we really have no way to positively identifying the stones that were set in the breastplate and that when Saadia translated these stones as he saw fit, and had no tradition to rely upon. Ibn Ezra’s point is very important, for anything we say about this subject is nothing more than conjecture. The problem is especially compounded when we consider that there is no agreement as to what tribe corresponded to the correct stone. In light of this, let’s wade our way through these murky waters and see how these stones have been identified. Some scholars have attempted to establish a relationship between the 12 stones in Aaron’s breastplate, the 12 months of the year, and the 12 signs in the zodiac; however, there is no evidence of this in Scripture. Precious stones are used in Scripture in a figurative sense, to signify value, beauty, durability. Philo of Alexandria felt that each stone correspond exactly to the temperament of each given tribe.
The First Row of Stones:
Odem ‑‑sardius, or, ruby. Ex 39:10. The Hebrew odem, from adam, to be red, ruddy, seems to denote the ruby; as adam does in Persian a beautiful gem, of a fine deep red color, with a mixture of purple. Jb 28:18. Pr 3:15. 8:11. 20:15. 31:10. La 4:7. The Targum of Yonatan identifies this stone with the tribe of Rueben; some identify this stone with the tribe of Judah. [Note that Judah was known for his passionate nature, as was Rueben]
Pitdah ‑‑ is constantly rendered by the LXX. topadzion, and Vulgate, topazius, with which agrees Josephus. The topaz is a precious stone, of a pale, dead green, with a mixture of yellow, sometimes of a fine yellow; and hence called chrysolyte by the moderns, from its gold color. Job 28:19. According to Saadia Gaon, Kimchi, and Chizkuni this stone is most likely the emerald. According to the Septuagint, pitdah is identified with the sardian ‑‑ a deep orange‑red chalcedony considered by some to be a variety of carnelian. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabba 2:7 identify the Pitda with Simon, while some say it was the stone of Issachar.
Bareket ‑‑ is possibly a carbuncle, from the Hebrew word Bareketh, from barak, (lightning) to lighten, glitter, a very elegant gem, of a deep red color, with a mixture of scarlet. It has been suggested that possibly the breastplate stone was not green but of bluish‑ red color, in which case it may have been an almandine (garnet). Is 54:11, 12.. Saadia notes that this stone may well have been the yellow topaz, possibly a citrine. The Midrash identifies this stone with Gad, while others identify Bareket with Benjamin
The Second Row of Stones
Nofech ‑‑ Ex 28:18. The Targum, KJV, and Bahya identify this as the emerald, others would argue that the emerald was unknown in Mosaic times. This last opinion is debatable for emeralds were recently rediscovered in Upper Egypt, at Mt. Zabarah. and in Cyprus, and Ethiopia.
Another alternative might be turquoise which was certainly mined in Egypt during Mosaic times. Chizkuni identifies this stone with the carbuncle, whereas the Septuagint renders nofech as coal. Some identify this stone with the tribe of Judah while others identify it with the tribe of Rueben.
Sapir ‑‑ Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390‑ 405 C.E..) translates this stone as sapphirus; Pliny describes sapphirus as “refulgent with spots like gold. It is also of an azure color, though sometimes, but rarely, it is purple; the best kind being that which comes from Media. In no case, however, is this stone transparent.” However, there is ample reason to believe that the sapphire stone of today which is really the corundum, a stone that was not known in ancient times. Pliny 37:39 and Theophrastos, a Greek scholar were of the view that the sapphire of ancient times was really the lapis lazuli. The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Issachar, while other identify this stone with the tribe of Dan.
Yahalom ‑‑ This stone has been identified as a rock crystal; clear and colorless gem, a pearl, or a bluish glass (considered valuable in very early times), or blue chalcedony, or perhaps even beryl. Ibn Ezra in his commentary notes that Yahalom is most likely a diamond because it has the ability to break up all other stones. Its root word is according to Ibn Ezra derived from the Hebrew word holem which means “to smite” (Cf. Isa 41:7). Some translations of the Bible translate Yahalom as “diamond” which is incorrect for the diamond was not known before the Middle Ages. Moreover, for the Biblical stone had a name engraved on it and the method of engraving a diamond was not invented till 2,000 or 3,000 years after the breastplate was made; nor were diamonds, if known at that time and place in history. The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Zevulun, while others say it was Naphtali’s stone.
The Third Row of Stones:
Leshem‑‑ This stone might be jacinth, zircon; amber yellow or orange The Septuagint renders it as liguron . Other scholars identify it with aventurine, a quartz containing very fine crystals of hematite, limonite or mica, which sparkle when the light catches them. It has also been identified as turquoise which is used in jewelry. This stone may have been a tourmaline, or more definitely the red variety known as rubellite. Rubellite is a hard stone, and used as a gem, and is sometimes sold for red sapphire. The Midrash associates this stone with the tribe of Dan because the city of Leshem was located in his tribe [Cf. Joshua 19:47].
She’voh‑‑‑ Variegated black and white agate; The Septuagint identifies this stone as achatis. This identification with agate is accepted by all scholars. White‑gray agates were found in Egypt. This is a stone that assumes such a variety of hues and appearances it may derive its name from the root shuv (heb 7725), “to turn, to change”; and are capable of changing its appearance without end. Some identify Midrashic sources identify this stone with the tribe of Naphtali, while others suggest it was the stone of Asher or Menashe.
Achlamah ‑‑‑ which the Septuagint renders as ‘amethustos the Greek word for without being drunk’ the Greeks believed that this stone was supposed to prevent inebriation. This a gem generally is purple or violet in color. Pliny says that it was crimson, that there were four shades of that color and that it was translucent. Ibn Ezra writes that the amethyst was sometimes identified as the dream stone, for it was could induce dreams in anyone who wears it. [note that the word achlamah is related to the Hebrew word for dream “cholem.” The Targum identifies this stone with the tribe of Gad or Issachar. If this is indeed the dream stone, then it seem logical to identify this stone with Joseph.
The Fourth Row of Stones
Tarshish ‑‑beryl, a precious stone of a sea‑ green color. Emerald and aquamarine are two types of beryl. It may also be citrine quartz or green jasper; The Septuagint calls this chrisolythos or berullion; . In the Hellenistic period this name was applied to the topaz, a stone not known in the earlier periods. Now believed to have been identical with mother‑of‑ pearl. Jerome’s Vulgate translates it as the hyacinthus. Beryl is a transparent gem of a bluish‑green colour, found in the East Indies [Saadia, Kimchi and the KJV]. Only the green beryl was known and used in Egypt in Moses’ time, the aquamarine and the yellow and white beryls not being known. The name Tarshish is also the ancient Biblical name for Spain, and if this applies here, then we may assume that it is the yellow rock crystal or citrine quartz. known as “chrysolith” according to Pliny (Natural History, xxxvii. 43). This stone is identified with the tribe of Zebulon who dwelled by the sea (Bahya).
Shoham ‑‑ Onyx sardonyx; variegated red and white Onyx is a member of the agate family and is characterized by its non‑transparency and its parallel layers of alternating colors, as red and white, brown and white, black and white. The Vulgate translates it as the sardonyx, a red and white variegated gem. New English Bible renders shoham as “(red) carnelian.” which is frequently found in the desert. In the Book of Job, Job regarded God’s wisdom as a greater possession than even costly onyx (Job 28:16). The Targum identifies this stone with the tribe of Asher.
Yashfeh ‑‑ Jasper jasper; green ; the jasper stone was originally carved by the Babylonians and was usually green and sometimes even transparent. The Greek and Latin jaspis, and has been found in excavations in ancient Judea and in the neighboring countries. This stone may possibly be the opal or jade or green quartz. The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Naphtali or Benjamin.
According to Philo, Josephus, Maimonides, Rashi, the four rows was arranged according to the order of their birth, others suggest that the rows corresponded to they encamped in the wilderness (T.B. Yoma 73b, Saadia, and the Abravanel). According to the Minchat Chinuch, the rows were arranged vertically by the order of birth (cf. Kaplan’s Living Torah for more details). The purpose of the choshen (breastplate) was to remind the High Priest that he had to represent the Jewish people wherever he would go, and that he was their servant at all times.
I would like to make a few concluding comments about the purpose of these stones and why they were so important .Stones had a wide range of meanings in the ancient world. They represented indestructibility, constancy, the unyielding, and dominance. Many of the transparent shiny stones symbolically represented the synthesis of earthly matter bound up with the brilliance of spiritual. These gems represented clarity and light, and were used by the High Priest when he meditated on the Urim ve Tumim.
At the beginning of this article, I pointed out that the twelve stones corresponded to the twelve signs of the Zodiac. There is also a stone for every month, and these are often featured in brooches inscribed with zodiacal signs portraying a person’s horoscope. According to Eliade, stones were adored by the ancients because they were believed to be instruments of spiritual action and vitality. These stones were believed by many peoples throughout history as carrying the charisma of the sun, the moon and the seven planets. Yellow and white stones bore the influence of the sun, blue stones were associated with the heavenly realm [Cf. the color of techeylet found in the Tzitzit symbolizing the heavens and the waters], red stones bore the influence of Mars and passion, Venus was associated with green stones such as the emerald, Saturn was characterized by black stones such as onyx and so on. These stones were used also as a weapon warding off the baneful influence of the evil eye.
Precious stones were believed to have certain curative powers. Abraham wore a precious stone, hanging from his neck, any sick person who gazed upon it was instantly healed (Bava Bathra 16b); cf. the pearl-bag worn by animals that contained a pearl for medicinal purposes. (Cf.Sanh. 68a and Rashi ad loc.). They were also believed to promote human passions and affections. According to Josephus mentions that the Essenes used precious stones for healing purposes (Wars 2:136) Beryl gives hope; emeralds brought wealth, carbuncle, energy and assurance; rubies and red agates were associated with love.
With regard to the tribes and their respective stones, we find in the Midrash
There were distinguishing signs for each prince; each had a flag and a different color for every flag, corresponding to the precious stones on the breast of Aaron… Reuben’s stone was odem and the color of his flag was red; and embroidered thereon were mandrakes. Simeon’s was pitdah and his flag was of a yellow (or green) color… Levi’s was bareqet and the color of his flag was a third white, a third black, and a third red… Judah’s was nofekh and the color of his flag was like that of the sky… Issachar’s was sappir and the color of his flag was black like stibium… Zebulun’s was yahalom and the color of his flag was white… Dan’s was leshem and the color of his flag was similar to sappir… Gad’s ahlamah and the color of his flag was neither white nor black but a blend of black and white… Asher’s was tarshish and the color of his flag was like the precious stone with which women adorn themselves… Joseph’s was shoham and the color of his flag was jet black… Benjamin’s was yashfeh and the color of his flag was a combination of all the 12 colors.[This Midrash was adapted from the Encyclopedia Judaica]