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According to Exodus, scripture, the Priest Aaron was to wear a breastplate adorned with twelve gems, chosen by God to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. There has been some debate about which gems actually appeared in the breastplate.  This is because people did not always classify gemstones by mineral composition.  In fact,  the most frequent ancient method of classifying gems was by color, leading to confusion between such gems as garnet and ruby.

The idea of having gemstones represent specific desirable traits found in the twelve tribes of Israel led to the association between gemstones and signs of zodiac.

Recreation of the Jewish High Priest Breast Plate

The Breast Plate would have been worn by the High Jewish Priest (Kohen). He was seated in the East inside the Temple, and clothed in a robe of blue, purple, scarlet and white linen.  He was also decorated with the symbols of hi office; a breast plate (as seen above) and a miter, or crown. On the front of the miter were inscribed the words, “Holiness to the Lord” and the colored gemstone in the breast plate represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Emblems of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

It was set with four row of mounted stones.  Each row contain the gemstones in the following order:

  • The first containing Carnelian, Emerald, and Topaz.
  • The second containing Carbuncle, Sapphire, and Beryl.
  • The third containing Jacinth, Agate, and Amethyst.
  • The fourth row containing Chrysolite, Onyx, and Jasper.

The stones contained the names of the twelve sons of Israel, one for each of the twelve gemstones. Each one’s name was engraved as on on a signet ring, to represent the twelve tribes.

Carnelian, odem in Hebrew.  The Carnelian is a variety of flesh colored (carne) crytocrystalline quartz, having a color similar to a ruby due to traces of ferrous oxide. Ancient Greek sources translate it as sardion. The sardion, sardine or sard was deep orange-red variety of carnelian which was found near Sardis, the capital of ancient Lydia.
Most sources agree that it was a red stone.  Some sources state that the odem here was a ruby. However, in ancient nomenclature, the name given to a stone is denoted its visual appearnce rather than chemical composition, and hence, the “ruby” could be any bright red stone.
According to most authorities, the odem was the stone of Rueben. According to some, however, it was the stone of Judah

The Emerald, Pitdah in Hebrew.  Most sources indicate that it was a green stone.  One early source identifies source identifies it as prasma, Spanish for prase, a dark green variety of crystocrytalline quartz. It can also denote chrysoprase, and apple green variety, or plasma, a leek green or emerald green type.
Ancient Greek sources translate as pitdah as Topaz, where the sequence is “sardion, topaz, emerald”, however, it appears that mainstream tradition had a reading in the Septuagint, “sardin, emerald, topaz”.  Hence, the pitdah would be translated as smaragdos, Greek for Emerald or malachite. Nonetheless, there are a number of later sources that identify the pitdah with topaz.  There are, however, some indication that the topaz of the ancient was actually green. The pitdah was a stone of Simeon.  Others say that it was the stone of Issachar.

Topaz, Bareketh in Hebrew.  Numerous sources indicate that it was a stone that was yellow or saffron colored. If it is assumed that the Septuagint transposes this stone with the one above (emerald), then it would also translate this as topazion, Greek for topaz or similar yellow gemstones.
There is, however, a question as to whether or not the topaz mentioned in ancient sources is the same as the present topaz.  5t may denote citrine, a yellow variety of quartz, or peridot, a yellow green variety of chrysolite.  Some sources appear to indicate that bareketh is actually a gold lustered pyrite.
According to current version of the Septuagint and Josepus, the barebeth here is emerald.  Other sources state that it was a bluish stone as a blue hyacinth.
There are some sources that transpose this with the next stone, and translate it as carbuncle. Others state that it was the stone of Zebulun.

Carbuncle, Nophekh in Hebrew.  Ancient Greek sources translate nophek as anthrax denoting coal.  This is usually interpreted to mean a mineral that is red, the color of burning coal.  It is hence rendered as caebuncle (Vulgate), from carbo, Latin for coal.  This denotes a particularly brilliant red garnet, but can also denote a ruby or ruby spinel.
Some sources, however, take “coal” in its literal sense and state that nophekh was a black stone.  The Hebrew Midrash states that the colors of the stones on this row were “sky-blue, black, white.” There is evidence, that the first two colors are transposed, and the reading should be “black, sky-blue, white,” so that this would agree that the nophekh was black. Some say that it is related to pukh meaning stibium, a black powder.
There are sources, however, which indicate that the nophekh was indeed a blue stone. Those sources which would transpose the Septuagint translation with the previous stone, would also render this as emerald.
Nophekh was the stone of Judah.  Others say that it was the stone of Reuben.

 Sapphire, Sapir in Hebrew.  In Greek it is also translated as sappheiros. This however, denotes any blue stone, and some say that the sapphire of the ancients was really the lapis-lazuli. Some sources, however, state that the Biblical sapphire was actually a clear colorless stone, identical either as crystal or diamond.
Some sources identify the sapir with the emerald, but this appears to be a transposition with the previous word. The same is true of the Midrash, which has it as being a black stone.  Some sources would have it as being a red stone.  Josephus renders it as jasper, but this is probably a transposition with the next stone in the septuagint, which is a transposition with the last stone.
The sapphire was the stone of Issachar.  Other sources, however, state that it was the stone of Dan, whose banner and stone were blue. A third opinion is that it was the stone of Simon.

Beryl, Yahalom in Hebrew.  This is a bluish-green precious stone, midway between the emerald and aquamarine in color.
The Septuagint has iastis, which, if a transposition is assumed, is rendered by Josephus as iaspis, denoting jasper. However, since jasper is usually identified with yashpeh, it can safely be assumed that the translation of the last stone in this line was transposed with the stone of the fourth line.  The correct translation in the Septuagint here would therefore by byrilion. The beryl of the ancients is described as being a yellowish blue-green.  It is surmised that the the word may denotes a type of precious jade.
Some say that burla mentioned in ancient sources is the pearl.
Many sources however, identify the yahalom with the diamond. The Midrash also identifies it as a white or clear gem.  Others say that this is the chalcedony.
The yahalom was the stone of Zebulun.  Others say that it was the stone of Naphtalli, which was greyish. A third is that it was Gad’s stone.

Jacinth, Leshem in Hebrew.  Greek sources translate this as ligurion. This is a bright orange stone like the jacinth, often likened to the carbuncle or amber. Many other sources have it resembling the topaz in color.
Other sources, however, see it as a blue stone.  Thus, some sources identify it with turquoise or beryl.
While the order in our versions of the septuagint is “ligure, agate, amethyst,” in place Josephus has “agate, amethyst, ligure.” Other sources also appear to agree that the leshem is an agate.  The Targum renders it kankirey which is seen as coming from the Greek Kegchri, grains, because it is a stone with granular pattern.
The leshem was the stone of Dan. This stone was given to him because Leshem was an important city in Dan. Others say that it was the stone of Gad.

Agate, Sh’vo in Hebrew; achatis in Greek.  This a type of striped or variegated chalcedon. The Midrash also sees this as a grey stone.
As noted above, the order in Septuagint on this line is “ligure, agate, amethyst.” Josephus, however, has “ligure, amethyst, agate” (Antiquities), or “agate, amethyst, ligure” (Wars). Hence, according to his reading, the sh’vo would be the amethyst.
The Targum translate sh’ vo as tarkia which some identify as the turquoise.  It is hence seen as a sapphire-like blue stone. Others see tarkia as related to anthrax, Greek for coal, and hence a black stone.  Others see it as a red, carbuncle-like stone, and render it as jacinth, and orange-red stone.
The sh’vo was the stone of Naphtali, or according to some, of Asher or Manasseh.

Amethyst, Acklamah in Hebrew; amithysos in Greek.  This is a violet or purple stone, that was thought by the ancients to be an antidote for drunkenness. The Midrash also states that it was the color of diluted wine. The Greek word comes from a- “not”, and mithysos drunken, and may be related to the Hebrew achlamah, which has the connotation of a dream.
The amethyst has the property of turning yellow when heated. Hence, some sources see it as a (partially?) yellow stone. It may thus be related to the word chelmon, the yellow of an egg.
The Targum translate this word as “calf’s eye.”  This is taken to be a kind of onyx or agate.  It is also possible that it was an amethyst heated on the edge to give it a yellow border and an eye-like appearance. Some sources translate achlamah as crystal.
The achlamah was the stone of Gad. According to others, it was the stone of Issachar or Benjamin.

Chrysolite,  Tarshish in Hebrew; chrysolithos in Greek.  The chrysolite of antiquity is described as being yellowish stone, the color of amber.  Traditional sources identify it with the color of pure olive oil. These sources maintain that the tarshish was the stone of Asher, whose blessing was oil.
Other sources, however, maintain that the tarshish is the aquamarine, a brilliant blue-green stone.  These sources would identify the stone with Zebi’lun, whose blessing was to live by the sea.  Others maintain that this was the stone of Joseph.

Onyx,  Shoham in Hebrew. Onyx in Greek. This is a stone having bands of black, white, and red or other colors. On the Septuagint translate shoham as sard-onyx as does Josephus.
It is therefore reasonable that the order of this line is “chrysolite, onyx, beryl,” as given by Josephus in one place.  In another place, however, he has the other as, “onyx, Beryl, chrysolite”.  In our version of the Septuagint, the order is, “chrysolite, beryl, onyx.”
According to the last two readings, the shoham would be the beryl, and this view is shared by many other sources.  This is seen, perhaps, as an emerald colored jade. The septuagint on Gensesis translate it as prase.  Others see it as a black stone, or a reflective white stone, perhaps a white form of beryl.
The shoham was the stone of Joseph.  Others say that it was Asher’s stone.

Jasper, Yaspeh in Hebrew.  The Hebrew is apparently cognate to the English.  Although the Greek versions have either onyx, beryl, or chrysolite, there is probably a transposition between this word and sapir or yahalom.
The Targum renders this as panterey, which some sources translate as striped or spotted. However, the word may be related to the Greek pante, “all,” and thus means “all-colored.”  Midrash also says that the yashpeh is of all colors.  This suggests a type of opal.
The yashpeh was the stone of Benjamin. Some say that it was the stone of Naphtali.

Setting.  Some say that the stones fit exactly into indentations, “filling” the settings. Others maintain that the stones were held in the settings with three prongs. Other sources indicates that the stones were perforated and woven into the breastplate.

The stones shall contain....
Some say that the names were simply in order of birth.

Rueben

Simeon

Levi

Judah

Dan

Naphtali

Gad

Asher

Issachar

Zebulun

Joseph

Benjamin

Others say that Jacob’s sons were divided according to their mothers, with Leah’s sons first, and Rachel’s last.

The Emblem of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

  • Rueben
    Rueben was the first born of Jacob and his name means to ‘see behold, perceive, discern, or know a son’. His name was inscribed in the emerald stone which represent healing life, birthing, rolling sea (water), turmoil (pangs, pain).  Its green color speaks of a resurrection (Life), Restoration (Healing), and Reinstatement (Forgiveness).

  • Simeon
    The name Simeon means to hear or to discern. It also implies obedience, content, understanding, and witness.  His name was inscribed on the sapphire stone which also means to discern.  Additional meanings of the name are: to declare, to write, to inscribe, to enumerate, celebrate, proclaim, show fort, and also to divide or cut.

  • Levi
    Preisthood.

  • Judah
    Inscribed upon the Sardius Stone was the name Judah which means Praise of Jehovah and denotes the expression of praise.  The Sardius stone was red in color symbolizing blood and man. The tribe of Judah was the Regal and Ruling tribe of God.  It was out of this tribe that the Lawgiver and Kings came. Blessing, joy, strength, and victory were always their portion.

  • Dan
    The name of Dan means to judge, to minister judgment or to plead a cause.  It is most significant that this name is engraved in the Beryl stone which represents a subduing or a breaking.  Dan was to judge his own house as an equal, judge his tribe.

  • Naphtali
    The name Naphtali means to be obtained by wrestling. This name was written in the jasper stone which was transparent and signified water and fullness of glory. Transparent means that one is seen clearly.  Through natural birth, Naphtali was wrestling.  In blessing, Naphtali is a deer let loose (released, set free) with goodly words (fruit).

  • Gad
    The name Gad which means to crowed upon, attack, invade, overcome was inscribed in the diamond. A diamond is a very hard stone and is unchangeable and adamant in nature.  The diamond also means to conquer, smite, break, or overcome.  The scripture tells us that the tribe of Gad was skillful in warfare and they were mighty men of valor.

  • Asher
    The name Asher was inscribed in the onyx stone.  Asher means blessed, happy, prosper, straight, honest, go, guide, lead, and relieve.  Onyx means fire/or splendor.  Genesis tell us that “out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties”. Truly the richness of Asher passed on to the generations and his children were blessed.

  • Issachar
    The name of Issachar means reward or to hire for payment and was engraved upon the Topaz stone which was golden yellow and represents “to seek”.  This tribes willingly accepted what was before them and with what they had.  The children of Issachar were mighty men in David’s army and because of their ability to understand the times, all brethren heeded their command.

  • Zebulun
    The name Zebulun means dwelling, habitation, abiding, continuing, to reside or dwell with. The carbuncle stone upon which the name was engraved symbolized lighting, glittering, or flashing.  The tribes of Zebulun traveled and they settled on the coast-lands. They were as a lighthouse, a guide in the dark, and their place of habitation became a welcome port.

  • Joseph
    The name of Ephraim was engraved in the Ligure stone which was considered to be a stone of mystery. The name Ephraim means to be doubly fruitful or productive.  Joseph brought his two sons Mannasseh and Ephraim to receive their blessing from Jacob before his death.  Although Mannasseh was the one that was to receive the blessing of the firstborn in Joseph family, Jacob crossed his hands and laid his right hand upon Ephraim imparting the double portion blessing.  This act by his father was most mysterious to Joseph and quite upsetting.

  • Benjamin
    Benjamin was born in Bethlehem and was the last son of Jacob and Rachel. The birthing of Benjamin brought the death of his mother and in her final moments, Rachel (soul) called him “Benoni’ (son of my sorrow), but Israel (spirit) called him Benjamin, meaning the son of my right. Also means: in the widest sense of son (grandson, great-grandson, etc. thereby covering all generations to come).  It was the bringing of Benjamin to Joseph in Egypt that released the provision of food to Israel (Jacob).

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