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High Priest Breastplate | Worn During Biblical Times

 

 

 Jewish high priest wearing the breastplate featuring twelve gemstones

 

 

Priestly Breastplate with 12 Precious Gemstones


The high priest breastplate was a religious garment worn by the Jewish high priest during biblical times.  It was embedded with twelve precious gemstones each of which was inscribed with the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.  This sacred garment is also known as the breastplate of Aaron, breastplate of judgement and the priestly breastplate.  Aaron the brother of Moses was the first Jewish high priest

The high priest breastplate featured four rows of gemstones with three stones in each and was worn over the top of an ephod.  This tunic-like garment and the priestly breastplate are both described in the Book of Exodus.  They're said to have been made from the same material and were woven out of gold, blue, purple and scarlet coloured threads along with fine linen that was embroidered with skillful work.

The high priest breastplate was a square garment that was secured to the ephod by a "girdle" which is a type of belt.  Two shoulder straps were fastened to the front of the ephod by golden rings and the breastplate was attached to these with golden chains.

The purpose of the priestly breastplate was to carry the gemstones upon which the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were engraved so they could be brought before God 'as a continual memorial'.  It's said that Aaron the High Priest should 'bear them upon his heart' when going into the most holy place.

Problems with accurate translations from both Hebrew and Ancient Greek has made it very difficult to know exactly which gemstones were used in the breastplate of Aaron and their exact layout.  The fact that names of certain minerals have changed over the years plus many were grouped together under one blanket name has further added to the confusion.  As a result there have been extensive discussions over many years about the accuracy of the stones that were actually present and nothing has ever been agreed conclusively.

The Roman Jewish historian Josephus and Saint Jerome who's known for translating the bible into Latin connected the twelve gemstones in the priestly breastplate to the twelve months of the year and twelve signs of the zodiac. Their proclomations which were made three hundred years apart were the first indication that gemstones could be used as birthstones.  Many centuries later each stone in the high priest breastplate was assigned to a month of the year and sign from the zodiac according to the order in which it appeared in the book of Revelation.

The following six examples show the gemstones that scholars believe are most likely to have been present in the high priest breastplate and order in which they were positioned.   

 

 

  • Row 1: ruby · topaz · beryl

  • Row 2: turquoise · sapphirus (ancient name for lapis lazuli) · emerald

  • Row 3: jacinth (reddish-orange stone variety of zircon) · agate · amethyst

  • Row 4: chrysolite (possibly chrysoberyl or olivine) · onyx · jasper

 

  • Row 1: ruby · topaz · emerald

  • Row 2: turquoise · sapphirus (sapphire was unknown as this time) · diamond*

  • Row 3: jacinth · agate · amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl · onyx · jasper

 

  • Row 1: red carnelian · chrysolite · emerald

  • Row 2: turquoise · sapphirus (lapis lazuli) · white moonstone

  • Row 3: jacinth · agate · amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl · onyx · jasper

 

  • Row 1: sardius (red stone most likely sard but possibly jasper) · topaz · carbuncle (old name for any red gemstone cut as a cabochon. Applied particularly to red garnet)

  • Row 2: emerald · sapphirus · diamond*

  • Row 3: ligure (possibly the same as jacinth a variety of zircon) · agate · amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl · onyx · jasper

 

  • Row 1: sardius · topaz · emerald

  • Row 2: turquoise · sapphirus · diamond*

  • Row 3: jacinth · agate · amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl · onyx · jasper

 

  • Row 1: sardius · topaz · carbuncle

  • Row 2: emerald · sapphire · diamond*

  • Row 3: jacinth · agate · amethyst

  • Row 4: beryl · onyx · jasper

 

 

*Although some scholars believe one of the gemstones may have been a diamond others believe it's pretty unlikely.  The ancient words used to describe diamond indicate that it was a particularly hard mineral that was either white or colourless but it's not known for certain whether diamond was even known at this time.

All of the stones in the priestly breastplate were inscribed with the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel therefore they had to be a reasonable size and with diamond being one of the hardest materials known to man, engraving it would have been incredibly difficult if not impossible.

Another factor to consider is that the Jewish people had not long been released from Egypt so there was not an abundance of money therefore it's generally believed the stones used in the high priest breastplate would have been fairly inexpensive. 

 

 

More Information

Ephod Ceremonial Dress | Wikipedia 
Fascinating Article Worth Reading

 

 

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