The Breastplate of Aaron
When reading the description of the Breastplate of Aaron in Chapter 28 of the Book of Exodus, some of the stones named don’t seem familiar. This is because many of the terms used in the original text are descriptive rather than specific. Many gems and minerals have names that have changed through time, and others were simply described by their attributes or the location where they were found.
In performing the analysis presented here, these descriptions and locations are taken into consideration, as well as the accessibility of different stones at the time Moses received these instructions. The information presented here is not always conclusive but is the best scholarship available at this time.
THE FIRST ROW
1. Odem (Sardios [σάρδιον] in the Septuagint):
Fortunately, both modem and sardios loosely translate to “red”, so the colour of this stone is not much of a mystery. Due to its structure, the word sardios is likely a Greek name for sard, the deep red-brown form of carnelian, and so refers to carnelian. The jewel Exodus calls odem was most likely a red variety of silicon dioxide.
2. Pit’dah (Topazios [τοπαζίου] in the Septuagint):
The Hebrew word pit’dah is thought to be related to words in other Semitic languages that describe an object which “shimmers” or “flashes”, so this gemstone was most likely a translucent or transparent mineral. Some immediately draw a connection between the Greek word topazios and the mineral topaz, but topaz was not very well known during the time of the ancient Israelites. Topazios was actually a name used in antiquity to refer to the island Topazios in the Red Sea, where a gemstone called topazos could apparently be found. According to descriptions of the gem, topazos were often green but also occurred as a yellow stone. The Greek description of topazos, and the presumed meaning of the Hebrew word pit’dah, seem to describe a form of gem olivine. The island of Topazios is now called by the Arabic name Geziret El Zabargad (meaning Zabargad Island), and is known to have been one of the first ancient sources of gem olivine, the green variety of which is called by the name peridot today. If the gemstone in the Priestly Breastplate came from Zabargad, as the Greek topazios implies, then the jewel known by the name pit’dah was likely a form of olivine, peridot (which is also sometimes called “chrysolite”).
3. Bareket (Smaragdos [σμαραγδός] in the Septuagint):
The Hebrew word baraket could be translated as “lightning flash”, which might imply that the stone shimmered and was transparent or translucent. The Greek word smaragdos derives from the same origin as the word “emerald.” Emerald was undoubtedly known in the ancient world as far back as the 20th century B.C.E. when the ancient Egyptians were using the stone as carving material. The jewel known as baraket was most likely emerald.
THE SECOND ROW
4. Nofekh (Anthrax [άνθρακα] in the Septuagint):
The stone known as nofekh in the Masoretic Text poses some issues when compared to its name in the Septuagint, anthrax, as no clear link can be drawn between these two words. The word nofekh is thought to have been a Hebrew adaptation of the Egyptian word mfkzt (sometimes spelled mfkat, or mufkuzt) which was a word used in reference to both malachite and turquoise. The Sinai Peninsula was the location of some malachite mining and was home to the Egyptian turquoise mines, which produced turquoise of a slightly greener hue. Both of these stones were mined extensively by the ancient Egyptians and were highly valued as the colour green was associated with death, resurrection, life, and fertility in Egyptian culture. The word mfkzt would have likely referred to the properties associated with the material rather than the mineral itself, as the Egyptians believed that a place existed within the afterlife called the “Field of Mfkzt” where the pharaoh's spirit would reside, and other words for malachite have also been found in the Egyptian language. Given the significance of mkfzt to the Egyptians and the proximity of the Sinai mines to the Israelite kingdoms, it is likely that the Israelites had access to turquoise from these sources, and adapted the Egyptian name for the stone.
5. Sapir (Sapphirus [σάππιρος] in the Septuagint):
Initially, both the Hebrew and Greek words for this stone seem to reference sapphire. Considering where this breastplate was made and the period in which it was constructed (likely between the 10th century B.C.E. when Solomon’s temple was constructed, and the 6th century B.C.E. when Aaron’s family took control of the priesthood), sapir was likely not made from sapphire. While sapphire was already central to cultures in other parts of the world at this time, sapphires were not extensively well known in the Mediterranean until the late 1st century B.C.E. during the era of the Roman Empire, at which point they were initially thought to be a form of jacinth. Pieces of gem-quality sapphire large enough to have been cut into the size that was needed for the breastplate (two inches by two and a half inches) were also difficult to find and are still considered rare today. Fortunately, both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint appear to reference the exact same stone, as the Greek word sapphirus is thought to have been adapted from the Hebrew word sapir. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, successor to Aristotle, described sapphirus as being dark in colour and having “gold flecks” within it. The stone lapis lazuli, being dark blue and often having golden flecks of pyrite in it, would almost perfectly match this description, and had already been used by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations for centuries come the time of Solomon’s temple. Lapis lazuli was also readily available in large sizes and was easily carved due to its low mohs hardness. It is very likely that the words sapir and sapphirus were names for lapis lazuli that referenced the colour of the stone, and that after the popularization of sapphires in the Mediterranean, the Greek word sapphirus was gradually applied to blue corundum, because of its colour, and served as the root for the European word “sapphire”. Taking all of this into account, lapis lazuli is the most likely candidate for the stone known as sapir.
6. Yahalom (Beryllios [βηρύλλιον] / Iaspis [ἴασπις] in the Septuagint):
The Hebrew word yahalom can be translated as “strike hard” or “smite”, likely referencing the hardness of the gemstone and/or how it may have been used to shape other softer stones and is thought to derive from the same root as the Hebrew word hallamish, meaning “flint”. The word hallamish is connected to words in other Semitic languages for stones of little or no colour. Given the apparent hardness and colour of this stone, some scholars posit that yahalom is made from diamond. It is unlikely that this jewel was crafted from diamond as diamond cutting techniques had not yet become advanced enough during this era to carve diamonds or polish them into cabochons, and finding diamonds large enough to cut a two by two and a half inch cabochon was extremely rare both in ancient times and today. This stone is sometimes rendered in different versions of the Septuagint as either beryllios or as iaspis. The word iaspis is used to refer to jasper, which is valued for its colour, and appears again in the Septuagint when referencing the jewel known as yashfeh, so yahalom likely was not made from jasper. The word beryllios is the Greek word for a blue-green, ocean-coloured stone understood to have been aquamarine, the blue variety of beryl, aquamarine.
THE THIRD ROW
7. Lešhem (Ligurion [λιγύριον] in the Septuagint):
This stone is thought to have been named in reference to the ancient city of Leshem that the tribe of Dan apparently conquered (Joshua 19:47) and consequently is believed to be the jewel upon which the name of that tribe was inscribed. The material from which this jewel was crafted could have gotten its name because the source of the stone may have been near the city of Leshem. The Greek word ligurion (sometimes spelled as liggourrion) seems to be the name by which Greeks called amber and was also the Greek word for the stone known in the classical era as lyngurium. The word ligurion in part derives from the Greek word for urine, ouron, as people of the ancient world believed lyngurium was solidified lynx urine, due to its colour. There is some speculation as to whether lyngurium was amber or another urine-coloured stone that had yet to acquire a distinct name, such as yellow tourmaline, but in the context of Greek and Roman society is considered to have most likely been Baltic amber. The Latin translation of the Old Testament, the Vulgate, references the jewel known as lešhem with the word ligure, which is the Latin equivalent of the word ligurion. The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder described the ligurion stone of the Priestly Breastplate as having electrical properties. Pliny was quite probably describing amber, as amber was perhaps the first material known to have electrical properties; the words “electricity” and “electron” derive from the Latin name for amber, electrum, as it was sometimes rubbed by Romans to generate a static charge (amber was likely named electrum by the Romans due to the similarity between amber’s colour and the colour of the gold-silver alloy in Homer’s The Odyssey, named electron, which had been Latinized by Romans as electrum). Amber was readily accessible in the ancient world, as it could often be found on the shoreline without the need for any mining tools and was easily shaped due to its low hardness. In fact, amber would have been one of the first gem materials to have been carved by humans due to both its availability and softness. It is possible that another golden stone was used as lešhem, such as jacinth, but lešhem was most likely amber.
8. Šhevo (Achates [ἀχάτης] in the Septuagint):
The Hebrew word šhevo is thought to be related to the ancient Assyrian word shubu, which means “agate”. The banded form of chalcedony known as agate was well known in the Middle East and Mediterranean long before the time of Solomon’s Temple. The Greek word achates also means “agate” and is believed to derive from the name of the Achates River in Sicily, which was an important source of agate in the ancient world. Some Jewish philosophers that came after Titus Flavius Josephus describe šhevo as being a grey stone while some Arabic translations of the Old Testament render šhevo as the Arabic word for “obsidian”, perhaps denoting that the stone was black. In all likelihood, the jewel known as šhevo was agate, of a black variety.
9. Aḥlamah (Amethystos [ἀμέθυστος] in the Septuagint):
The meaning of the Hebrew word aḥlamah is not quite clear. It is possible that aḥlamah is derived from the word halom which can be translated as “dreams” or derived from the Hebrew root for “strong”. It could also be that aḥlamah is a reference to the location where this material was found, possibly the area inhabited by the Ahlamu people. The Ahlamu were a collection of semi-nomadic ethnic groups living in a portion of the Middle East west of the Euphrates River, between the ancient city of Palmyra in present-day Syria and the mouth of the Khabur tributary. Hebrew speakers may have used the word Ahlamu as a name for the region in which the Ahlamu peoples lived, and this could be the root of the word aḥlamah. Despite the ambiguity in the meaning of the Hebrew word aḥlamah, the Greek word for this stone, amethystos, was the name the Greeks gave to amethyst, and served as the original root of the name used for this violet stone in the present day. The meaning of the Greek word amethystos literally translates to “not drunk” or “not intoxicated”, and references the belief held by the Greeks that this stone could prevent one from having their mind clouded by alcohol. It is possible that if the Hebrew word ahlamah means “strong” or “dreams”, then this may be a nod at the anti-intoxicative powers amethyst was believed to possess, potentially implying strength of mind or clarity of thought. Amethyst was extensively well-known in the Mediterranean and the Middle East long before the reign of King Solomon, so there is no doubt that the ancient Israelites were aware of the stone and had some degree of access to it. The jewel known as aḥlamah was almost certainly amethyst.
THE FOURTH ROW
10. Taršhīšh (Chrysolithos [χρυσόλιθος] in the Septuagint):
It is thought that the word taršhīšh was a reference to where this stone was found; a location somewhere in the Mediterranean by the name of Tarshish is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament and is believed to have been an important source of the precious materials that gave King Solomon such wealth, as Tarshish was apparently known for its gold, silver, and mineral exports. The word chrysolithos that is used in the Septuagint is most definitely the Greek word for chrysolite. Today, chrysolite is used to refer to green stones, in particular as another name for peridot, but in ancient times chrysolite would have been a name for a golden gemstone, as the prefix chryso- means “gold” or “golden” and the suffix -lithos means “stone”. Given the proximity of tarshish to lešhem on the Breastplate of Aaron, and the high probability that lešhem was fashioned from amber, the golden colour of tarshish was likely not vivid, as the colour of each jewel was intended to be distinct and this would mean that two adjacent stones would not appear to be the same colour. Taking the colour of the stone into account, scholars suggest that tarshish was crafted from Libyan desert glass. This stone was well known in the ancient world during the time that the Priestly Breastplate was assembled.
11. Šhoham (Onychion [ονυχίου] / Beryllios [βηρύλλιον] / Smaragdos [σμαραγδός] in the Septuagint):
The meaning of the word šhoham is unknown but the word is thought to be related to words from neighbouring languages; it is possible that šhoham is derived from the ancient Assyrian word for “cloudy”, samtu, or may derive from the same root as the ancient Arabic word musaham which means “striped garment”. Some scholars suggest that šhoham is a Hebrew name for the source of the stone, potentially referencing an ancient location in Yemen with a similar name. The words onychion, beryllios, and smaragdos appear in different versions of the Septuagint as renderings of the Hebrew word šhoham, which makes the determination of this gemstone’s identity more difficult. The word onychion is the Greek word for onyx; onyx would fit the meanings of samtu and musaham since it could be described as a cloudy, striped gemstone. Yemen has also long been a source of high-quality silicon dioxide minerals such as onyx and agate, and this could explain the connection between Yemen and the word šhoham if this is where the šhoham stone originated. The word beryllios is the name that Greeks gave to aquamarine and beryl of poor colour, and the Greek word smaragdos was used to refer to bright stones that grew in columnar crystals, particularly those of a green colour such as emerald and heliodor. It can be inferred by the word smaragdos that this stone may have been green, in which case a green variety of onyx (as implied by the word onychion) would match descriptions of the šhoham jewel. Two additional carved šhoham stones were said to reside on the shoulders of the Êphōḏ, so the material used to make them would have to have been available in the quantities necessary to craft three jewels; beryl is not a particularly common mineral, especially the green varieties, so despite the Greek renderings sometimes used by the Septuagint, the šhoham stones were likely not made of beryl. Taking into account the possible origins of the word šhoham and the considerable difference between the availability of beryl and that of onyx, the jewel known as šhoham was likely onyx, of a green variety.
12. Yašhfeh (Iaspis [ἴασπις] in the Septuagint):
Both the Hebrew word yašhfeh and the Greek word iaspis mean jasper, however, the Greeks typically used this word for green jasper as they valued it above all other varieties. Jewish historians of the Middle Ages described the stone known as yašhfeh as being varicoloured; jasper occurs in a multitude of colours, so jasper could indeed be described as varicoloured. If the jewel adjacent to yašhfeh known as šhoham was made from a green variety of onyx, then the stone used to craft yašhfeh was likely a red variety of jasper. Given the Hebrew and Greek names for this stone, the jewel known as yašhfeh was likely a red jasper. It can also be noted that some versions of the Masoretic Text place yašhfeh as the sixth jewel, and this may explain why iaspis also appears as a name for the sixth stone in the Septuagint.