Ceramic replica of the High Priest's breastplate

The priestly breastplate or breastpiece of judgment (Hebrew: חֹשֶׁן ḥōšen) was a sacred breastplate worn by the High Priest of the Israelites, according to the Book of Exodus. In the biblical account, the breastplate is termed the breastplate of judgment (Hebrew: חֹשֶׁן מִשְׁפָּט ḥōšen mišpāṭExodus 28:15), because the Urim and Thummim (Hebrew: הָאוּרִים וְהַתֻּמִּים hāʾūrīm wəhattummīm) were placed upon it (Exodus 28:30). These elements of the breastplate are said in the Exodus verse to carry the judgement (Hebrew: מִשְׁפָּט mišpāṭ) of God concerning the Israelites at all times.

Hebrew Bible

Illustration of priestly breastplate

According to the description in Exodus, this breastplate was attached to the tunic-like garment known as an ephod by gold chains/cords tied to the gold rings on the ephod's shoulder straps, and by blue ribbon tied to the gold rings at the belt of the ephod.[1] The biblical description states that the breastplate was also to be made from the same material as the Ephod—embroidery of 3 colors of dyed wool and linen—and was to be 13 of a cubit squared, two layers thick, and with four rows of three engraved gems embedded in gold settings upon it, one setting for each stone.[1] The description states that the square breastplate was to be formed from one rectangular piece of cloth—13 of a cubit by 23 of a cubit, folded so that it formed a pouch to contain the Urim and Thummim.

The Hebrew term for the breastplate, חֹשֶׁן‎ (ḥōšen), appears to be named from its appearance; The 19th-century German biblical scholar August Dillmann thought that it was likely to be derived from the Hebrew word חֹצֶן‎ (ḥōṣen), meaning "fold", relating to its function.[2]

According to the Talmud, the wearing of the Hoshen atoned for the sin of errors in judgment on the part of the Children of Israel.[3]

The jewels

Artist's conception of Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen in ancient Judah

The twelve jewels in the breastplate were each, according to the Biblical description, to be made from specific minerals, none of them the same as another, and each of them representative of a specific tribe, whose name was to be inscribed on the stone. According to a rabbinic tradition, the names of the twelve tribes were engraved upon the stones with what is called in Hebrew: שמיר = shamir, which, according to Rashi, was a small, rare creature which could cut through the toughest surfaces,[4] but according to Rabbi David Kimhi and Rabbi Jonah ibn Janah, was a stone stronger than iron (possibly Naxian stone).[5][6] The word has its equivalent in the Greek, σμήρις (smeris).[7]

There are different views in classical rabbinical literature as to the order of the names; the Jerusalem Targum, for example, argued that the names appeared in the order according to which they were born. Maimonides describes the jewel stones arranged in four rows, saying that on the first stone belonging to Reuben were also engraved the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, while on the last stone belonging to Benjamin were also engraved the words "the tribes of God";[8] kabbalistic writers such as Hezekiah ben Manoah and Bahya ben Asher argued that only six letters from each name were present on each stone, together with a few letters from the names of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or from the phrase "[these are] the tribes of Jeshurun", so that there were 72 letters in total (72 being a very significant number in Kabbalistic thought).[9] Other researchers, such as Paul Phelps, believe that the order of gemstones that are displayed on the chestpiece correlates to the order that Ezekiel viewed the gates of Zion, as each gate represents one of the twelve tribes, with the gates themselves being studded with gemstones.[10]

There was also a different order for the names inscribed on the two "onyx" stones, carried on the High Priest's shoulders. One opinion suggests that the names of the twelve tribes were arranged in groups after their mothers: Leah's six sons aligned one after the other on one stone, with Judah heading this list, followed by Rachel's sons with the names of the concubines' sons interposed between the two sons of Rachel.[11]

Unfortunately, the meanings of the Hebrew names for the minerals, given by the masoretic text, are not clear,[9] and though the Greek names for them in the Septuagint are more clear, some scholars believe that they cannot be completely relied on for this matter because the breastplate had gone out of use by the time the Septuagint was created, and several Greek names for various gems have changed meaning between the classical era and modern times.[9] However, although classical rabbinical literature argues that the names were inscribed using a Shamir worm because neither chisels nor paint nor ink were allowed to mark them out,[12][13] a more naturalistic approach suggests that the jewels must have had comparatively low hardness in order to be engraved upon, and therefore this gives an additional clue to the identity of the minerals.[2] Others suggest that they were engraved with emery, having the similar property of a diamond used in cutting other stones and which was called in Greek σμήρις (smeris).

Explanation of the symbolic meaning of the jewels generated a great deal of both Jewish and Christian writing, and was a staple component of the tradition of lapidaries or books on gemology.

The jewel stones are as follows (the first item in each row is probably the right hand side, as Hebrew is a right to left script):

First row

Second row

Interpretation of the hoshen by Robert Hindmarsh

Third row

An 1837 illustration depicting breastplate, with the tribes and their jewels

Fourth row

12 jewels in the New Testament

In the New Testament Book of Revelation is the description of a city wall, with each layer of stones in the wall being from a different material; in the original Koine Greek, the layers are given as iaspis, sapphiros, chalcedon, smaragdos, sardonyx, sardion, chrysolithos, beryllos, topazion, chrysoprason, yacinthos, amethystos.[36] This list appears to be based on the Septuagint's version of the list of jewels in the Breastplate – if the top half of the breastplate was rotated by 180 degrees, and the bottom half turned upside down, with Onchion additionally swapping places with Topazion, the lists become extremely similar; there are only four differences:


Whether there is any pattern to the choice of gemstones depends on their identity. Taking the majority view of scholars in regard to the identity of the gems, and including the implication from the Book of Revelation that the onyx at the end of the fourth row was a sardonyx, there are four colours – red, green, yellow, and blue – each represented by a clear gem (red – carbuncle, green – heliodor, yellow – chrysolite, blue – amethyst), an opaque gem (red – carnelian/red jasper, green – green jasper, yellow – yellow jasper/yellow serpentine, blue – lapis lazuli), and a striped gem (red – sardonyx, green – malachite, yellow – pale golden agate, blue – sky-blue agate).[2] The four colours of red, green, yellow, and blue, are the first four colours (apart from black and white) distinguished by languages, and are distinguished in all cultures with at least six colour distinctions (the other two being black and white).[37] These colours roughly correspond to the sensitivities of the retinal ganglion cells. (The retinal ganglia process colour by positioning it within a blue to yellow range, and separately positioning it within a red to green range.)[37]

See also



  1. ^ Pliny also mentions several varieties of onyx stone in his Natural History 37:90, and one stone, in particular, meets the description of the stone described here by Israel’s sages.[15]
  2. ^ "Symmachus dissented and called the emerald by the name of onyx."[16]
  3. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary, Webster's New International Dictionary (Second Edition), and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (College Edition) state that "onyx" derives from the Greek term, "onux", meaning "(finger-)nail", "claw" or onyx-stone. The connection between "nail" or "claw" and the stone is that the onyx stone is usually found with a vein of white on pink background like the lunula of a fingernail. There is no indication in these or other desk dictionaries that the word "onyx" could be derived from a word meaning "ring".
  4. ^ "electrum (amber), succinum and lyncurium (ligure) are all one and the same thing."[23]
  5. ^ Epiphanius, in his Treatise on the Twelve Stones (the Old Georgian version), p. 116, seems to be unsure what the Greek word lygyron actually meant in the sacred books, which stone in Hebrew is called lešem, but conjectures that perhaps it is the jacinth, a stone otherwise not mentioned anywhere in scripture. On p. 139, he voices the same conjecture by saying that the "ligure" or lešem (in Hebrew), may actually be the "hyacinth", i.e. a stone of a yellowish-red colour, like honey; see Blake & de Vis (1934).
  6. ^ cf. The Pentateuch in the Version of the Syro-Hexapla, (ed. Arthur Vööbus), in Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, vol. 369 (45), Louvain 1975, Folio 48 (Exo. 28:17–23), and which Syriac translation is believed to represent the Vorlage, or parent-text, of the Septuagint used by Origen to produce his Hexapla. The stone called "shoham" in Hebrew is explained as onyx.
  7. ^ leek green stone appears at Genesis 2:12 in the Septuagint
  8. ^ Based on the Shatberd MS., the Old Georgian version of Epiphanius’ Treatise on the Twelve Stones. Our source for this MS. is Blake & de Vis (1934)
  9. ^ Josephus twice mentions the stones of the breastplate; once in his Antiquities, and again in his Wars, but he reverses the order in the third and fourth rows.


  1. ^ a b Exodus 28:15–19
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af Cheyne & Black (1899): "Di. rejects the probable derivation from the root ḥasuna, 'to be beautiful', and would prefer to connect it with חֹצֶן‎, sinus or 'fold' in which something is carried; cp. Ewald, Alterth. 390."
  3. ^ B.Zevachim 88b
  4. ^ Sifrey ṭrey ʻaṡar mefurashim, ed. Joseph Johlson, Karlsruhe 1827, s.v. Rashi on Zechariah 7:12 (Hebrew), p. 174b
  5. ^ David Kimhi, Sefer HaShorashim (Michlol, part ii), Venice 1547 (Hebrew), on Zechariah 7:12 p. 426–427
  6. ^ Yonah ibn Ǧanāḥ, Sefer Shorashim (Book of Roots), ed. Dr. A. Berliner, Berlin 1896, s.v. שמר (Hebrew), who explains the word by its Judeo-Arabic name, מאס, meaning, "diamond".
  7. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 68a; cf. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 36:54 (36:51).
  8. ^ Mishne Torah (Code of Jewish Law), Hil. Kelei Ha-Mikdash, 9:7.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z "JewishEncyclopedia.com". www.jewishencyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2023-10-29.
  11. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 36a–b.
  12. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 68a
  13. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 48b
  14. ^ cf. Bar-Bahalul, 1886, vol. ii, p. 1313
  15. ^ Faris (1938), pp. 26–27, s.v. baqarani.
  16. ^ Field (1875) s.v. Exodus 28:17, based on Jerome's testimony in Epist. LXIV ad Fabiolam, 16.
  17. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, iii. vii § 5
  18. ^ Eichholz (1965), pp. 65, 71
  19. ^ The Old Testament in Syriac (According to the Peshitta Version), Part I, Leiden E. J. Brill 1977, p. 183.
  20. ^ Gottheil (1908), p. 95
  21. ^ Eichholz (1965), pp. 68–69
  22. ^ Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2:100
  23. ^ Aëtius of Amida, Sixteen Books on Medicine (Aetii Medici Graeci Contractae ex Veteribus Medicinae Sermones XVI), 2.34
  24. ^ Walton (2001), pp. 364–365
  25. ^ Walton (2001), pp. 371, 375–378
  26. ^ Abraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on the Penteuch, Genesis 2:11.
  27. ^ Walton (2001), p. 371
  28. ^ Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (ch. XVI on Stones and Metals), ed. Barney, Lewis, Beach & Berghof, Cambridge University Press 2006, p. 325
  29. ^ Field (1875), s.v. Exo. 28:20.
  30. ^ Blake & de Vis (1934)
  31. ^ Baba Bathra 75a
  32. ^ q.v. Isaiah 54:12
  33. ^ Gottheil (1908), p. 367
  34. ^ Isaiah 54:12
  35. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, iii.vii § 5
  36. ^ Revelation 21:19–20 (Nestle-Aland edition)
  37. ^ a b Berlin & Kay (1969)


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