The breastplate (choshen) was one of the eight priestly garments worn by the high priest (kohen gadol) when serving in the Holy Temple. It featured twelve precious stones, corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel, and served as a medium through which G‑d provided direction to the Jewish nation.

Fashioning the Breastplate

The breastplate1 was perhaps the most conspicuous of all the eight priestly garments worn by the high priest. It consisted of a rectangular piece of fabric, two zeres2 long and one zeres wide, folded over to create a square. The fabric was fashioned from five materials: gold that had been flattened and cut into thread-like strands; wool dyed techelet (blue3); wool dyed argaman (purple4); wool dyed scarlet5; and linen.

To create the cords used to weave the breastplate, a single strand of gold would be spun with six strands each of techelet, argaman, scarlet and linen. The four seven-strand threads would then be twisted together, forming 28-strand cords.

The breastplate featured artistic images designed in the fabric, seen as alternate figures when viewed from either side.6

Twelve precious stones set into gold casings were embedded unto the breastplate, upon which were inscribed the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. The gems were arranged in four rows and three columns.7

Additionally, the breastplate contained the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the words shivtei Yeshurun (“tribes of Jeshurun”),8 thus featuring all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.9

A piece of parchment, known as the urim vetumim, was inserted within the folds of the breastplate, upon which was written one of G‑d’s sacred names.10 (Read more: What Were the Urim Vetumim?)

The breastplate lay on the high priest’s chest, fixed in place by means of a series of chains, rings and techelet threads which secured it to the ephod, the priestly apron. It is prohibited to detach the breastplate from the ephod.11 (Read more: The Sublime and the Mundane.)

Garment of Guidance

One of the purposes of the breastplate was to invoke Divine direction when the Jewish community was in doubt. When confronted with a weighty dilemma, such as whether to wage war against a neighboring nation, the high priest would stand facing the Ark of the Covenant, and the king or another influential figure would stand behind him, facing his back. The individual would pose his question quietly, so that only he could hear it, and the high priest would reflect upon the holy name placed within the breastplate. Miraculously, light would shine out of the engraved letters, which when rearranged would form the answer.12

The ability to receive Divine answers via the breastplate ceased with the destruction of the First Temple.13

Meaning of a Name: Choshen Mishpat

The complete Hebrew term for the breastplate is choshen mishpat, the latter word of which means “resolution” or “judgment.” According to one approach, this name reflects the clarity achieved from On High through the breastplate (as described above). Alternatively, through wearing the breastplate, the high priest initiated Divine atonement for the sin of perverted justice that might have taken place in the court system.14

The breastplate inspired the name for the section of Jewish law devoted to judicial affairs, known as Choshen Mishpat.

The Twelve Stones

There is much dispute as to the exact identity of the twelve stones mentioned in Scripture as adorning the breastplate, as well as which tribe was inscribed on which gem. What follows is just one of over 30 opinions.15 (The columns are arranged from right to left, following the direction of Hebrew script.)

Barekes (Carbuncle) Levi Pitdah (Prase) Simeon Odem (Ruby) Reuben
Yahalom (Pearl) Zebulun Sappir (Sapphire) Issachar Nofech (Emerald) Judah
Achlamah (Crystal) Gad Shevo (Turquoise) Naphtali Leshem16 Dan
Yashpeh (Jasper) Benjamin Shoham (Onyx) Joseph Tarshish (Chrysolite) Asher

The breastplate in Hebrew17

לוי רהם שמעון ב ראובן א
זבולן ח יששכר צ יהודה י
גד שבטי נפתלי ב דן ק יעק
בנימין יוסף ון אשר ישר

Many commentators focus on the relationship between each stone and the tribe whose name was inscribed on it, associating the color and other qualities of the gem with the virtues of its respective tribe. In fact, when the Jews traveled through the desert from Egypt on their way to the Promised Land, the flag transported by each tribe was identical to the color of its stone.18

Read more: Twelve Tribes—Twelve Paths.

Here’s one approach:19

Ruby and Reuben. Reuben sinned by transposing the beds of his mother Leah and his father’s concubine Bilhah.20 The ruby’s red color represents the shame Reuben felt when admitting his misdeed.

Prase and Simeon. The tribe of Simeon sinned with the daughters of Moab and Midian,21 causing their faces to turn pale, adopting the greenish tinge of prase.

Carbuncle and Levi. The tribe of Levi devoted themselves to transmitting the teachings of G‑d to their brethren.22 The carbuncle’s brilliant sparkle symbolizes the Torah’s spiritual radiance.

Emerald and Judah. The emerald’s green color is reminiscent of Judah’s pale visage when his father incorrectly suspected him of murdering Joseph. The gem’s radiance represents Judah’s shining face when his father later praised him for saving Joseph from death.23

Sapphire and Issachar. The tribe of Issachar was renowned for its greatness in Torah study. They are therefore associated with sapphire, the material from which the two tablets were formed.

Pearl and Zebulun. The tribe of Zebulun engaged in commerce, amassing great wealth. The white pearl resembles the color of silver coins.

Leshem and Dan. The streaks within the leshem appear similar to a backward human face. This alludes to the tribe of Dan’s “backward” conduct in fashioning an idolatrous image.24

Turquoise and Naphtali. In days of old, turquoise was commonly carried by members of the cavalry. The closeness between the rider and his horse is associated with the name Naphtali, Hebrew for connection.

Crystal and Gad. Just as crystals are widespread minerals, the tribe of Gad were numerous and well-known.

Chrysolite and Asher. Chrysolite takes on the complexion of olive oil, a substance found in abundance in the land of the tribe of Asher.

Onyx and Joseph. The letters of the Hebrew name for onyx, shoham, can be rearranged to spell Hashem (“the Name”), a common way of referring to G‑d. This alludes to Joseph’s Divinely sourced success in the home of Potiphar.25

Jasper and Benjamin. After Joseph’s sale into slavery by his brothers, Benjamin—who was not present at the time—deliberated whether or not he should reveal his brother’s whereabouts to his father, Jacob.26 This back-and-forth internal dialogue is reflected in jasper’s numerous colors.

The Breastplate: A Deeper Look

Kabbalistic sources explain that the high priest, the nation’s representative in the Holy Temple, was able to effect a positive change within the people through his service. The garments he wore likewise possessed great spiritual energy and influence.

Gemstones are inanimate matter, yet they shine and impart radiance. The stones of the breastplate thus empowered the Jews to refine their coarse animalistic souls and make them shine. (Listen: Who Is the Real I?) Similarly, words of prayer may on their own be “inanimate,” but through imbuing them with feeling, each word becomes a dazzling gem.

As we have seen, the specific stones reflect each tribe’s unique character. This highlights how each individual is distinct and, through employing the appropriate effort, can reach the heights of his or her unique potential.27

Read more: High Fashion.