The Choshen–the Breastplate of the High Priest

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, focuses primarily on the priestly vestments, the garments worn by the lay priests and the High Priest.

Lay priests wore four special garments, the כֻּתֹּנֶתthe linen robe, the מִכְנְסֵי בָדthe linen pants or breeches, the אַבְנֵטthe multicolored woven belt, and the מִגְבַּעַת–the linen hat or head covering. The High Priest’s hat, known as the מִצְנֶפֶת, like the lay priest’s מִגְבַּעַת, is also made of a linen ribbon that is wound in a slightly different manner from the lay priest’s head covering.

The High Priest wore eight garments, the same four basic garments worn by the lay priests, and four additional garments: the אֵפוֹדa multicolored woven apron upon which the חֹשֶׁןthe breastplate, with its twelve precious stones, is affixed. The High Priest also wears a מְעִילa blue colored poncho-like garment, worn over his robe, and a צִיץa solid gold plate, which is bound to the Priest’s forehead. It bears the message, קֹדֶשׁ לַהשם, Holy to the L-rd.

The Torah in Exodus 28:15 states, וְעָשִׂיתָ חֹשֶׁן מִשְׁפָּט, מַעֲשֵׂה חֹשֵׁב–כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֵפֹד, תַּעֲשֶׂנּוּ; זָהָב תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי, וְשֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר–תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ  You shall make a Breastplate of Judgment of a woven design, like the craftsmanship of the Ephod shall you make it, of gold, turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool; and linen–twisted together–shall you make it.

The Torah states that the Choshen should look like a square. Tradition maintains that the Choshen was twice as long as it was wide, but since it was folded at the middle, its length and width were each one half cubit. The Torah describes the Choshen as having twelve precious stones mounted on it, four rows of three stones each. The stones are intended to represent the tribes of Israel, each stone engraved like a signet ring, bearing the name of one of the twelve tribes.

The Choshen that the High Priest wore as an ornament on his chest was formally known as the חֹשֶׁן מִשְׁפָּט, Choshen Mishpat-–the “Breastplate of Judgment.” The Choshen served to atone for the erroneous decisions made by courts of judgment, and to provide clear directives and rulings for the nation.

According to tradition, before the Choshen was folded in half, the ineffable name of G-d, the Tetragrammaton, was written on a parchment and inserted in the fold. The אוּרִים  ותוּמִים, Urim V’tumim, served as a means of communicating with G-d. Rashi states, in Yomah 73b, that the High Priest could ask questions of G-d through the אוּרִים  ותוּמִים, and the letters that were etched in the stones would light up, providing answers to the questions asked on behalf of the People of Israel.

Each of the twelve tribes was represented by one of the twelve precious stones that were affixed to the Ephod.

The May’am Lo’ez explains the connection between the particular stone and the tribe that it represented.

The tribe of Reuben was represented by אֹדֶם, Odem, carnelian, a red stone, recalling the דוּדָאִים, Dudaim, the red mandrakes that Reuben presented to his mother, Leah, as a fertility drug. This red stone recalls Reuben’s righteous act and selfless behavior on his mother’s behalf.

The stone of the tribe of Simeon was פִּטְדָה, Pitidah, emerald, a zealous stone, representing fanatic loyalty, even though it was corrupted by Zimri and Cozbi, who performed a forbidden act in front of the people (Pinchas 5776-2006). The rabbis say that this sensitive stone actually reacted physically to immorality, shattering automatically when there was proof of disloyalty.

The tribe of Levi was represented by בָרֶקֶת, Bareket, topaz, and like a strike of lightening, shone like the purity of the Levis.

The tribe of Judah was represented by the most valuable jewel of all, נֹפֶךְ, nofech,  carbuncle. It symbolizes the kingdom of Israel and leadership of the Jews.

The tribe of Issachar was represented by סַפִּיר, Sapir, sapphire, recalling the purity of learning and the exceptional dedication of the tribe of Issachar to the study of Torah.

The tribe of Zebulun was represented by the יָהֲלֹם, Yahalom, the beryl, recalling the tribe’s wealth, which they used to support others, especially the tribe of Issachar.

The tribe of Dan was represented by לֶשֶׁם, Leshem, the jacinth, which looks very much like a human face, turned to the side. It recalls the heroism of the tribe of Dan in battle, who, like a serpent, tries to sting the enemy rider, who falls backwards. As a soldier trying to defeat the enemy, his face is always turned upward toward Heaven. As a judge, it also recalls that an honest judge is forbidden to recognize a friend or a wealthy or poor person in judgment.

The tribe of Naphtali was represented by the stone, שְׁבו, Shivo, agate. This stone is reputed to have had the ability to aid a person who rides an animal. The commentators suggest that it is intended to recall how Naphtali, who was like a fleet-footed hind, would give up the comforts of riding an animal, and run swiftly to perform a mitzvah.

The tribe of Gad was represented by the stone אַחְלָמָה, Achlama, amethyst, which has the capacity to give people courage, especially when they go out to war. This stone was most helpful to the tribe of Gad, who developed into a tribe of prominent soldiers and talented fighters.

The stone of the tribe of Asher was תַּרְשִׁישׁ, Tarshish, crystolite. It has the color of pure olive oil. This is intended to recall that the tribe of Asher would plant olive trees, and provide oil for the candelabra in the Temple.

The tribe of Joseph (Ephraim and Menashe were included together) was represented by the stone שֹׁהַם, Sho’ham, onyx. The Sho’ham adds great dignity and beauty to those who wear it. It recalls the handsomeness of Joseph to all who beheld him, and despite the attempts to seduce him, remained firm in his commitment to G-d.

The tribe of Benjamin was represented by the stone יָשְׁפֵה, Yash’vay, jasper. Apparently, the Yash’vay stone had the capacity to stop bleeding. It recalls, that even though Benjamin was well aware of the treacherous actions of his brothers, he never told his father, in order to spare his brothers’ blood. The Hebrew letters of the word, Yash’vay, spell out the words, יֵשׁ פֶה, “Yaysh peh,”–there is a mouth. This underscores that Benjamin knew well of the sale of Joseph, but never revealed it to anyone.

The Torah in Exodus 28:21 states that these twelve stones should be engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel, פִּתּוּחֵי חוֹתָם.

According to tradition, the שָׁמִיר, Shamir worm would part the molecules of the precious stone, in order to carve the names of the tribes without engraving the names.

The Kli Yakar notes that the stones were set up in four rows of three, representing the principles of justice, which require a minimum of three judges. Some stones were of great value, others, of lesser value, to teach that judges are required to consider each person equally. The names of the twelve tribes were written in order of the tribes’ birth, to teach the need to respect both young and old alike.

In sum, we see that while the vestments of the priests were known for their dignity and beauty, they also represented profound commitment to justice and morality.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The actual names of the precious stones are a matter of controversy. The English names used in this weekly message are those found in The Living Torah translated by Aryeh Kaplan.