Precious Stones and Jewelry

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In the Bible

Precious stones are mentioned in various contexts in the Bible, the most comprehensive list appearing in the description of the breastpiece worn by the high priest. The breastpiece was set with 12 precious stones arranged in four rows with three stones in each row to represent the 12 tribes: "set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of ʾodem, piṭdah, and bareqet; the second, of nofekh, sappir, and yahalom; the third of leshem, shevo, and ʾaḥlamah; and the fourth, of tarshish, shoham, and yashfeh…" (Ex. 28:17–20). Most of these stones are mentioned again as present in the Garden of Eden where the king of Tyre originally abode (Ezek. 28:13).

(See Table: Gems in High Priest Breastplate.)

From the talmudic period onward, biblical translators and commentators have attempted to determine the mineralogical nature of these stones and to identify them in terms of the names of modern minerals. However, the identity of the stones of the breastpiece cannot be established by a mineralogical study, since there is no statement even about their colors except in the late Midrash (in Midrash Rabbah). Philological research is of assistance only in a few cases. Archaeological excavations can help somewhat by establishing which minerals were utilized as precious or semiprecious stones in pre-Exilic times. The chart presented here summarizes a few of the different identifications of the stones of the breastpiece found in ancient and modern Bible translations, and advanced by the modern scholars N. Shalem and R. Sverdlov. There is also disagreement between the Palestine Targum (followed by Maimonides and Baḥya)

Hebrew BibleTargum OnkelosTargum JonathanPalestine TargumEx. Rabbah 38, 10LXXJ.P.S.A.New English Bible
אׁדֶםסַמְקָןסִימוּקְתָאסַמְקָתָא(שרדנגין (שׁדרנניוσάρδίόνcarneliansardin
פִּטְדָהיַרְקָןיַרְקְתָאיַרְקָתָא(טומפזין (שומפזיוןτόπάζίονchrysolite (topaz)chrysolite
בָּרֶקֶתבַּרְקָןבַּרְקְתָאבַּרְקָתָאדיקינתוןσμάραγδοςemerald (smaragd)green felspar
נׁפֶךְאִזְמַגְדִיןאִיזְמׁרַדכַּדְכְּדָנָאברדיניןάνθραξturquoise (carbuncle)purple garnet
סַפִּירשַׁבְזִיזסַפִּירִינוֹןסִמְפּוֹרְיָנָאסאפירינוןσάρΦείροςsapphirelapis lazuli
יַהֲלֹםסִבְהֲלוֹםכּדְכּוֹדִיעֵין עִיגְלָאאזמרגדיןίαστιςamethyst (emerald)jade
לֶשֶּםקַנְכֵּרִיקַנְכִּינוֹןזוֹזִיו(כוכלין (בוחליןλιγύριονjacinthturquoise
שְׁבוֹטַרְקְיָאעקקיו) טַרְקִיו)בִּירְזְלִיןאכאטיסάχάτηςagateagate
אַחְלָמָהעֵיו עֶגְלָאעֵיו עֵיגֶלזְמַרְגַּדִּיןהמטוסיון) הימוסיון)άμέθυστοςcrystal (amethyst)jasper
תַּרְּשִׁישׁכּרוּם יַמָּארַבָּא כְּרוּם יַמָּאכְּרוּם יַמָּאקרומטסיןχρυσόλιθόςberyltopaz
שׂהַםבּוּרְלָאבֵּירְלֵיוַת חַלָּאבְּדוֹלְחָאפראלוקיןβήρύλλιονlapis lazuli (onyx)cornelian
יָשְׁפֶהפַּנְטִירֵיאַפַּנְטוֹרִין מַרְגֵּנֲייתמַרְגָלִיתָאמרגליטיםόνύχιονjaspergreen jasper

and the Targum Jonathan (followed by Rashi) as to the order of the names of the tribes on the stones. According to the Palestine Targum, the six sons of Leah appear first, then the sons of the maidservants, and lastly the sons of Rachel. Targum Jonathan, on the other hand, claims that they followed the order of their birth, i.e., the sons of the maidservants preceded Issachar and Zebulun. The only source specifying a mineralogical property is the description found in Midrash Rabbah (Num. R. 2:7):

"There were distinguishing signs for each prince; each had a flag and a different color for every flag, corresponding to the precious stones on the breast of Aaron … Reuben's stone was ʾodem and the color of his flag was red; and embroidered thereon were mandrakes. Simeon's was piṭdah and his flag was of a yellow (or green) color … Levi's was bareqet and the color of his flag was a third white, a third black, and a third red … Judah's was nofekh and the color of his flag was like that of the sky … Issachar's was sappir and the color of his flag was black like stibium … Zebulun's was yahalom and the color of his flag was white … Dan's was leshem and the color of his flag was similar to sappir … Gad's ʾaḥlamah and the color of his flag was neither white nor black but a blend of black and white … Asher's was tarshish and the color of his flag was like the precious stone with which women adorn themselves … Joseph's was shoham and the color of his flag was jet black … Benjamin's was yashfeh and the color of his flag was a combination of all the 12 colors …"

If this ancient Midrash is accepted, it appears that the color of the stones was the most accurate mark of identification that popular Jewish tradition could preserve. Ibn Ezra (Ex. 28:9), on the other hand, sharply criticizes the translations of Saadiah Gaon: "and we have no way of clearly knowing the 'stones for setting' because the Gaon rendered them as he wished, and he has no tradition which he can rely on…"

Through a comparison of the various translations and commentaries, reasonable identification may be advanced for some of the stones; with others, an identification is impossible. Some of the stones may be identified mineralogically, but because they are different in color they were called by different names.


(אׁדֶם; Ex. 28:17; 39:10; Ezek. 28:13), a red stone. ʾOdem is rendered as samqan (סַמְקָן), i.e., "red," in Aramaic translations; as sardion in the Greek versions; and aḥmar in Arabic. This stone is probably carnelian sard, one of the red cryptocrystalline varieties of quartz (SiO2). It is found in excavations. Some regard it as the opaque red jasper found in Egypt and in the vicinity of Eilat.


(פִּטְדָה; Ex. 28:17; 39:10; Ezek. 28:13), according to the commentators, a green stone, and generally identified in the versions as the green-yellow topaz. According to Pliny, however, what was known as the topaz in antiquity was not identical with the modern stone called topaz Al2F2SiO4, but with the modern chrysolite or peridot belonging to the olivine group. This mineral is usually green in color and is used as a gem. The identification of topaz or chrysolite with piṭdah is rejected by N. Shalem who proposed plasma, a green variety of cryptocrystalline quartz. Piṭdah is also mentioned in Job 28:19 as piṭdah of Ethiopia, which is used as a symbol of the value of wisdom. This is apparently a reference to piṭdah imported from Ethiopia.


(בָּרֶקֶת; Ex. 28:17; 39:10; Ezek. 28:13), a similar term in Akkadian, barraqtu, also means a precious stone. Both words may share a common etymology in the Semitic root brq or may be borrowed from the Sanskrit marakata which means smaragd. Most Greek versions explain bareqet as smaragd, which is a variety of beryl Al2Be3Si6O18 with small additions of other elements, i.e., the emerald. Emerald-smaragd mines were located in ancient times in Kosseir in Egypt. Smaragd was considered the most valuable green stone, and it has been found in the form of gems in the tombs of the pharaohs. U. Cassuto and others identify bareqet with malachite, which is similar in color to smaragd and was easier to work in ancient times. According to these explanations, bareqet is green and thus does not fit the description in the Midrash which states that bareqet is found in three colors. N. Shalem therefore proposed to identify bareqet with jasper (SiO2).


(נׁפֶךְ; Ex. 28:18; 39:11; Ezek. 27:16; 28:13). Nofekh is mentioned as one of the stones on the breastpiece, in the description of the precious stones belonging to the king of Tyre in the Garden of Eden, and also among the valuable goods brought to Tyre by the Arameans. Nofekh has been identified by some scholars as the red mineral pyrope Mg3Al2(SiO4)3 of the garnet group. According to the Midrash, it was sky blue in color and N. Shalem, therefore, proposed to identify it with turquoise (Cu3Al2O3·2P2O5·9H2O) which was well known in Sinai as early as the time of the first pharaohs.


(סַפִּיר). This stone appears in the Bible as the second stone in the second row of the breastpiece (Ex. 28:18; 39:11) and also in other passages as a very costly gem. It is included among the precious stones brought to Tyre by the Arameans (Ezek. 28:13); the firmament is said to have the appearance of the sappir stone (Ezek. 1:26); it is used as a symbol of beauty (Song 5:14; Lam. 4:7) and of value – "It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx, or sappir" (Job 28:16). The Midrash describes the sappir as "black, like stibium." Most translations identify the sappir with the present-day blue sapphire (Al2O3); this stone, however, was apparently unknown in antiquity. In contrast to the Midrash, which regards the sappir as blue, Saadiah Gaon calls it white, on the basis of the verse "the likeness of livnat ha-sappir" (Ex. 24:10), where he interprets livnat as "whiteness." Ibn Ezra disagreed with Saadiah, explaining that the sappir is red on the basis of the verse "their bodies were more ruddy than coral, the beauty of their form was like sappir" (Lam. 4:7). Despite these sources, most scholars identify sappir with lapis lazuli, a translucent blue mineral of the lazulite group, which was used as a decorative stone in antiquity. Lapis lazuli was known in Cyprus as a natural stone and in ancient Egypt also as an artificial gem.


(יַהֲלֹם), the third stone in the second row of the breastpiece (Ex. 28:18; 39:11), also mentioned in Ezekiel 28:13 as one of the precious stones found in the Garden of Eden. The yahalom was a white stone according to the Midrash, and Ibn Ezra rendered it as diamond "which breaks all stones and precious bedolaḥ" (on Ex. 28:9). Although in modern Hebrew yahalom means diamond, the hardest mineral found in nature, it is not likely that the Bible refers to this stone, which was apparently unknown in biblical times. N. Shalem has proposed chalcedony, a variety of quartz (SiO2), which is a relatively hard white mineral which fits the midrashic description.


(לֶשֶׁם), the first stone in the third row of the breastpiece (Ex. 28:19; 39:12). Scholars disagree as to the identity of this stone: Sverdlov attributed it to the zircon family, whereas Shalem identifies it with aventurine; others regard it as amber. The name Leshem and the tribe of Dan are connected by means of the leshem stone on the breastpiece as well as by means of the city Leshem, also called Laish, which was settled by the tribe of Dan in the north of Israel (Josh. 19:47).


(שְׁבוֹ), the second stone in the third row of the breastpiece (Ex. 28:19; 39:12). According to the Midrash, it is neither white nor black but of a mixed color. Midrash Rabbah renders it as achatis, as does the Septuagint. This corresponds to the agate, a variety of chalcedony (SiO2) which has variegated colors as a result of impurities – sometimes in the form of stripes and sometimes in other forms. Agate, a very common mineral, was known in Near Eastern countries in biblical times.


(אַחְלָמָה), the third stone in the third row of the breastpiece (Ex. 28:19; 39:12). Most translators and commentators identify it with amethyst, a transparent purple stone of the SiO2 group. The Septuagint, Vulgate, and most other versions render it as amethyst. It was believed in antiquity that wine drunk from an amethyst cup would not intoxicate, since the word amethyst in Greek apparently means "not drunken." Ibn Ezra connects the word ʾaḥlamah with ḥalom, "dream": "whoever wears this stone on his finger never fears dreams," and goes on to say that the ʾaḥlamah possesses a magic power which influences dreams, just as there is "a stone which attracts iron" (magnet) and "a stone which flees from vinegar" (the influence of acid on certain minerals). The identification of ʾaḥlamah with amethyst, which was well known in antiquity, is generally accepted by most scholars.


(תַּרְשִׁישׁ), the first stone in the fourth row of the breastpiece (Ex. 28:20; 39:13). The tarshish apparently had anunusual luster and brilliance and is thus mentioned several times in the Bible: "the appearance of the wheels… was like the gleaming of a tarshish" (Ezek. 1:16; 10:9); "his arms are rounded gold set with tarshish" (Song 5:14); "his body was like tarshish, his face like the appearance of lightning" (Dan. 10:6). The Targums Onkelos and Jonathan translate tarshish as "color of the sea." In all probability, the reference is to the mineral known today as aquamarine, a transparent, bluish green variety of beryl which was considered a very beautiful and costly stone. The aquamarine stone was apparently known in southern Egypt and Spain. This explanation also seems to agree with the Midrash which states that its color resembles a precious stone, since aquamarine was known from earliest times as a precious stone. N. Shalem, in 1931, identified tarshish with opal, but later suggested it was mother-of-pearl, perhaps because of the connection between the "color of the sea" and the "sea stone" of Targum Onkelos, which can refer only to pearls. No connection should apparently be sought between the tarshish stone and the country or island of the same name to which boats were sent to bring back metals (i Kings 10:22) and to which Jonah fled. It seems that aquamarine is the most correct suggestion.


(שֹׁהַם), the second stone in the fourth row of the breastpiece (Ex. 28:20; 39:13). Shoham is mentioned as one of the stones of the land of Havilah in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:12). The translations are not agreed on any one definition: the Septuagint renders it as beryl, as apparently does Onkelos ("burla"); the Palestine Targum translates it as bedolaḥ and Josephus, in The Jewish Wars, as onyx. According to the Midrash, it was very black in color, whereas Ibn Ezra calls it white (on Ex. 28:9). Onyx is also a variety of silica and usually has different shades and colors. There is no evidence to substantiate the ancient translation of beryl. There is no doubt that shoham was considered one of the precious stones of the Garden of Eden (Ezek. 28:13), and it also appears in Job as a symbol of wealth and importance: "wisdom… cannot be valued… in precious shoham" (Job 28:16). It was apparently a very costly, hard, and rare stone, but as yet no well-founded identification has been proposed.


(יָשְׁפֶה), the third stone in the fourth row of the breastpiece (Ex. 28:20; 39:13) and one of the precious stones of the Garden of Eden (Ezek. 28:13). This stone appears with the same name in many ancient documents, including the Tell el-Amarna letters, and is apparently identical with the mineral jasper. This is the only case where one of the stones of the breastpiece is identified with a modern mineral through a similarity of names (that is, if we accept the above theory that the biblical sappir is not the modern sapphire). Yashfeh was translated as jaspir or jasper from very early times, although the Targums Onkelos and Jonathan do not mention them. Jasper is also a variety of silica.


(אֶלְגָּבִישׁ) appears in the Bible in connection with heavy rains: "there will be a deluge of rain, great ʾelgavish stones will fall" (Ezek. 13:11; 38:22). The Septuagint translates ʾelgavish stones both as hail and as slingstones. It is very likely that hail was seen as the slingstones of God, and for this reason the term was used in both senses. Some scholars read it as ʾel gavish, gavish, as in Job 28:18, probably meaning crystal as in modern Hebrew. The common crystal is quartz, also known as rock crystal. Hail was called ʾelgavish since it was similar in form to real crystal, but as it was only water it could not be called gavish but only ʾelgavish.


(אֶקְדָּח), mentioned only once in the Bible: "I will make your pinnacles of kadkod, your gates of ʾeqdaḥ" (Isa. 54:12). It has not been identified. Some commentators associate the word ʾeqdaḥ with a sparkling, lustrous stone, on the basis of the verse: "you are all kindlers of fire (qodḥe ʾesh), who set brands alight" (Isa. 50:11). According to Rashi, ʾeqdaḥ is not a mineral but a gate constructed from a large stone in which an opening was made by drilling (qiddu'aḥ).


(כַּדְכּׁד), a term that appears twice in the Bible: "I will make your pinnacles of kadkod" (Isa. 54:12) and in the list of precious goods brought to Tyre by the Arameans (Ezek. 27:16). Kadkod apparently denotes a shiny, sparkling stone, and it is possible that it does not refer to one specific mineral but is a name based on the expression kiddode ʾesh, "sparks of fire" (Job 41:11). The Septuagint substituted the letter resh for dalet which makes the word closer to karkond, the Arabic name for spinel, a red precious stone. Some identify kadkod with the hyacinth, a transparent orange, red, or brown precious stone which is a variety of zircon.

bahaṬ, shesh, dar, soḤaret

(בַּהַט ,שֵׁשׁ ,דַּר ,סׁחָרֶת), four terms appearing in the description of the floor of Ahasuerus' palace (Esth. 1:6). This floor was apparently a mosaic pavement containing these four stones. Bahaṭ is possibly a type of marble. Alabaster, which was very common in all Near Eastern countries, is sometimes called bahaṭ in modern Hebrew. Shesh is marble. Dar, which means "pearl" in Arabic, may designate stones with a pearl-like luster. The identity of the last term, soḥaret, is unknown. These four terms denote decorative building stones which could be polished, but apparently not precious stones.


(רָאמוֹת), mentioned in the Bible in various contexts. It is listed among the precious goods brought by the Arameans to Tyre (Ezek. 27:16); as a precious stone which is compared to wisdom in the eyes of a fool: "Wisdom is for a fool as raʾmot" (Prov. 24:7); and again as a very costly stone whose value is nevertheless surpassed by wisdom (Job 28:18). Raʾmot is clearly a precious stone; its identity, however, is unknown.

[Uri Shraga Wurzburger]

In Rabbinical Literature

Talmud, Midrash, Aramaic and other versions as well as the medieval commentators give translations or interpretations of the two shoham (onyx?) stones on the high priest's Ephod and of the 12 precious stones that make up the "Breastplate of Judgment" (Ex. 28:6–12; 15–30). Rav Assi (Meg. 12a) endeavored to explain "stones of a crown, glittering over His land" (Zech. 9:16) and the bahaṭ of Esther 1:6 by אבנים שמחוטטות על בעליהן ("stones that flash back at their owner," but see Rashi and He-Arukh, s.v. חט). Another explanation given (ibid.) reads המחיטטות לעיניים במקומן ("which dazzle the eyes in the place where they are found" (see Jastrow, Dict, s.v. חטט). The precious stones mentioned in Job 28:18 are translated in the Targum by סנדלכון (corrupted from Greek σαρδόνυχ) and בירולין or בירוצין (beryl), the former also being used in the Talmud as a generic term for precious stones (Sanh. 59b; arn11, 5 and 38, 114). The onyx stone (אנך) is mentioned (Av. Zar. 8b, 11b and Tosef. Kel. bm 1:3).

Under the influence of beliefs prevalent among other peoples and cultures, Talmud and Midrash attach magical, in particular medical but also psychological, influences to precious stones, ideas which continued to prevail among medieval Jewish Bible commentators like Abraham Ibn Ezra, David Kimḥi, Baḥya b. Asher and also in the Zohar (see *Astrology). Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ Duran (14th–15th centuries) in his MagenAvot 2, 1 refers to the more than 400 precious stones and their qualities mentioned by Aristotle, and Abraham b. David Portaleone (16th century) devoted a special chapter to this subject in his Shiltei ha-Gibborim (1612). Abraham wore a precious stone, hanging from his neck, which healed all those who looked at it (bb 16b); cf. the pearl-bag worn by animals (Sanh. 68a and Rashi ad loc.). Josephus mentions that the Essenes used precious stones for healing purposes (Wars, 2:136). Many legends have been woven round the Shamir stone (or worm?) which was said to have been used to cut stones for Solomon's Temple and to engrave the Ephod and breastpiece stones (Avot 5:6; Sot. 48a–b; Git. 68a). Similar qualities were ascribed to the sapphire (pdrk 135b) which was believed to be indestructible and out of which the Two Tablets of the Law (the Ten Commandments) were said to have been made (Tanḥ. Ki Tissa 26; Song. R. 5:14, 3). Precious stones almost invariably occur together with gold and silver as signs of wealth throughout rabbinic literature, and are the subjects of numerous legends (see Ginzberg, Legends, index, s.v. Stone (Stones), Precious). Precious stones were also used for *seals and signet rings.

The expression תכשיט (esp. תכשיטי נשים) = finery, covers not only jewelry but also *cosmetics. Women's finery as a means of seduction was said to have been the invention of the daughters of Cain (see Krauss, ta i. 198), yet women were entitled to possess and wear it (Ket. 65a). Jewelry formed part of the marriage settlement (Song R. 4:12; tj, Ket. 6:3, 30d), and was sometimes given in lieu of betrothal money (Kid. 48a); cf. certain restrictions on Sabbath wear and some purity regulations (Shab. 6:1; Tanh. Gen. 34, 1; Kel. 11:8, 9; cf. Shab. 62b; Tosef., Kid. 1:11). A bride in particular, was to adorn herself lavishly (Song R. 4:10, 1; Tanḥ. Ex. 31, 18). Jewelry was of gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, and sometimes coral. There are full details of the treatment of pearls, their size, color, and shape and the manner in which they were pierced. They were strung together into necklaces sometimes consisting of several rows. Pearls were also set in diadems, together with precious stones; they were also inset in them or vice versa. In general pearls rated above jewels as the most precious objects, and served as presents between royalty (Artaban of Persia to Judah ha-Nasi, tj, Pe'ah 1:1, 15d). Not only men wore these but even animals were sometimes adorned with precious stones as amulets as can be seen from the story of the ass bought by Simeon b. Shetaḥ (tj, bm 2:5, 8c).

The main types of jewelry mentioned are signets (see *seals) usually worn as finger rings; women generally wore no signet rings, only ordinary rings (Shab. 6:1, 3; 62a; Kel. 11:8). Metal rings with a seal made of sandalwood or vice versa are mentioned. Rings, probably as other jewelry, were acceptable as loan-pledges (tj, Shev. 10:9, 39d). They could also contain poison (Deut. R. 2:24). Women, brides in particular, wore as diadems a "City of Gold" (representing Jerusalem, Shab. 6:1; Kel. 11:8; Sot. 49b) such as Akiva once gave to his wife (Shab. ibid.; tj, Shab. 6:1, 7d; arn2 12:30). Above all, women wore necklaces (catella), some of the "choker" type which were made of precious metal or stones, pearls, glass beads, or sandalwood. Ear- and nose rings were very common among women and also children of both sexes. An amulet-text was inserted in a capsule worn round the neck; children wore also small tablets or scrolls containing a Bible verse. Officials and tradesmen wore the insignia of their office or trade as adornments. Other ornaments included anklets, bracelets, and also strings of coins, worn, by children in particular, on the forehead, as a necklace, or on the upper part of the dress. Women also wore bells around the neck or attached to their dress.


Eisenstein, Yisrael, 1 (1907), 71–74 (with bibliography); I. Loew, Fauna und Mineralien der Juden (1969); N. Shalem, in: Leshonenu, 3 (1931), 291–9; idem, in: Koveẓ ha-Ḥevrah ha-Ivrit la-Ḥakirat Ereẓ Yisrael va-Attikoteha, 2 (1935), 197–214; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (1967); S. Tolansky, The History and Use of Diamond (1962); E.S. Dana, A Textbook of Mineralogy, ed. by W.E. Ford (19664); S. Shefer (ed.), Abraham b. David Portaleone, Bigdei Kehunnah (1964); R.Z. Sverdlov, Yesodot ha-Minerologyah… (1948), 177–87; A. Rosenzweig, Kleidung und Schmuck in Bibel und talmudischen Schriften (1905).