Questions for the Shabbos Table: Tetzaveh (Part I)


Questions for the Shabbos Table contains snippets from the weekly Torah portion. The goal of Questions for the Shabbos Table is to bring more Torah to English speakers living in Israel and abroad.

For some who have recently immigrated to Israel, there may be the nagging sentiment of being in a foreign country. Questions for the Shabbos Table is intended to do away with that sentiment, for you not to be a stranger in a strange land.

And for those living abroad, it is a means to come closer to the Divine. If however you are living in the Land, you are already a step closer.

In Parshat Tetzaveh at 28:17-20 we learn that the Kohen Gadol wore a breastplate called the חֹשֶׁן. It contained 12 precious and semi-precious jewels, representing the twelve Tribes.  If you are wondering what the identity of individual gemstones in High Priest’s breastplate are, forget it.  Take it from me – No one living today really knows.  There is only speculation.

From a mineralogical perspective I have a good idea as to what they may be, and a better idea as to what they are not, but only from the view point of mineralogy or better yet gemology. There are 3,500 known minerals in the world at large.  Minerals are naturally occurring chemical compounds.  The mineral that we are most familiar with is halite better known as salt.  It is the chemical compound sodium chloride.

Gems on the other hand are minerals that are rare.  There are only about 15 or so of them.  In addition to being rare, gemstones are durable, relatively hard and certainly beautiful.  Gemstones are categorized as either precious of semi-precious.  Precious gemstones are very rare and very hard. Semi-precious gemstones are less rare and somewhat softer.  They are both beautiful; take on a polish and or have a natural luster.

Diamond, Emeralds, Sapphires, Rubies, Garnet. Spinel, Jade, Peridot and Topaz are considered precious gemstones.  Aquamarine, Amber, Lapis, Opal, Turquoise, Zircon and several varieties of Quartz are considered semi-precious gemstones.

Of the many varieties of quartz that are considered semi-precious I’m sure you are familiar with several of them: Colorless quartz is called Crystal; purple is Amethyst; pink is Rose; gray is Smokey; white is Milky, yellow is Citrine; banded is Agate, orange is Jasper and Carnelian, and black (sometimes with white stripes) is Onyx.

In my opinion the Children of Israel obtained the gemstones for the breastplate from their Egyptian neighbors or found the more common varieties in the dessert.  Those obtained from their Egyptian neighbors were either native to Egypt or originated at a locale that traded with Egypt.  In terms of precious gemstones I would eliminate Diamond, Emerald, Spinel and Jade because they occur at locations too far away from Egypt.  And Diamonds were only “invented” many years later in India.  As to the semi-precious gemstone choices, although beautiful, I would eliminate Amber, Lapis, Opal and Turquoise because they are too soft and not durable enough.

I’m not sure which of the remainder gemstones would have been chosen.  Because of their Hebrew names, I’m most comfortable with Sapphire, סַפִּיר and Jasper יָשְׁפֵה.  Sapphires and Rubies have the same chemical composition.  Where there are Sapphires there is a likelihood of also finding Rubies.  Peridot and Topaz are found in Egypt.  All this is speculation and certainly the rest are up for grabs.

Onyx, שֹּׁהַם in Hebrew is often associated with the Tribe of Joseph.  Perhaps a pale yellow stone such as Topaz is representative of the Tribe of Asher known for its olive oil or a pale blue aquamarine should stand for the sea-going trading Tribe of Zevulun.  All this is speculation, but it does give you much to talk about at your Shabbos table. But one thing is for sure:

Whether represented by precious or semi-precious stones all the Children of Israel are treasured by Hashem.

About the Author
Lives in Nahariya, Israel. Interests: Torah, geology, archaeology, and anthropology. “Northern Exposure” Blog in Jerusalem Post for 3 years, co-founder of Nahariya Anglo Benevolent Society.
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