Stones of the Choshen

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The twelve stones of the choshen are named in Shemot 28:17-201. However, since the verses provide no other descriptive information, the identity of almost every stone is heavily debated. In trying to determine which gems are referred to, scholars look for descriptions in other verses in which the stones are mentioned, explore cognate languages for linguistic clues as to the stones' identity, and turn to identifications made by both the Aramaic and Greek translations of Torah. The various translations, however, are not in total agreement, and the identity of many of the Aramaic and Greek names are disputed.2 Bemidbar Rabbah provides further clues, as it lists the color of many of the stones, but as this is a relatively late source, it is less reliable. Finally, archaeological and geological investigations regarding the availability and use of gems in Egypt and Sinai during the period of the Exodus help to narrow the possibilities. Given the many unknowns, it is not surprising that multiple possible identifications have been raised for almost every stone. For images of the various gems, see Olam HaMIkra Shemot 28.


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned only in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:17 and Shemot 39:10) and the stones of Gan Eden (Yechezkel 28:13).
  • Linguistic analysis – The word "אֹדֶם" relates to the color "אדום", meaning red.
  • Translations – All the Aramaic translations render "אֹדֶם" fairly literally, as "סמקן" or "סמוקתא", meaning reddish. The Septuagint translates it as sardius,3 generally identified as the orange-red gemstone, carnelian, which, based on the archaeological evidence, was very popular in ancient times.4  Others suggest that sardius might instead refer to red jasper.5
  • Possible Identifications – A reddish stone, likely carnelian, but perhaps red jasper.6


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:17 and Shemot 39:10) and the stones of Gan Eden (Yechezkel 28:13), and also in Iyyov 28:19 where it is referred to as "פִּטְדַת כּוּשׁ", suggesting that it originated in or was imported from Egypt (Ethiopia).
  • Linguistic analysis – The word פִּטְדָה might be a loan word from Sanskrit where pita means yellow, or it could be related to the Assyrian hipindu, which means "flashing" stone.7
  • Translations – The Aramaic Targumim render "פִּטְדָה" as "ירקן" or "ירקתא", pointing to a green gem,8 while the Septuagint identifies it as topazius.9 Based on descriptions by Pliny the Elder,10 many scholars assume that this refers to olivine (also known as peridot), a stone with a yellow-green color.11 The ancient source of peridot was the Island of Zabargad (modern St. John's Island) in the Red Sea, under the control of Egypt,12 matching Iyyov's reference to "פִּטְדַת כּוּשׁ". Others, however, raise the possibility that the Greek topazius refers to the modern gem known as topaz,13 and point to yellow variety of the stone.
  • Possible Identifications – A greenish-yellow stone, likely olivine (peridot), or perhaps yellow topaz.


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned only in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:17 and Shemot 39:10) and the stones of Gan Eden (Yechezkel 28:13).
  • Linguistic analysis – The word "בָרֶקֶת" might relate to "ברק", lightning, referring to something that shines.  In Assyrian the word baraqu similarly means to flash, while burruqu means flushed or red-faced and red-haired.14 Taken together, these might suggest a brilliant red stone.
  • Translations – Aramaic translations render "בָרֶקֶת" fairly literally,15 echoing that the rock sparkled or was particularly shiny. This fits a carbuncle such as the red garnet which has an unusually high refractive index, making it exceptionally bright.16 The Septuagint,17 in contrast, translates the word as smaragdos, often understood to be an emerald or other green stone. As the hardness of emeralds makes them difficult to engrave, a better identification might be malachite, an opaque, green banded gem, or perhaps turquoise, a greenish-blue stone.18
  • Possible identifications – Carbuncle (perhaps a red garnet) or a green stone such as emerald or malachite.19


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned with regards to the Choshen (Shemot 28:18 and Shemot 39:11) and the stones of Gan Eden (Yechezkel 28:13), and also in Yechezkel 27:16, in the context of the merchandise of Aram.
  • Linguistic analysis – R. Saadia and RashiYeshayahu 54:11About R. Shelomo Yitzchaki20 relate נֹפֶךְ to the word "פוך", a stone mentioned alongside other precious gems in Yeshayahu 54:11 and Divrei HaYamim I 29:2.21 Both Melakhim II 9:30 and Yirmeyahu 4:30 imply that it was a source of eye make-up, assumed to be bluish22 in color, suggesting that "נֹפֶךְ" is a blue gem. The word "נֹפֶךְ" might also relate to the Egyptian mfkt, referring to a greenish-blue stone such as turquoise, or perhaps malachite.23 The former  matches Bemidbar Rabbah's2:7About Bemidbar Rabbah description of the stone as being "the color of the sky".
  • Translations – Targum OnkelosShemot 28:17-20About Targum Onkelos translates "נֹפֶךְ" as "אִזְמַרַגְדִּין",‎24 generally understood to refer to a green gem25 such as an emerald or malachite, while the Septuagint refers to it as anthrax, which, like the English word carbuncle, means coal, and refers to a stone the color of burning embers,26 such as a ruby27or red garnet.28
  • Possible identifications – A blue-green stone such as turquoise, an emerald or other green stone such as a malachite, a red stone such as a ruby or red garnet.


  • Biblical verses – The סַפִּיר is mentioned in many verses29 but the most helpful source in terms of identifying the stone is Shemot 24:10.  In describing the vision of Hashem seen by the elders, it reads, "וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר"‎,30 suggesting that the סַפִּיר might be either white31 or the color of a pure blue sky.
  • Translations – The various Aramaic and Greek translations (as well as many later sources) are fairly close to the Hebrew, rendering the stone as ספרינה or sapphirus‎.32  Many have identified the gem with the modern sapphire,33 a sky-blue colored gem, but despite the similarity in name, it seems that a different stone is referred to, as the modern gem was not known in the Mediterranean region until Roman times.34 A second, perhaps better identification emerges from the descriptions of both Theophrastus35 and Pliny36 who describe sapphirus‎ as an opaque blue stone37 with golden specks, matching the gem lapis lazuli.38
  • Possible identifications – Likely lapis lazuli, though some have suggested sapphire.


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned only in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:18 and Shemot 39:11) and the stones of Gan Eden (Yechezkel 28:13).
  • Linguistic analysis – "יָהֲלֹם" might relate to the root "הלם" which means to strike or hammer.  This would suggest that the stone was on the harder side and used for cutting other gems, or perhaps to start fires by striking pyrite. This might point to jasper or quartz which rank 7 on the Mohs scale of hardness and were commonly used to start fires in ancient times.  Alternatively, the word might be connected to the root "הלל", meaning to shine, which might point specifically to a clear variety of quartz. Others39 have suggested that the word might be related to the gemstone known in Akkadian as ḫulālu, whose description might match that of a milky white gem such as moonstone.40
  • Translations – Though the modern translation of "יָהֲלֹם" is diamond,41 this is an unlikely identification as the art of cutting diamonds was unknown in Biblical times and they were not found in the Mediterranean region until the Roman period.42 OnkelosShemot 28:17-20About Targum Onkelos translates "יָהֲלֹם" as "סַבְהֲלוֹם" , while Targum Neofiti Shemot 28:17-20About Targum Yerushalmi (Neofiti)and Targum Yerushalmi (Fragmentary)Shemot 28:17-20About Targum Yerushalmi (Fragmentary) write "עין עגלה".  Neither of these names are easily identifiable.43 The Septuagint, in contrast, identifies the gem as iaspis,44 which, from ancient descriptions, appears to refer to quartz or jasper,45 likely of a shade of green.46
  • Possible identifications – Clear or green quartz, jasper, or moonstone


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned only in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:19 and Shemot 39:12).
  • Linguistic analysis – The Hebrew לשם might be related to the Egyptian nšm(t), identified by some as the bluish-green feldspar (amazonite).47
  • Translations – Targum OnkelosShemot 28:17-20About Targum Onkelos and Yerushalmi (Yonatan)Shemot 28:17-20About Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) translate "לֶשֶׁם" as "קנכירי" / "קנכירינון", while the Septuagint reads lyncurion or ligurios.  These might be variations of the same word with the Aramaic inserting a ק in place of the ל.  The Greek word has been understood to refer either to amber (fossilized pine resin which is yellow-orange in color),48 or to jacinth, a reddish-yellow zirkon.49 
  • Possible identifications – Amber, jacinth, amazonite50


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned only in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:19 and Shemot 39:12).
  • Linguistic analysis – The word "שְׁבוֹ" might be related to the Assyrian šubû, referring to agate, a striped stone. [Bemidbar Rabbah's description of the stone as being both black and white might refer to agate as well.]
  • Translations – The Septuagint's translation of achate matches the identification above of agate.51 Targum OnkelosShemot 28:17-20About Targum Onkelos and Yerushalmi (Yonatan)Shemot 28:17-20About Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan), on the other hand, identify the stone as "‎טרקין" / "טרקיא".‎52  Some associate this with turquoise,53 while others suggest that it refers to the "Thracian stone" (a stone from טרקיא), assumed by some to be the black gem, jet,54 a fossilized wood that is a precursor to coal.55
  • Possible identifications – Agate, turquoise, jet


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned only in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:19 and Shemot 39:12).
  • Linguistic Analysis –  Etymologically, the word might be related to "החלמה", strength or health.56  If the stone is identified as an amethyst (see below), this might relate to the belief that the gem had certain health benefits and could protect against drunkenness.57  Alternatively, "אַחְלָמָה" relates to the Egyptian ḫnm(t), understood to be a stone with a reddish-orange hue, such as red jasper.58
  • Translations – Targum OnkelosShemot 28:17-20About Targum Onkelos and Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) translate "אַחְלָמָה" as "עין עגלא", whose identity is debated, but Z. Amar59 suggests that it might refer to sardonyx, a stone comprising bands of color, sometimes with a dark center and paler surroundings, giving it the appearance of an eye.60 The Septuagint, in contrast, defines it as amethystos, or an amethyst. This is in line with Bemidbar Rabbah's2:7About Bemidbar Rabbah description of a stone "similar to clear wine whose redness is not too strong".
  • Possible identifications – Sardonyx, amethyst, red jasper


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned both in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:20 and Shemot 39:13) and the stones of Gan Eden (Yechezkel 28:13), but it is its other appearances in Tanakh which are most helpful for identification purposes. Shir HaShirim 5:14 and Daniel 10:6 both associate the word with glowing materials such as gold, fire, or lightning,61 suggesting that the stone was a yellow or gold gem, perhaps topaz or amber.62
  • Linguistic Analysis – The stone's name might relate to the place Tarshish, perhaps where the stone originated, or to the Akkadian rašāšu, which means to glow (also, perhaps, pointing to a golden colored stone).
  • Translations – The Aramaic translations all refer to the stone as "כרום ימא", suggesting a stone the color of the sea,63 perhaps aquamarine or lapis lazuli, a blue stone with specks of gold. [The latter possibility has the advantage of relating to the golden associations in the various verses.] The Septuagint, in contrast, renders the word as "chrysolithos," referring to a yellow-gold gem, perhaps topaz or citrine, a type of yellow quartz.64
  • Possible identifications – A golden-yellow gem such as topaz, amber, or citrine, or a blue gem such as aquamarine or lapis-lazuli.


  • Biblical verses – Outside the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:20 and Shemot 39:13) and the stones of Gan Eden (Yechezkel 28:13), the gem is also mentioned  in connection to the Efod (Shemot 28:9), where it is named as the stones upon which were inscribed the names of all the tribes.65  Bereshit 2:12 further shares that it was found in אֶרֶץ הַחֲוִילָה together with the "בְּדֹלַח", and Iyyov 28:16 writes that wisdom cannot be valued with either it or the סַפִּיר.
  • Linguistic analysis – Etymologically, the word "שֹׁהַם" might be related to the Akkadian sāmtu(m), meaning reddish, suggesting that the stone is red in color, perhaps a carnelian or red sardonyx.
  • Translations - Both Targum OnkelosShemot 28:17-20About Targum Onkelos and the Septuagint render "שֹׁהַם" as "בורלא" or beryllios,66 presumably referring to beryl, a family of stones which includes emeralds67 and aquamarine.68 However, since beryl is a very hard rock which would be difficult to engrave, some question this identification.69 Targum YerushalmiShemot 28:17-20About Targum Yerushalmi (Fragmentary), in contrast, reads "בדולחא" which might refer to rock crystal.70 However, Bereshit 2:12's mention of both "בְּדֹלַח" and "שֹׁהַם" in the same verse would argue against identifying the two. Josephus adds two more possibilities, identifying the שהם stones on the Efod as sardonyx71 and those in the breastplate as onyx. [See also Bemidbar Rabbah2:7About Bemidbar Rabbah which describes the stone as black in color, matching a black onyx].
  • Possible identifications – A red stone such as carnelian or sardonyx, a beryl such as emeralds or aquamarine, rock crystal, or onyx.


  • Biblical verses – The stone is mentioned only in the context of the Choshen (Shemot 28:17 and Shemot 39:10) and the stones of Gan Eden (Yechezkel 28:13).
  • Linguistic analysis – The word is etymologically related to the Akkadian yašpû, Arabic "יַשְׁבֻּ", and Greek iaspis all apparently referring to jasper, an opaque gem with patterns of color running through it.
  • Translations – The Septuagint identifies the stone as onychion, an onyx, described by Theophrastus as being black and white and by Pliny as having many shades of colors. Targum OnkelosShemot 28:17-20About Targum Onkelos72 translates it as "פַנְתֵּירִי", a stone which is difficult to identify.  It might be related to the Greek pontica,73 a type of agate, or to the Greek panchrus74 which means "of all colors",75 referring to any variegated gem such as jasper, onyx or opal.76 Alternatively the Aramaic refers to panther, in which case it could refer to a stone which somehow resembles the animal, perhaps to a pale yellow variety of jasper with bands of orange or brown.77  
  • Identifications – Some type of banded or multicolored stone such as jasper, onyx,  or opal.