Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 25 April 2015 / 6 Iyyar 5775

Return of the Priestly Breast Plate

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Alan

Dear Rabbi,

I am very intrigued by the breast plate of the High Priest and was wondering whether it could be fashioned nowadays or whether it was only something of the past, or otherwise relevant only if there is a Temple or priestly service?

Dear Alan,

I agree, the High Priest’s breast plate was not merely ornamentally exquisite, it was fantastically oracular.

It was comprised of 12 different types of precious gem stones arranged in four rows, where each stone corresponded to a particular tribe whose name was engraved on it, together with the names of the patriarchs and the term “Tribes of G-d” – together including all of the letters of the Hebrew alef-bet.

When the High Priest would direct queries of great import to G-d, the letters on these stones would illuminate in succession in order to convey to the High Priest prophetic messages from G-d, which he deciphered and then communicated to the people.

This breast plate is not just a relic of the past, nor is its fashioning dependent on the existence of the Temple or the priestly service. Rather, theoretically, if the necessary materials could be acquired and it could be constructed according to specification, which our sources amply describe, it could be fashioned even in the absence of the Temple and its service.

Interestingly, the main impediment to making the breastplate would seem to be the lack of a special worm called the “shamir”.

Based on a precise reading of the verses (Ex. 28:11; 39:13) in the Torah describing the preparation of these precious stones for the breast plate, the Talmud (Sota 48b) states that the wording on them be not merely written but rather engraved, and not with an implement that would cause wasteful shavings but rather in a way that would preserve the integrity of the stones.

This was accomplished through this unique worm, which the Talmud says was created specifically for this purpose, as it was able to cut through stone in a non-chisel like fashion. The relevant letters were thus stenciled onto the stones, and the shamir would follow the lines and thereby carve the words into the gems of the breast plate.

The problem is that the same teaching tells us that since the Temple was destroyed, the shamir was lost. The result of this is that if the shamir is the only way to cut and engrave the stones, its absence would preclude the fashioning of the breast plate.

However, if this is so, it raises the following question: Since the shamir was lost after the destruction of the First Temple, how did they prepare the stones of the breast plate in the Second Temple where there certainly was a High Priest with all the priestly garments, including the breast plate?

One might suggest that the breast plate from the First Temple remained until the 2nd, as in fact we find that the Talmud (Megilla 12a) says that King Achashverosh wore it during his great banquet, in which he also used and displayed other plundered vessels from the First Temple. But even though it apparently survived the Babylon destruction and exile and was later sequestered by the Persians, it is very unlikely that it made its way back to Israel under the auspices of Cyrus. The first chapter of the Book of Ezra enumerates in great detail the type and number of even minor vessels that were returned, but there is no mention of the breast plate.

So the question remains: How were the stones of the breast plate fashioned in the Second Temple?

It is quite intriguing that Rambam (Klei HaMikdash 9:6) writes in great detail the halachic specifications of the breast plate, its stones, their positioning and setting in the breast plate etc., but makes no mention of the requirement of the shamir. The Mishna l’Melech commentary on Rambam notes this curious omission and wonders why Rambam would leave out what would seem to be such an important point regarding the preparation of the stones.

However, later commentaries (Chatan Sofer ch. 1 sec. 6 and Hitorerut Teshuva 1:282) conclude from these several considerations that the use of the shamir must be only an “ideal” requirement, but in its absence, regular engraving is permitted, which would explain why Rambam left it out and this must be how the stones of the breast plate were fashioned in the Second Temple.

Accordingly, these commentaries posit that it would be permitted and possible to prepare the breast plate even today without the Temple or its service.

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