Has a Legendary Gem from a Sacred Jewish Breastplate Been Rediscovered?
After being lost from the pages of history for about a thousand years, a legendary gemstone may find its way back home. An anonymous owner of what may be a very important religious artifact is ready to relinquish a cherished family heirloom and return it to its homeland. The artifact is said to have had an exciting history and, if it is indeed real, it has a strong significance in the Jewish faith as well.
Both Breaking Israel News and the Daily Mail claim that the gem in question may have its origins in a sacred breastplate that was worn by the High Priest of Jerusalem. Before examining more of the gem’s history, it is interesting to look closer at the legend behind this breastplate.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the "ḥoshen" (the name for the breastplate) was “adorned with precious stones, worn by the high priest on his breast when he presented in the Holy Place the names of the children of Israel.” The Temple Institute describes the High Priest’s breastplate by saying:
“This garment is called choshen mishpat in Hebrew, which means the "breastplate of judgment" or "decision." Square-shaped and worn over the heart, it was called so because of the unique role which it played in helping to render fateful decisions. According to the Biblical instructions and rabbinical traditions, the breastplate is a patterned brocade like the ephod. The threads of its fabric are gold, sky-blue, dark red and crimson wool, and twisted linen. The garment itself is set with four rows of small square stones, in settings of knitted or braided gold. Each row contained three stones-totaling twelve stones, one stone representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The name of the corresponding tribe was engraved on each stone.”
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Front of the breastplate on the front of the central Sephardic synagogue in Ramat Gan. (Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel/ CC BY 2.5)
The breastplate was believed to have enabled the High Priest to have communicated directly with God. When an important question was asked, the priest could deliver “God’s word” and answer the enquiry with the aid of the breastplate and two sacred stones, named the Urim and the Thummim. While wearing the jeweled breastplate and holding the two stones, the High Priest stood before a lampstand near the altar. When he asked the question, the candle would reflect light from the Urim and the Thummin onto the stones of the Breastplate. The website Pheonix Masonry explains how the answer arrived:
“this flash of light provided up to 24 combinations (2 x 12). Since there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the flashes of light could produce strings of letters. It was said that God breathed through the wind, which in turn causes the veil to move, permitting a breeze to flicker the flames in the Lampstand to momentarily alter the angle of direction of the light onto the Urim and Thummin, and thence to the Breastplate. Thus God was able to communicate directly, but not audibly, to the high priest and answer the enquiry.”
Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levites in ancient Judah. (Public Domain)
The stone that has recently made the headlines is said to be one of the two sardonyx gems which were set in gold on the breastplate’s shoulders. With the abovementioned legend in mind, it is easy to see why this precious stone has created a stir. But how did it end up in the hands of an elderly woman in South Africa?
The owner’s family tradition explains that the sardonyx was given to her ancestor, named Croiz Arneet deTarn Auret, from the High Priest around 1189 in gratitude for helping free Jerusalem. The Daily Mail adds to the story that “it was given to a Knight Templar and handed down through that family from one generation to the next.”
The sardonyx stone in the papyrus casket it was carried in. (Owner/Daily Mail)
After generations of keeping the stone in the family’s possession, in 2000 they asked to have it appraised. Breaking Israel News says that Dr. James Strange, a professor in religious studies and archaeology analyzed the stone for the family. Dr. Strange suggested to Breaking Israel News that he was not very impressed with the stone until he saw two letters in ancient Hebrew. He said: "There is no modern or ancient technology known to me by which an artisan could produce the inscription, as it is not cut into the surface of the stone." Dr. Strange dated the stone to about the 5th century BC and appraised the stone's value at $175-$225 million. He then asked gemologist Ian Campbell to take a look at the odd artifact. Mr. Campbell confirmed that the stone had not been cut open to make the inscription and estimated a worth starting at $200 million.
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Later, another expert - M. Sharon from the University of Witwatersrand, was asked to examine the stone as well. Daily Mail quotes his report on the artifact as saying: "Due to the clarity of the letters and their fine definition it would be incredible if they are a coincidental natural formation in the stone. The lack of any apparent sign of interference with the surface makes the existence of the letters inside the stone a real enigma." He also is said to have described the inscriptions as ancient Hebrew script and "the equivalent of our 'B' and 'K'." The style of script was dated to 1000 BC, give or take 200-300 years.
It is interesting to note that this is not the first modern mention of the stone. It seems that in 1991 the enigmatic artifact made the news when the owner was (first?) considering selling it.
Now, it appears that the sardonyx stone is on the market once again. Daily Mail reports that the current owner of the gemstone and a South African businessman are specifically looking for investors interested in buying the stone and taking it to Israel.
However, the question of the authenticity of the stone remains uncertain. Although Dr. Strange told Breaking Israel News "I calculated then that if it were a fraud, then one or more very similar others would show up on the international market rather soon, but to my knowledge none has" he also stressed that it should be examined once again. He concluded:
"A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. I think this object needs a new appraisal and as many scientific tests as possible to determine whether it is genuine. If it turns out to be an artifact important to the history of the Jewish people, then that is truly wonderful. If it turns out to be a masterful fraud, then I will be pained that I was duped."
Top Image: The sardonyx stone. Source: Owner/Breaking Israel News