For your dinner table tonight, here is some interesting trivia about the High Priest's breastplate.
1. What did it look like?
First imagine lots of gold and rich embroidery. Then imagine a grid of semi-precious stones, four rows of three stones each. Each stone is a different color and each one has the name of one of the 12 sons of Jacob (12 tribes) etched into it. There are so many opinions regarding the types of stones that we basically have no idea how to translate the Hebrew names (see Ex. 28:17-20).
I was in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History this week and saw how a great diversity of beautiful stones from around the world. The Israelites had come with much wealth out of Egypt, an empire with access to African, Asian and Mediterranean trade - there are likely many possibilities.
Here is one interpretation:
First row: carnelian, emerald, topaz.
Second row: carbuncle, sapphire, beryl.
Third row: jacinth, agate, amethyst.
Fourth row: chyrsolite, onyx, jasper.
Here is one attempt at reproduction. Here is another one, showing a pouting priest with colorful clothes - click on his various garments to learn more.
2. What's with the number 12?
The twelve tribes correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac and the twelve moons (i.e., months) in a solar year (average). Thus, the number 12 represents cosmic completion as well as the annual cycle that defines life on this planet. Ask: what other things might 12 sybolize? What about the 4 rows of 3? (hint - think of nature and natural cycles)
3. What was it for?
Besides looking cool and strengthening the High Priests shoulder muscles, the breastplate had a practical function. The back of the breastplate had a kind of pocket into which Moses inserted a parchment with one or more ineffable names of God (there are numerous names of God in Hebrew, and some are more effable than others. The 120-letter name, for instance, is particularly ineffable). This parchment worked like an activator, juicing up the breastplate.
4. Where is it now?
That's the easiest one! It's with the lost ark! But where is the lost ark? Not in Ethiopia, and not in some CIA warehouse in Washington. King Josiah hid these irreplacable items in the tunnels under the Temple Mount when he foresaw that destruction was near in circa 500 BCE. Thus, the 2nd Temple never had an ark or breastplate. Are they still in the tunnels? Well, look at this photo - the first ever taken of the Chulda tunnels by archaologist Wilson in 1864, and reach your own conclusion. Here is another closed section of the tunnel. While we're at it, look at this and this striking ancient architecture under the Temple Mount.