Twelve gems and their magical qualities

The most comprehensive list of precious stones in the Bible appears in the description of the breastpiece worn by the high priest. The breastpiece was set with 12 precious stones arranged in four rows, with three stones in each row representing the 12 tribes. From the talmudic period, translators and commentators attempted to determine the mineralogical nature of these stones and to identify the modern mineralogical name. This was a somewhat impossible task as there is no mention of the stones' color, except in a late midrash (Midrash Rabbah).[*] The following essay discusses the magical qualities of the tribal gems as perceived by a 14th-century Jewish writer.

Precious and semiprecious stones, in particular, have been credited with superior occult powers by many peoples. In medieval Europe this was an unquestioned dogma of the religion of superstition, as well as a subject of theological speculation; a heated debate centered about the question whether their peculiar virtues were divinely implanted, or simply part of the nature of gems. Jews were the leading importers of and dealers in gems during the early Middle Ages, and Christian Europe attributed to them a certain specialization in the magic properties of precious stones: Christianos fidem in verbis, Judaeos in lapidibus pretiosis, et Paganos in herbis ponere ("Christians put their trust in words, Jews in precious stones, and pagans in herbs"), ran the adage.

Indeed, there was good warrant in the Jewish background for such a specialty. The Bible speaks of the twelve gems, engraved with the tribal names, which were set into the High Priest's breastplate, leaving room for much mystical speculation in the later literature on the various aspects of these gems (Exodus 28:17-20). But strangely enough, the discussion limited itself to the mystical significance of the twelve gems, and touch hardly at all upon their magical properties.

This subject seems to have been altogether out of the line of Jewish tradition and interest — though Jews were acquainted with it. The Talmud, for instance, remarks that Abraham possessed a gem which could heal all those who looked upon it. Such comments, however, are comparatively rare in Jewish literature. Like many other Christian ideas about the Jews, their reputation as experts in the magic virtues of gems was far wide of the mark.... In the Hebrew literature of Northern Europe I have found only one discussion of the properties of precious stones, and that in the unpublished fourteenth-century manuscript Sefer Gematriot. While it unquestionably drew upon non-Jewish material, it acquired a definitely Jewish coloration in its cross-cultural journey, and is built upon the scheme of the twelve tribal gems. I give here a partial translation of the passage.

ODEM [commonly translated carnelian, ruby] appertains to Reuben... This is the stone called rubino. Its use is to prevent the woman who wears it from suffering a miscarriage. It is also good for women who suffer excessively in childbirth, and, consumed with food and drink it is good for fertility. Sometimes the stone rubino is combined with another stone and is called rubin felsht....

PITDAH [commonly, topaz], the stone of Simeon. This is the prasinum (?) but it seems to me it is the smeralda (?); it is greenish because of Zimri, the son of Salu (Numbers 25:14) who made the Simeonites green in the face, and it is dull in appearance because their faces paled. It is used to chill the body. Ethiopia and Egypt are steeped in sensuality, and therefore it is to be found there, to cool the body. It is also useful in affairs of the heart.

BAREKET [emerald or smaragd]. This is the carbuncle, which flashes like lightning [barak] and gleams like a flame. This is the stone of Levi. It is beneficial to those who wear it; it makes man wise, and lights up his eyes, and opens his heart. Taken as a food in the form of powder with other drugs, it rejuvenates the old.

NOFECH [carbuncle]. This is the smaragd. It is green, for Judah's face was of a greenish hue when he mastered his passion and acknowledged his relations with Tamar (Genesis 38). This stone is clear, and not cloudy like Simeon's, for when he was cleared of the suspicion of Joseph's death, his face grew bright with joy. The function of this stone is to add strength, for one who wears it will be victorious in battle; that is why the tribe of Judah were mighty heroes. It is called nofech because the enemy turns (hofech) his back to the one who wears it, as it is written, "Thy hand shall be on the neck of thine enemies" (Genesis 49:8).

SAPIR [sapphire], the stone of Issachar, who "had understanding of the times" (I Chron. 12:32) and of the Torah. It is purple-blue in color, and is excellent to cure ailments, and especially to pass across the eyes, as it is said, "It shall be health to your navel, and marrow to your bones" (Prov. 3:8).

YAHALOM [amethyst, emerald]. This is the stone of Zebulun; it is the jewel called perla. It brings success in trade, and is good to carry along on a journey, because it preserves peace and increases good-will. And it brings sleep, for it is written, "Now will my husband sleep with me (yizbeleni)" (Gen. 30:20).

LESHEM [jacinth]. This is the stone of Dan, which is the topaziah. The face of a man may be seen in it, in reverse, because [the Danites] overturned the graven image of the idol (Jud. 18).

SHEBO [agate]. This is the stone of Naphtali, which is the turkiska. It establishes man firmly in his place, and prevents him from stumbling and falling; it is especially coveted by knights and horsemen, as it makes a man secure on his mount.

AHLAMAH [amethyst]. This is the stone called cristalo; it is very common and well-known. It is the stone of Gad, because the tribe of Gad are very numerous and renowned. It is useful in war, for it buoys up the heart so that it doesn't grow faint, for Gad used to move into battle ahead of his brothers. This stone is good even against demons and spirits, so that one who wears it is not seized by that faintness of heart which they call glolir.

TARSHISH [beryl]. This is the yakint [jacinth]; the Targum calls it the "sea-green" which is its color. It is the stone of Asher. Its utility is to burn up food. No bad food will remain in the bowels of one who consumes it, but will be transferred into a thick oil. For it is written, "As for Asher, his bread shall be fat" (Gen. 49:20). Sometimes the sapphire is found in combination with the yakint, because the tribes of Asher and Issachar intermarried.... Because the bread of Asher is fat for all creatures, and the faces of stout people are ruddy, the yakint is sometimes of a reddish hue.

SHOHAM [onyx]. This is the stone called nikli [nichilus, an agate]. It is Joseph's stone and it bestows grace. One who wears it at a gathering of people will find it useful to make them hearken to his words, and to win success.

YASHFEH [jasper]. This is Benjamin's; it is called diaspi, and is found in a variety of colors: green, black and red, because Benjamin knew that Joseph had been sold, and often considered revealing this to Jacob, and his face would turn all colors as he debated whether to disclose his secret or to keep it hidden; but he restrained himself and kept the matter concealed. This stone yashfeh, because it was a bridle on his tongue, has also the power to restrain the blood.

[*] Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 13. Keter, 1972. [Back]
From Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, Joshua Trachtenberg. JPS, 1974.

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