What's going on here? מַה זֶה?

The כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל (kohen gadol, high priest) wore a fancy breastplate called the חֹשֶׁן (hoshen). The hoshen was decorated with twelve precious stones, each with the name of one of the twelve שְׁבָטִים (shevatim, tribes).

But it wasn’t random. Rabbeinu Bahya (Spain, 700 years ago) explains that each stone had significance for its particular tribe. For example:
  • Levi’s stone was a bright emerald, since Levi shined with the light of Torah. The emerald also symbolized Moshe, who was from the tribe of Levi. When Moshe was born, a midrash says, his home was filled with light. (See Devash for Parashat Shemot!)
  • Zevulun’s stone was quartz, the color of silver. This was a symbol of that tribe’s wealth.
  • Yosef’s stone was onyx. The Hebrew name for this stone is שֹׁהַם (shoham), which has the same letters as הַשֵּׁם (Hashem, God). This was based on the pasuk that describes how God was with Yosef (Bereshit 39:2).
  • Yissakhar’s stone was a blue lapis lazuli, since this tribe was full of the Torah’s wisdom. There are traditions that the לֻחוֹת (luhot, tablets from God) were made of this stone.