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Jewish High Priest's Shoulder Stones and Breastplate, Dr. Terry Harman

The Mantle of Leadership

Embracing the mantle of leadership, whether within the realms of government or business, is an endeavor that demands profound courage and dedication. Yet, venturing into leadership within a religious context adds an even deeper, spiritual layer to the responsibilities of the servant leader. Amid the often unseen intricacies lies an unspoken truth: the servant leader shoulders not only the tangible burdens but also the spiritual essence of their role, a weight willingly carried for the congregation's well-being.

Within this sacred journey, the servant leader becomes entwined with the spiritual perils and growth of each member of the congregation. Every step taken, every decision made, reverberates within the intricate tapestry of their followers' spiritual journey. The connection is profound and the responsibility, undeniable. Even amidst moments of apparent discord and when challenges seem insurmountable, the servant leader remains steadfast, navigating the turbulent waters of dissension and grappling with financial constraints that threaten to stifle the community's essential programs.

The art of leadership unfolds as a delicate dance, a balance between the tangible and the spiritual, between the pragmatic and the compassionate. A leader must not only carry the weight of their role but also bear the burdens of the heart, advocating fervently for the well-being of the congregation. Yet, let it be acknowledged that this harmonious equilibrium is far from effortless, often presenting challenges that transcend mere words.

Missed Connection Between Shoulder Stones and Breastplate

Until a short while ago, the intricate interrelation between the dual shoulder stones adorning the straps of the High Priest's ephod, and the breastplate of judgment affixed to the ephod's upper section by resplendent golden chains eluded my perception. This connection becomes all the more profound as both elements converge on the ephod, fostering a unified whole. Notably, etched upon each of these sacred artifacts are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, a poignant reminder of their collective heritage and significance.

Minimal Attention Given to Shoulder Stones

The breastplate tends to attract greater attention from biblical commentators. The two shoulder stones are noted for their engravings, depicting six tribes on the right stone and six tribes on the left stone. A cursory perusal of Exodus 28 might confine the significance of the shoulder stones to the High Priest, who was vested with the authority of the twelve tribes. This authority positioned him as the spiritual leader and mediator between the Lord and the nation.

The stones are perceived by Christians as holding a meaningful link to a "prophetic" passage in Isaiah 9:6. This prophecy anticipates the arrival of Jesus, recognized as The Messiah and the Great High Priest according to Hebrews 4:15. It is believed that Jesus was granted the power to govern over God's Kingdom (1), and this connection is seen in the two Shoham stones attached to the straps of the Ephod.

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

It is worth noting that both The Complete Jewish Bible and the Jewish Publication Society 1917 present this verse as verse five, as opposed to verse six. Notably, Jewish commentators do not establish a connection to Jesus' Messiahship in their interpretations.

"For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; dominion will rest on his shoulders, and he will be given the name Pele-Yo‘etz El Gibbor Avi-‘Ad Sar-Shalom [Wonder of a Counselor, Mighty God, Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace]"

Jewish commentators place particular emphasis on the intrinsic holiness of the breastplate, which serves to atone for errors in judgment. The ephod which is fastened to both the shoulder stones and the breastplate is highlighted for its role in atoning for idolatry. (2) In contrast, the shoulder stones do not hold such distinct significance in Jewish tradition.

The shoulder stones, possibly Shoham, which is usually translated into English as onyx. The Temple Institute in Jerusalem suggests the shoulder stones are Sardonyx stones (3) set in gold. One stone is engraved with the names of the first six tribes, while the second stone bears the names of the remaining six tribes of Israel. Notably, each stone accommodates a total of twenty-five letters from the respective tribes' names. (4) One additional insight was gleaned from the Temple Institute in Jerusalem.

The Torah calls these two stones "remembrance stones, . . .

The sages explain the meaning of this expression: when the High Priest entered into the holy place dressed in the ephod, the Holy One saw all the tribes of Israel inscribed before Him and He was moved to have mercy on His people. (5)

Connection Between Shoulder Stones and Breastplate?

When studying the Bible I focus my intention on three things. First, What is the plain sense of the verses I am reading? Second, What did the Bible verses mean to the original audience? Third, What do these verses say to me? Are there principles to live by?

The connection I missed between the shoulder stones and the stones of the breastplate is this. The shoulder stones, like the Leaders Identification Insignia or "green felt tabs" of the Army uniform from days gone by, indicate the responsibility of the High Priest to lead the people in spiritual matters. These stones are a signal to the people, not just the High Priest. A deeper look at Exodus 28:12 (JPS 1917) led me to this conclusion.

And thou shalt put the two stones upon the shoulder-pieces of the ephod,

to be stones of memorial for the children of Israel;

and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD upon his two shoulders for a memorial.

2 Stones for the People

The two "Stones of Memorial" hold a position of prominence, adorning the shoulders of the High Priest. These stones serve as a poignant "memorial" (referred to as "zik-ka-Ron"), functioning as a steadfast "reminder" for the entire nation. Their purpose is to ensure that the memory of the 12 ancestral tribes remains etched in the collective consciousness. Aaron's duty entails more than just carrying a weight; he is entrusted with the noble task of bearing and enduring the mantle of a servant leader upon his shoulders.

However, it's important to clarify that these stones are not meant for Aaron alone; rather, they are intended for "the children of Israel." In a literal sense, they are dedicated to the descendants of the current generation, including sons, grandsons, and all offspring. The Shoham stones serve as a prod, urging people to reflect on their past and to "never forget their history and lineage."

Consider, for a moment, the legacy of the name "Israel." It signifies "God prevails" in Hebrew. Delving into the annals of history, you'll find a powerful reminder that your God is triumphant. Furthermore, it is paramount to acknowledge that it was the Lord himself who sanctioned Aaron and his lineage as the spiritual intermediaries for the entire nation. His ordainment goes beyond mere human appointment; it is a divine designation.

In essence, these two Stones of Memorial serve to call us to remember not just the congregational leaders' responsibility, but the collective memory of the history of our congregation as we read the names of our loved ones and friends engraved on the memorial plaques of our sanctuary. They serve as a compelling call to never lose sight of the past, to remember the meaning behind the name "Israel," and to hold fast to the knowledge that our God indeed prevails.

12 Stones for the High priest

Aaron's duty entails more than just carrying the weight of servant leadership. He is also entrusted with the noble task of wearing on his heart the names of those he represents and serves. Looking beneath the surface of Exodus 28:29 reveals a deeper purpose for the breastplate than atoning for errors in judgment.

The breastplate of judgment is worn directly over Aaron's heart. His "heart" (lib bo) is like the heart of the people he represents, it reflects his inner man, understanding, will, and emotions which can be faulty at times and even make rash decisions. The people of God have made mistakes, and have sinned. In times of peril or weakness, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.

He bears or carries the "names" (she mot), of the sons of Israel. He understands their personalities, reputation, desires, and spiritual needs. He has witnessed how "God has prevailed" in the life of the nation time and time again.

The heart in ancient times was considered the seat of decision, and judgment, (ham mis pat), like the sentence or decision of the court.

Aaron is instructed to wear the holy garments with the breastplate of judgment when he enters the "Holy Place" (ha Kodesh). Here he tends to the table of showbread, the menorah, and the golden altar of incense.

Here lies one difference between the shoulder stones and the stones of the breastplate. The shoulder stones were a visual reminder for the "children of Israel" to recall and to remember their "God prevails" and Aaron was ordained by God to serve them. However, the stones of the breastplate are a visual reminder (le zik ka Ron) for Aaron to intercede on behalf of the people when he comes "before" (lif nei) the presence and face of the Lord. His intercession is to be "continual" (Tamid).

The name used for "Lord" is Yahweh. This is the most personal name of God and is used 81 times in the book of Leviticus in connection to each of the Korban (sacrifices, offerings) used as a means of "drawing near" to God.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word "tamid" is the same word used for the two lambs brought to the brazen altar as an offering each day. One in the morning and one in the evening given on behalf of the nation at large. These lambs were raised nearby and were only used for temple sacrifices. (See my two-part blog on The Daily Tamid Offering" for more details.


Whether you find yourself in the role of the clergy or a lay leader within our congregation, it's crucial to recognize the distinctive burden and spiritual responsibility that you carry. There will inevitably be moments when the weight of this responsibility rests heavily upon your shoulders, potentially causing you to feel overwhelmed. I want you to know that I've personally experienced these emotions as well.

Serving as a leader, a servant of the congregation, brings both immense joy and inevitable frustration. It's a unique journey where these contrasting feelings can coexist within a single day. Whether we responded to the Lord's calling or the congregation entrusted us with the task of tending to the needs of our community, it's vital to hold close to our hearts the genuine and deeply felt needs of the people we serve.

The history, the present circumstances, and the future of our congregation will undoubtedly place a weighty burden upon the shoulders of those in leadership positions. This mantle of leadership is not easily comprehended or even fully appreciated by those who have never experienced it firsthand. Yet, you are the ones who are shouldering it. As you stand before the Lord, representing and interceding on behalf of our congregation, please remember to also lift up your own family and personal needs to the One who knows each of us by name. Just as the congregation relies on your guidance, your family depends on you as well, perhaps even more so.

In times of uncertainty, do not solely rely on your own understanding. Instead, turn your focus towards acknowledging the divine presence in every facet of your journey. Lean on the Lord in all your ways, seeking guidance and strength as you navigate the challenges and rewards of your leadership role. Remember, you are not alone in this endeavor; there are others who share your path and a power greater than ourselves who watches over all of us.


(1) "Sapphire Throne Ministries. 'Onyx: His Government Resting on His Shoulders.' Sapphire Throne Ministries, 6 June 2017. Web. Accessed 7, August 2023."

(2) Temple Institute, "Priestly Garments," accessed August 1, August 2023,

(3) Temple Institute. "Priestly Garments 2." Temple Institute, n.d. Web. Accessed 15 August 2023.

(4), "Klei Hamikdash - Chapter 9.9," n.d. Web. accessed 17, August 2023,

(5) Temple Institute. "Priestly Garments 2." Temple Institute, n.d. Web. Accessed 15 August 2023.

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