Exodus 28:12 and 28:29 – Their Names

The High Priest was required to wear 8 special garments when he served in the Temple. Attached to those garments were stones engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel.

In this article I will discuss the meaning and symbolism of Exodus 28:12 and 28:29.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the symbolic meaning of many commandments.

Hirsch, Collected Writing 3 Page 50

We will now proceed to … commandments whose objects are not explicitly defined as symbols but are nonetheless clearly presented as having the purpose of evoking and recalling specific thoughts, so that these commandments are undoubtedly symbolic in character.

He includes in this category our verses:

Hirsch, Collected Writing 3 Page 52

Aaron is commanded (Exodus 28:12) to bear the names of the tribes of Israel upon his two shoulders “before God for a memorial” and also upon his breast as a constant memorial before God (verse 29). [emphasis in the original]

These two verses are meant to teach us lessons based on the symbolism of these objects.

Join the Thinking Torah weekly newsletter. Click here for details.

Exodus 28:12 – Names on the Shoulders

The ephod was like a small apron that was worn over the other priestly garments. On its shoulder straps were two stones engraved with the names of 12 tribes.

Exodus 28

12. And you shall put the two stones upon the shoulders of the ephod, stones of remembrance for the people of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a remembrance.

two stones These stones are described in verses 28:9-11. The names of six tribes were engraved on one stone and the remaining six tribes on the other stone. One stone was mounted on each shoulder strap of the ephod.

ephod The design and workmanship of the ephod is in verses 28:6-14. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the ephod “denotes consolidation of energies in the service of a lofty purpose, and also denotes being girded and ready for action.”

High Priest wearing 8 garments

stones of remembrance for the people of Israel The commentators have several different approaches to explain the concept of “remembrance.”

The Malbim learns a lesson about the unity of the Jewish people. It’s true that they are divided into 12 tribes and each tribe has its own character. Even so, they are united and joined together as represented by the shoulders of the ephod which is a single garment.

Rabbi Sorotzkin suggests that these 2 stones are meant to teach the Jewish people an important lesson. When they see the two stones it should serve for them as a reminder to improve their deeds in order that God will remember them for good.

By way of contrast, Daat Mikra understands the “remembrance” goes simultaneously in 2 directions. First, it’s a remembrance for the Children of Israel so that they will remember their obligation to serve God. Second, it’s also a remembrance for God that He will recall His covenant with the Children of Israel.

before the Lord … for a remembrance The idea here is to mention Above (in Heaven) the names of the tribes that all of them are united to unify God with a complete oneness. God is one and Israel is one people on the earth. Aaron bearing their names before God demonstrates that their names are partnered with God’s name. [Malbim]

for a remembrance That God will see the tribes written before Him and He will remember their righteousness. [Rashi]

Sforno suggests that the “remembrance” is meant to attain mercy for the Jewish people according to the merits of the tribes. I understand this to mean that the merits of the 12 tribes, Jacob’s sons, will cause God to treat their descendants with mercy.

Exodus 28:12 and the Stone Tablets

Rabbi Sorotzkin says that symbolically the two stones on Aaron’s shoulders are similar to the two tablets of the law that God gave to Moses.

The Jewish people carry the two tablets on their shoulders and fulfill the 613 commandments that they hint at.

In a similar way, Aaron carries the names of the tribes before God, because they accepted the Torah which the other nations of the world rejected.

Exodus 28:29 – Names on the Heart

The breastplate was a small garment attached to the ephod. Attached to it was an array of 12 precious stones set in 4 rows.

Exodus 28

29. And Aaron shall bear the names of the people of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goes in to the holy place, for a remembrance before the Lord continually.

breastplate of judgment This garment is described in verses 28:15-30. Part of the breastplate are four rows of 3 stones each. The names of the 12 tribes are engraved on these stones (verses 28:17-21).

Rabbi Hirsch explains that the Hebrew word for breastplate denotes the safekeeping of valuable possessions and forces.

the holy place Usually the phrase “holy place” refers to the section of the Tabernacle or Temple in front of the Holy of Holies. However, in this verse, Daat Mikra understands “holy place” in the broad sense of every place where the High Priest is required to wear his 8 garments while performing the service.

upon his heart … for a remembrance Rabbi Sorotzkin links together verses 28:12 and 28:29.

Here it says “heart” and in verse 12 it says “shoulders.” The shoulder is the beginning of the hand. The priest works with his hands to bring an offering. But that’s not enough.

It’s also important that his intentions (as represented in this verse by the heart) must also be correct. That is why the High Priest carries the names of the tribes on his shoulders and on his heart so that both will be in alignment. Then his service will be proper and the offerings he brings will be accepted by God.

Daat Mikra also suggests a link between 28:12 and 28:29. In these verses there are 2 remembrances: on the shoulders and on the heart.

These verses hint that when the High Priest performs the service, he should remember that he is representing all of the Jewish people.

He should request from God that He will judge His people Israel. That is, God should make apparent their favorable judgment, grant the Jewish people all of their needs, and judge their enemies.

Protecting the High Priest

The midrash offers a very different interpretation compared to what we’ve seen in the commentators.

Midrash Shemot Rabbah 38

What is the reason [for the stones and the names of the tribes on the breastplate]? So the Holy One blessed be He would look at them and at the priestly vestments upon [the High Priest’s] entry on Yom Kippur and be reminded of the merit of the tribes. …

So too, Aaron would regularly enter the Holy of Holies. Were it not for the many merits that would enter with him and assist him, he would not have been able to enter.

This midrash is teaching that stones engraved with the names of the tribes protected the High Priest when he entered into the Holy of Holies.

But there’s a big problem with this idea.

When the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he was not wearing the ephod and the breastplate. That means he was not bearing the names of the 12 tribes at that time.

Rather, on Yom Kippur the High Priest would wear four garments of white linen when he entered the Holy of Holies.

Even so, when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in accordance with the Torah’s requirements, the merit of the priestly garments he wore most of the time would protect him.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.