Jewish Jewelry Past to Present

A long, long time ago, in a land about 11 hours from the US East Coast by airplane, somewhere in the Sinai desert, the first collection of Jewish jewelry was created, and written down in the book of Exodus. In fact, Exodus can actually be read as the Jewish people’s trials and tribulations with jewelry. There was not only personal jewelry, but communal jewelry as well. The first to be discussed by the Torah, in true Jewish fashion, is the communal jewelry.

From the actual escape from Egypt until the infamous worshiping of the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jews have a rough and tumble history with their jewelry. The first episode, the night of their mass exodus from the land of their enslavement, they are commanded by Moses, himself commanded by God, to literally empty Egypt. I mean, take everything. Gold, precious stones, fine linen, garments, silver…no, they didn’t steal anything. They asked nicely, and the Egyptians, scared to death because they were all dying of plague at the time, eagerly accepted and gave the Israelites whatever they wanted. Besides, they were owed a lot of back payments for 210 years of slavery.

It is with this material that the people constructed the Mishkan, the communal jewelry, the mobile desert temple. This temple consisted of two basic types of donations – one fixed, and one flexible. The fixed donation was a half-shekel, with the rich not allowed to add and the poor not allowed to subtract. Later on, the people were allowed to give however much they wanted of their Egyptian loot. The message – a community must have a foundation of equality, but economic inequality must still exist. People must give a base in communal identity, but then must be allowed to express their individuality by giving what they want.

After the construction of the Mishkan, jewelry gets more personal in Exodus with the wardrobe of the high priest. He’s got a breastplate with 12 precious stones on it representing each tribe (the urim and tumim), a head band called a tzitz , clothing of blue and royal purple and gold and white linen, golden bells, the list goes on. Then, a few chapters later, the high priest himself, Aaron, messes up by providing the Israelites with the most abominable piece of jewelry ever conceived – the Golden Calf. Later in that same chapter, it is written that the Israelites all took off their jewelry in shame. Yup, that’s actually in there. The message – they messed up with their jewelry, so they can no longer wear it. They thought it, itself, was holy, without the sanction of God’s divine command.

Moses comes down from the mountain and literally pulverizes the thing, and his tribe, the tribe of Levi, kills all who were involved in worshiping it. Aaron is spared because he built it for them mainly as a stalling tactic, hoping Moses would come down before things got out of hand and the worshiping began.

Today, there is no longer the Mishkan, and the High Priest no longer has his clothes, though the Temple Institute has already tailored a new set for the future. What we have today are only remnants, mostly surrounding our rituals. Chai necklaces and star of David necklaces for the personal component, and challah boards, silver kiddush cups, and havdalah sets for the communal.

Why are challah boards, silver kiddush cups, and havdalah sets considered communal? Whereas jewish necklaces are personal items, ritual items that are actually used for religious purposes and are therefore more related to the Mishkan. This Jewish ritual bling, one can call it, is meant to make the ceremony more respected and revered, to give it status. It is a national statement rather than a personal donning.

It is the national Jewelry that survived two destructions. We can only pray that the original Jewish jewelry will be restored to its grandeur soon.  Then, we won’t only be wearing our chai necklaces, but also be dressing our high priest in the holiest jewelry known to mankind.

(Though don’t get confused – not holy in itself, but only made so by God’s command. Let’s not forget the Golden Calf.)