The Kohain Gadol communicated with Hashem through a secret device called the Urim V'tumim. The Urim V'tumim, a parchment enscribed with the 72-letter holy name of Hashem, was placed in the pocket of the fold of the Chosen. This breast plate contained twelve stones, one for each shevet (tribe) of Bnei Yisroel. Each stone was carefully chosen to represent the essence of that particular shevet.
Reuven - It's a ruby for the shevet of Reuven. The ruby, or "odem", as it is called in Hebrew, has a special power. When a woman who has no children swallows the powder of a ruby (don't try this at home, kids!), she will have a child. It's the same idea as the mandrake, the flower that Reuven
brought his mother from the field. Thanks to Reuven, Yissaschar was
born. Yissaschar became a great tzadik. To remember the great act of
kindness that produced a tzadik, rubies became Reuven's jewel.
Shimon - The pitdah, or emerald, is the jewel of the shevet of Shimon. An emerald has special powers to protect people from immorality. What's the
connection between Shimon and immorality? There is none, that's why
Hashem chose the emerald for Shimon. Don't understand? Okay, here's the
scoop: During Bnei Yisroel's travels through the midbar, a man named Zimri caused Bnei Yisroel to sin with the immoral daughters of Midyan. Everybody knew that Zimri was from the shevet of Shimon so, naturally, they would assume that Shimon, himself, had been an immoral man. In
fact, Shimon was a very moral person! So Hashem assigned the emerald to
Shimon as a sign that Zimri's immorality was a one-shot deal and not the
result of bad genes.
Levi - The shevet of Levi was a shevet of teachers. When
it came to settling in Eretz Yisroel, Levi had no portion.
They settled among the rest of the tribes and taught Torah.
Their job was to "enlighten" Bnei Yisroel. What better
jewel to represent this teaching shevet than a crystal,
or "bareket". Bareket means lightning. Believe
it or not, a crystal can make you more intelligent. With all
that Torah teaching going on, the shevet of
Levi needed all the boosts of intelligence it could get!
Yehuda - The nofech or carbuncle is the jewel that represents the shevet of Yehuda. The nofech has special powers that come in handy during war. Whoever wears this nofech around his neck during a war is guaranteed to defeat all his enemies. Since the shevet of Yehuda produced the kings of
Bnei Yisroel who would fight for their people, Hashem blessed Yehuda with this powerful jewel.
Yissachar - The shevet of Yissachar was most worthy to receive the Torah.
They became great scholars and teachers. Their stone is the safir or
sapphire. The sapphire has the color of a clear blue sky. It represents
peace and protects the eyes. This shevet of Yissachar was known for their
peace and harmony that goes hand-in-hand with Torah scholarship.
Zevulun - The shevet of Zevulun was very successful in business. They had
to be because they were supporting two shevatim, themselves and Yissachar.
Their jewel is a pearl, a Yahalom. Pearls have the power of success in
business. This round jewel reminds Zevulun that money comes and goes in
cycles. While you've got it, use it for a good purpose. This could only
help to preserve the deal between Yissachar and Zevulun.
Dan - The Topaz or "leshem" is the gem of the shevet of Dan. The Topaz has an unusual feature that looks like the upsidown face of a man. The shevet of Dan was known for turning out judges. As the "judging shevet", Dan had to look away from the face of those being judged. Rich, poor, ugly, bad fashion sense - none of it mattered to Dan. The judge just turned these features upside down and judged everyone alike. This is the bracha of the Topaz gem.
Naftali - The turquoise, or shevo, is the gem of the shevet of Naftali. This jewel brings success to those who travel on the back of an animal.
This stone is a hint of the greatness of Naftali. When the brothers
brought Yaakov to be buried in the machpelah cave, the descendants of
Esav claimed the right of burial for their own. Naftali ran back to
Mitzrayim using his own two feet to retreive the bill of sale.
Gad - Crystal, or ach'lama, is the jewel of the shevet
of Gad. This gem has the power of courage. In war it dispels
fear and anxiety. The warriors of Gad were known to have a complete
faith in Hashem while waging war. This stone was a
tribute to this trust.
Asher - The tarshish, a gem that resembles perfectly clear oil, is the
stone of the shevet of Asher. Shevet Asher planted olive trees throughout their portion of land in Eretz Yisroel. Their olives were pressed into the finest olive oil used in the Bait Hamikdosh and in the menorah.
Yosef - The onyx or shoham is the stone of the shvatim (tribes)
of Efrayim and Menashe, the sons of Yosef. The onyx causes everyone
to like its wearer. This stone was chosen to represent Yosef
to remind us of his greatness: In Mitzrayim, Yosef
was all alone. He was liked by everyone he met and this could
have led him to mischeivous and sinful behavior. He remained
strong and ignored the influences of Potifar's wife and others.
Binyamin - Jasper or Yashpheh, is the stone of the
shevet of Binyamin. Yeshpeh can be interpreted
to mean "there is a mouth" (yesh peh). Binyamin
was aware that his brothers had sold Yosef. But he remained
silent about the incident. Even after Yosef revealed himself,
Binyamin preserved the kinship of the brothers by never telling
this secret to Yaakov.