Since ancient times the precious product of the pearl-oyster (Mytilus margaritifer Linn.) has been known and has been an article of commerce (comp. Pliny, ix. 35, 54 et seq.; Ælian, x. 13, xv. 18). The ancients, however, knew only of pearls from the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. In the last-named waters is found a kind of oyster, red on the outside, a lustrous red mother-of-pearl on the inside, and producing red pearls. It is possible that Semitic peoples valued the red pearls very highly, since the Arabic form—"marjan"—of the Sanskrit word for pearl, "mangara" (from which latter the Greek μαρ γαρίτης is derived), designates both little pearls and red coral.
The Israelites, also, were probably acquainted with pearls; but it is doubtful if pearls are mentioned in the Bible. Usually, one of the two words "peninim" and "ra'mot" is taken to mean pearls. Both are objects of great costliness (comp. Job xxviii. 18). In Lam. iv. 7 "peninim" is supposed by some authorities to indicate objects whose color is red—probably red pearls. Others, however, take these two words to mean corals. A decisive conclusion is not possible. In any case the "neṭifot" mentioned in Judges viii. 26 and Isa. iii. 19 have nothing to do with pearls; and still less has the word used in Esth. i. 6, which is so translated in some versions because the corresponding Arabic is a word denoting pearls.
Among the different Aramaic terms for pearl, alone seems to be restricted to the pearl, while , and the Hebrew are sometimes used to designate precious stones in general. Thus (Ex. xxviii. 17) is rendered by the Jerusalem Targum; and (Gen. vi. 16), which denotes something to illuminate Noah's ark, is explained in Gen. R. xxxi. 11 as being a , by which term a brilliantgem is to be understood. The Rabbis had the notion that pearls are found in the interior of fish; hence the story of the tailor who observed the Sabbath and was rewarded by finding a pearl in a fish which he had bought (ib. xi. 5). The Persians were considered to be the best pearl-fishers (R. H. 23a).
The pearl was regarded as very costly; e.g., "a pearl that is worth thousands of zuzim" (B. B. 146a); "a pearl that has no price" (Yer. Ber. ix. 12d). Its beauty is proverbial. The coats which God had made for Adam and Eve were as beautiful as pearls (Gen. R. xx. 12); the manna was as white as a pearl (Yoma 75a). The pearl is one of the things the purchase of which is not subject to the laws of Ona'ah, for the reason that the buyer of a pearl looks for a second one to match it (B. M. iv. 8; ib. Gemara, 58b). One reference, however, 'Ab. Zarah 8b, declares the pearl to be inferior to a precious stone, unless denotes in that passage a diamond of inferior quality (see above). Pearls are designated also as drops: oil remained on Aaron's beard like two pearl-drops (Hor. 12a; comp. Earring).
The pearl and its shell are used parabolically; e.g., "If I had not taken off the shell [lit. "the potsherd"], thou wouldest not have found the pearl" (Yeb. 72b). The term "pearl" is used metaphorically to denote any valuable thing; e.g., a good slave (Ḳid. 18a), or a halakah, or any reasonable interpretation (Ḥag. 3a and elsewhere). Sometimes it designates a prayer: "Rab and Samuel instituted a pearl in Babylon" (Ber. 32b), referring to the prayer beginning "Wa-todi'enu." The soul is in several passages termed "margalit" (Yer. Kil. ix. 32c; Yer. 'Ab. Zarah ii. 41a), which word may denote "pearl" as well as "precious stone." As a betrothal ring should be devoid of gems, there is a discussion concerning one containing a pearl, the opinion of most of the rabbis being that the betrothal in the case of which such a ring is used is binding (see Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 31, 2).
- Krauss, Lehnwörter, ii. 350 et seq.;
- Kohut, Aruch Completum, s.v. and ;
- Lampronti, Paḥad Yiẓḥaḳ, s.v. ;
- Levy, Neuhebr. Wörterb. s.v. and .