“The Urim and Tumim–The Mysterious Priestly Accessory”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, is concerned primarily with the vestments of the priests. Included among the special garments worn by the High Priest was the Urim v’Tumim. Of all the priestly accessories, it is the most esoteric and fascinating.

In Exodus 28:30, scripture declares: “V’nah’tah’ta el Choshen ha’Mishpot et ha’Urim v’et ha’Tumim. V’ha’yoo al lev Aharon b’vo’oh lif’nay Hashem, v’nah’sah Aharon et mishpot B’nay Yisrael al lee’bo lif’nay Hashem tamid.” And you shall place into the breastplate of judgment the Urim and Tumim. And they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he comes before G-d, and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Children of Israel on his heart constantly before the Lord.

One of the four special garments that the High Priest wore was the Choshen, the breastplate. It was made of 28 strands of gold, linen and wool threads colored sky-blue, royal purple and crimson woven together. Its length was one cubit (18 to 22 inches) and its width, a half a cubit. According to the rabbinic understanding, the long side was folded in half so that it would be a square of one half cubit by one half cubit. It was affixed to the Ephod, the apron, by gold chains at the top, and by blue threads at the bottom. The Choshen had twelve precious stones affixed to its surface, arrayed in four rows of three. Each of the stones had the name of one of the twelve tribes etched on it.

While Moses was alive, all communication with the Divine was through prophecy, directly to Moses or Aaron. However, after Moses, many of the Divine messages were communicated through the Choshen and the Urim v’Tumim. According to most commentators, the ineffable name of G-d, the Tetragrammaton, was written on a parchment and placed inside the folds of the Choshen, which gave the breastplate the power to communicate directly with G-d.

The Urim and Tumim were different from the other garments and furnishings of the Tabernacle. All the other Tabernacle accessories are recorded as having been built or fashioned according to the instructions that had been previously given. The priestly robes, the table of the showbread, the menorah, the ark, were all built according to the Divine specifications. However, there was no directive to make the Urim and Tumim, only to place them in the Choshen. The reason for this, the rabbis speculate, is because the Urim v’Tumim did not require manufacture and was not a gift that came from the donations of people of Israel. The Urim v’Tumim consisted of only a piece of parchment upon which was written the holy name of G-d that was secretly transmitted to Moses.

There are several opinions about the manner in which the Urim v’Tumim functioned. Maimonides describes it as follows:

How would one ask [a question of the Urim v’Tumim]? The priest would stand in the sanctuary facing the ark. The inquirer would stand behind the priest and ask: “Shall I go [to war] or not?” The request must be made in a soft voice, without any alien thoughts, like one who prays silently to himself. Immediately, the Divine Presence would take hold of the priest, who would look at the breastplate and see the prophetic message. The letters [of the message] to go or not to go, would protrude from the breastplate, facing the priest. The priest would then respond to the inquirer: “Go” or “Don’t go.”

One may not ask two separate requests at the same time. If two requests are made, only the first will receive a response. No commoners are allowed to ask [of the Urim v’Tumim], only a king, or a court of law or one who is presenting a communal need (Laws of Sanctified Vessels 10:11-12).

Others are of the opinion that the letters would not protrude or stand out. Rather, the letters of the response, which were spread over different stones, would come together and stand one next to the other. The High Priest would see the response and convey it. If the High Priest was not G-d-fearing, he would be unable to decipher the message.

A third opinion is that there were actually two holy names within the breastplate. The function of one, called Urim, meaning light, was to light up the letters. And so, if a question was asked to identify the tribe that should lead the people in battle, and Judah was chosen to lead, the five letters of his name would light up on the breastplate from the different names on the breastplate–the yud, the hey, the vav, the daled and the hey. But the priest could still not discern the answer because the letters were out of order. That is why a second holy name, the Tumim, which means clarification, was necessary in order to help the priest correctly decipher the message.

The Vilna Gaon provides an example of how a priest could confuse the message of the Urim v’Tumim. He cites the case of Hannah, the barren soon-to-be mother of the prophet Samuel, who had gone to the Tabernacle in the time of Eli the Judge and High Priest, to pray for a child. When Eli saw the woman’s lips moving but could not hear her speak, he took her for a drunkard. The Gaon says that Eli consulted the Urim v’Tumim, but read the letters in the wrong order. Instead of reading K’shera, she is proper, he read the letters, Sheekora, she is drunk.

Joshua was the first to use the Urim v’Tumim. In Numbers 27, when Moses asks for a successor, the Al-Mighty tells him to select Joshua and to ordain him. Scripture there affirms (Numbers 27:21), “V’lifnay Elazar haCohen ya’ah’mod, v’shah’al lo ba’mishpot ha’Urim lifnay Hashem,” He [Joshua] shall stand before Elazar, the priest, who shall inquire for him of the judgment of the Urim before G-d. At his word shall they go out, and at his word shall they come in, he and all the children of Israel with him, and the entire assembly. There are many other reported instances regarding decisions to go to battle or to divide up the land, that were made through the Urim v’Tumim. After the era of King David, we no longer find references to the Urim v’Tumim, perhaps because G-d’s word had proliferated among the prophets.

The Talmud, in Yoma 73b, reports that not all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are to be found in the names of the twelve tribes. Consequently, it was concluded that the names “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” also appeared on the breastplate before the names of the twelve tribes, and the words Shivtei Yeshurun, the tribes of Jeshurun, appeared after the names of the twelve tribes, providing for all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Despite the fact that there was no longer an Urim v’Tumim functioning in the Second Temple, the High Priest would still wear the Choshen, the breastplate, in order to fulfill the requirement of wearing the complete vestments of the priest.

Given the power of the Urim v’Tumim, it is little wonder that several of the classical Hebrew poets yearn for its restoration.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.