The Urim and the Tumim

Have you ever been faced with a difficult decision, paralyzed in not knowing how to respond? Have you every just wanted a sign from G-d as to how to proceed? If that’s the case you’re in luck because our people had similar signs as they traveled through the desert.

In this week’s parsha, the finishing touches are put upon Aaron’s outfit before his coronation as Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel. One of those items is his breastplate, or Hoshen, which contained twelve stones, one for each of the tribes. However, it also contained something else very special: the Urim (אורים) and the Tumim (תומים).[1)] What were the Urim and the Tumim? Rashi from 11th century France stated that the Urim contained the Tetragrammaton, the holy 4-letter name of G-d.[2] Items with this name cannot be discarded, having to remain in perpetuity or buried in a special place known as a Geniza. Elaborating on Rashi’s point, Rabbenu Bahya ibn Asher, a 14th century Kabbalist, asserted that these were oracular devices utilized to communicate with the Divine, below the level of a prophet and above that of hearing a heavenly voice.[3] Further elaborating on this is the Toledot Yitzhak,[4] who references the Jerusalem Talmud,[5] which gives the origin for their names: Urim-that they enlightened Israel, Tumim-that they made Israel perfect, that at the time when Israel was pure, they showed Israel the proper way.

This is all very nice but we’re still not certain as to how these oracular devices worked or why they maintained a central position in Aaron’s breastplate. For that we need to go back to Parshat Tetzaveh in Exodus, the other source for Aaron’s garments. There[6] it stated, “And you shall put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Tumim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, in his coming before G-d; and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before G-d continually.” Now we have the sense that these items were used for purposes of judging Israel, but we are still uncertain as to what way they did so.

A story from the First Book of Samuel gives us insight that these devices were utilized to determine whether or not to go to war.[7] Before a battle with the Philistines, King Saul made an oath that no Israelites should eat anything until the Philistines were routed. However, his son Jonathan did not hear the oath, saw honey on the ground, and ate of it. When Saul asked G-d if he should go after the Philistines, there was no reply. Immediately he knew that something was remiss so he took out the Tumim, and it singled out Jonathan as being guilty of violating Saul’s oath.

According to the rabbis, the Urim and the Tumim were also consulted by King David to determine whether or not he could expand Jerusalem’s borders[8] as well as in Temple times to determine whether or not the Temple could be expanded.[9] These devices could only be consulted by top officials, such as army generals.[10] The question is why would the rabbis increase the significance that the Urim and Tumim played for their ancestors? After all the rabbis had stated that formal prophecy had ended, proclaiming חכם עדיף מנביא,[11] a sage is preferable to a prophet, as well as disregarding a heavenly voice (בת קול) proclaiming that the Torah is not in heaven![12] Why put new emphasis on the importance of this oracular device? Perhaps the rabbis were enchanted with the idea of a direct pathway to G-d that the leaders of the Bible were able to utilize. Perhaps they longed for a similar means to correctly determine exactly what G-d wants from us. In any event, the Urim and Tumim were long gone by the time the rabbis compiled the Talmud; by that time, the rabbi was the chief authority in determining Jewish law.

How do we relate to the Urim and Tumim today? I would argue that while we do not have oracular devices that we utilize to connect with the Almighty, as devoted Jews we are striving to determine what G-d wants from us on a daily basis. Before making major changes in our life practices, we consult with those around us, not taking decisions lightly. The same was true with our ancestors who utilized the Urim and Tumim to be thorough and consider every option before making decisions. Our task is to determine what are our modern day Urim and Tumim are, our means of connecting with the Almighty and determining that we are proceeding on the correct path. It is much easier said than done, yet it is our opportunity and our responsibility to engage in this process, all the while looking for subtle signs of Divine affirmation. May the process of living one day at a time striving to be the people we are meant to be carry great meaning and fulfillment for each of us.

[1] Leviticus 8:8

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 8:8

[3] Rabbenu Bahya Leviticus 8:8

[4] Isaac Karo, 15th Century Spain

[5] Tractate Yoma Chapter 7 Law 3

[6] Exodus 28:30

[7] 1 Samuel 14

[8] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 41a

[9] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shevuot Chapter 2 Mishnah 3

[10] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma 7a

[11] Bablyonian Talmud Bava Batra 12a

[12] Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59b

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