Project Genesis

Urim and Tumim of the High Priest

Question: What is the Urim & Tumim on the Ephod? How were they used by the priest? And the big question -  what happened to them?

Answer: Inside the Breastplate was placed God’s sacred names. Ramban (Exod. 28:30) states that Moses received these names through divine inspiration, as they are not recorded in the construction parameters written in the Torah, as are the Temple’s vessels and the priests clothing. Ramban explains the purpose of these names. One would inquire of the priest regarding which tribe might go forth to battle first, or what might be the outcome of the battle. The priest would ponder God’s names the Urim and Tumim contained in the Breastplate’s folded pouch and then he would be enabled to receive divine knowledge of the answer. Ramban states the letters engraved in the twelve stone would serve to spell out the answer as they miraculously lit up. But then the priest would have to ponder another name of God to figure out the order of those illuminated letters so as to reorganize them and make a coherent message. He would then communicate that message to the inquirer.

We wonder why these “names” of God were placed in the Breastplate. And why this unique mechanism of knowledge was used only in matters of war, as Rashi says on verse 27:21 in the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar)?

But what connection exists between this Breastplate, and divine knowledge regarding war? Why is it that the divine names were not used, for instance, to learn answers to questions concerning Kosher, Tefillin, and many other mitzvahs? Maybe the answers can be found in the very nature of the questions.

God’s Torah contains all that is necessary to arrive at the accurate understanding of all commands. Referring to the Written and Oral Laws, and the methods of derivation, all is addressed nothing is left out. This knowledge can be contained in the Torah because the commands concern intelligible phenomena. For example, the “object” of a mitzvah or its “performance” have precise and consistent structures. Torah and its laws will never change. Therefore, all can be contained and without no divinely inspired, additional facts.

But morality is quite different. Morality, first and foremost, requires an Authority to define what is and isn’t moral. If we were to leave this question up to man, and for every individual, we will find a great divergent of opinions. And because of such conflict, no single law could emerge from which a society would or could observe. We constantly see man’s moral ignorance today displayed in ongoing debates over stem cell research, abortion, the death sentence, and various other moral issues. There is no means by which man, by himself, can determine rights of life, since man did not create life. Only the Creator of life can determine when life is or isn’t appropriate. Therefore, in battle as Rashi taught, the Urim and Tumim was necessary to arrive at God’s determinations regarding life. Wartime issues are not subject to the court system, where a murderer must be put to death. Such cut and dry cases like that require no prophetic insight. However, engaging in war is not a response to a single person, or to an act of murder…as war might preempt any casualties.

Perhaps God must illuminate men as to the right to take life as wartime actions fall outside typical Torah considerations. In fact, many laws are suspended in the time of war, like eating non-kosher and marrying a non-Jew. Thus, war in and of itself presents one with many new considerations, and the taking of life is among one of them. Therefore, it seems reasonable that this is the reason for the Urim and Tumim…God’s divine names that miraculously enable the priest to acquire insight regarding morality and success in war. We should not, neither should we wish to place our lives in unnecessary danger, so the Urim and Tumim has been given to inquire as to who should engage in battle first. Ibn Ezra states that the use of the Urim and Tumim was to learn the future. (Exod. 28:30)

This also explains why the Breastplate was named the Breastplate of “Judgment”: the matters inquired addressed issues of justice. This may also explain why the Urim and Tumim are inserted in the Breastplate, where man’s names appear since the questions are about mankind, represented by the tribes.

Why is there no description of the Urim and Tumim in the Torah sections outlining the Temple’s vessels and the priestly garb? Ramban seems to have hinted to the answer when he states that Moses had previously received these names through divine inspiration. Next to creation itself, divine inspiration is the primary display of God’s authority – the very concept that decisions concerning morality are based on God’s authority. Therefore, the very method with which Moses received these names was an authoritative method. The theme of morality is further embellished by the placement of the Breastplate next to the “heart” of the priest.

Finally, what insights do we gain through the understanding of God’s answering through the priest’s pondering of God’s “names”? Just maybe this is precisely the correct method He uses to teach of us man’s ignorance concerning morality. For we only know His name, and nothing else about Him. Therefore, God associates the lesson of man’s ignorance concerning His name, with our ever continual searching for moral answers. Just as we are ignorant of God’s true nature and only know His name, so too are we ignorant of determining morality without His direction.

As to your last question, “What happened to them?” Maybe, since they were given by Divine Inspiration, they will once again be revealed in the same way?

Shalom, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

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