The "Urim V'Tummim"

"And you shall place the Urim V'tummim in the breastplate of judgment, and they shall be over Aaron's heart when he comes before G-d." (ibid. v. 30)

 

The "Urim V'Tummim" is the Name of G-d

The Urim V'Tummim was the famed, oracle-like aspect of the breastplate by which a Heavenly answer was received for important questions. According to most authoritative opinions, the expression urim v'tummim actually refers not to the breastplate itself, but to the mystical Divine name of G-d which was written on a piece of parchment and inserted into a flap of the garment. The presence of the name facilitated the reception of Divine guidance through the shining of specific letters on the stones.

 

The Identity of G-d is the Source of Creation

What does this mean? What are the implications of this fact, the knowledge that it is the name of G-d itself which brought about the illumination of the urim v'tummim? This is indeed a lofty concept, but one whose lesson can be readily appreciated, at least on a simple level of understanding.

G-d is the Creator of all existence; His power is unlimited. He has no form whatsoever, neither has He beginning or end... He is the Supreme Being. He is perfect and absolute unity. And He is also totally unknowable.

Yet in numerous passages throughout the Bible, we are commanded to "know" G-d. "In all of your ways, know Him"(Proverbs 3:6); "And I shall betroth you in faith, and you shall know the L-rd" (Hosea 2:22) are but two examples of many such instances.

Truly, how can we come to know G-d, who is omnipotent and infinite? Yet we are commanded - and therefore expected-to do just that. And there is a general rule with regard to the Torah's commandments: the Holy One never makes unfair demands on a person (BT Avodah Zara 3:A).

 

Knowledge of G-d Through His Names

The sages of Israel teach that one way to know G-d is through awareness of His relationship to the universe which He created. Although it is taught that "no thought can grasp Him at all" (Tikkunei Zohar 17:A), and ultimately G-d's essence is not only unknowable, but unnamable as well-still, G-d's names describe His relationship with creation (Shemot Rabbah 3:6). Through these attributes of Divine interaction, we can at least attempt some glimpse of His greatness, according to our limited intellect. There are a number of names used throughout the Bible; one denotes the attribute of Divine mercy; another the aspect of strict judgment, and so on.

These Divine names of G-d are merely appellations which He has entitled us to use; they are not His true identity, which is beyond the reach of human knowledge. But it was through these names that G-d created heaven and earth, and it is by way of His names that He continues to direct every minute aspect of existence. Thus it is obvious that G-d's names, through which He summoned forth all creation from nothing at all, have great power. This power is the secret behind the prophetic revelation of the urim v'tummim.

 

From the Time of Moses

The urim v'tummim is unlike any other aspect of the priestly garments, for it was not created by those skilled artisans who fashioned the other items, aided by their understanding and inspiration; and it was not created from the donations or contributions of Israel, as were all the other appointments of the Temple. The entire matter is one of those mysteries which was handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai by G-d Himself, and its secret was transmitted orally down through the generations.

At the time of the original Tabernacle erected in the desert, Moses took the original urim v'tummim, written in sublime holiness, and placed it inside the breastplate of judgment, after Aaron donned the ephod. This is reflected by the verse (Lev. 8:7), "... and he put the ephod upon him, and he fastened him with the belt of the ephod... and he put the breastplate upon him, and into the breastplate he put the urim v'tummim."

 

Only Questions of Congregational Importance

The process of questioning for Divine aid with the ‘Urim V'Tummim' was done in the following manner: When a question arose whose implications were so consequential that the entire congregation of Israel would be effected-such as, for example, the question of whether or not to go out to war - then, the King of Israel (or the commanding officer of the army) would ask his question before the High Priest. An ordinary person, or someone not representing the entire community would not ask of the urim v'tummim.

The High Priest stands facing the Ark of the Testimony, and the questioner stands behind him, facing the priest's back. The questioner does not speak out loud, neither does he merely think the question in his heart; he poses his query quietly, to himself - like someone who prayers quietly before his Creator. For example, he will ask "Shall I go out to battle, or shall I not go out?"

 

A Meditative Experience and a Prophetic Revelation

The High Priest is immediately enveloped by the spirit of Divine inspiration. He gazes at the breastplate, and by meditating upon the holy names of G-d, the priest was able to receive the answer through a prophetic vision-the letters on the stones of the breastplate, which would shine forth in his eyes in a special manner, spelling out the answer to the question. The priest then informs the questioner of the answer.

Flavius Josephus writes (Antiquities 3:8:9) that the stones also shone brilliantly when Israel went forth into battle. This was considered as an auspicious sign for their victory.

Another midrashic passage indicates that when the tribes of Israel found favor in G-d's eyes, each respective stone shone brilliantly. But when particular members of any one tribe were involved in a transgression, that tribe's stone would appear tarnished and dimmed. The High Priest would see this phenomena and understand its cause. He would then cast lots within the rank of this tribe, until the guilty person was revealed and judged (Midrash HaGadol).

 

What is the meaning of the words "urim v'tummim?"

According to the commentary of the famed Rashi, these words are derived from their Hebrew roots for "lights" and "perfections," since through the urim v'tummim, the question is illuminated through the letters and its subject matter is then perfected by the High Priest. The Talmud (BT Yoma 73:B) also indicates that the message which was received was called tummim, "perfect," because it was immutable.

 

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