Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 29 January 2005 / 19 Shevat 5765

Urim and Tumim

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Janet in AZ

Dear Rabbi,

I have been studying scripture and came to the "Urim and Tumim". What exactly were they and what was their exact purpose? Thanks in advance.

Dear Janet,

The urim and tumim are associated with the breastplate worn by the High Priest. This breastplate had twelve precious stones, arranged in four rows of three, upon which the names of the tribes were engraved: "The stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve in their names, engraved, each person with his name on it, for the twelve tribes" (Ex. 28:21). A later verse instructs, "And you shall place in the Breastplate of Judgment the urim and the tumim, and they shall be on Aaron's heart when he comes before G-d, and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the children of Israel on his heart before G-d, always" (Ex. 28:30).

While the High Priests wearing of the breastplate atoned for the Courts mistakes in judgment, the urim and tumim inside the breastplate dispensed judgment of their own. Rashi explains that when the Jewish People needed to know something of great import, the urim and tumim could be consulted to reveal the will of G-d, as in the verse, "Before Elazar the priest, [Joshua] will stand and seek from him the judgment of the urim" (Numbers 27:21). Urim and tumim, Rashi explains, refers to a special name of G-d that was written and placed in the fold of the breastplate through which the breastplate illuminated and clarified its message. This, the Talmud explains, is the source of its name: urim being related to or, the Hebrew word for light; tumim being related to tam meaning perfect (Yoma 73b).

Ramban describes the phenomenon in greater detail: "[The urim, (specifically)] were holy names, by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastplate lit up to the eyes of the priest who was asking for judgment. For example, when they asked 'who should lead the way for us to fight against the Canaanites?' the priest would concentrate on the Divine names which are the urim, and the letters would light up to his eyes [But] he still did not know their correct order, for from the letters which can be ordered 'Yehuda ya'aleh (Judah shall go up) it is possible to make of them'hey al Yehuda' (woe unto Judah) and many other words."

Therefore, Ramban continues, "there were also other holy names called tumim, by whose power the heart of the priest was made perfect in the knowledge of the meaning of the letters which lit up to his eyes, for when he concentrated on the urim and the letters lit up, he then immediately meditated on the names which are the tumim, while the letters were still lit up to his eyes, and there appeared in his heart that the order was 'Yehuda ya'aleh' (Judah shall go up). This is one of the levels of Divine inspiration, lower than prophecy, and higher than a Heavenly voice..."

The urim and tumim were often consulted throughout Biblical times. Some noted examples are upon the Israelites' conquering the Land of Israel from the Canaanites (above), the Tribes warring against Benjamin on account of that tribes evil deeds (Judges 20), Samuels selecting Saul as king (I Sam. 10), and Davids warring against the Philistines (ibid. 23, see also Berachot 3b).

However, the priest was not always able to figure out what the letters were saying. There is a famous account about the High Priest Eli and the barren Hanna, who prayed fervently to G-d for children:

"But Hanna was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, and her voice was not heard, and Eli thought her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her: Until when will you be drunk? Throw off your wine from upon yourself. And Hanna answered and said: No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spiritand I poured out my soul before the Lord. Mistake me not as an unscrupulous woman, for out of the abundance of my complaint and my vexation have I spoken until now" (I Sam. 1).

As Eli observed her, he read the letters appearing on the Breastplate as Shin-Cof-Reish-Hay: Shikorah a drunken woman. In fact the correct reading was Cof-Shin-Reish-Hay: Kesheira a worthy woman.

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