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David Walk

The Breastplate Knows

For the second week in a row, our ancestors were commanded to do something which under different circumstances would be totally ASSUR, verboten, prohibited. Last week the Torah instructed us to construct two statues over the ARON containing the commandment to ‘make no graven images’. This week Moshe instructs the craftsmen of the Mishkan to create a breastplate for the Cohen Gadol out of precious stones and valuable fabrics. Why? ‘ So he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Eternal, at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation (Bamidbar 27:21).

Well, that sounds wrong. Because we are also told: You shall not…practice divination or soothsaying (Vayikra 19:26) and ‘Do not turn to mediums or consult spiritists, or you will be defiled by them; I am the Eternal your God (verse 31). We know that the general rule is that MITZVOT ASEH (positive commandments) overrule MITZVOT LO TA’ASAH (negative commandments), but doesn’t it seem like the spirit of the Law is being compromised? So, what is going on with these instructions to occasionally consult the breastplate of the Cohen Gadol?

Before we wax philosophical, a few technical points must be dealt with. What exact item is being addressed for this Divine guidance? The Cohen Gadol must wear 8 prescribed garments whenever officiating in the Temple. One of these garments is the CHOSHEN. This was an ornate breastplate made of woven and embroidered colorful threads to which was attached 12 jewels with the names of the 12 tribes engraved upon them. But the questions didn’t go to the CHOSHEN.

The inquiries were addressed to the URIM V’TUMIM. These two obscure terms seem to mean ‘lights’ and ‘perfections’. On the coat of arms of Yale University these terms are translated into Latin as Lux et Veritas, ‘light and truth’. But what was the URIM V’TUMIM?

Even though some scholars identify them as the stones themselves which would light up in discernible patterns when asked questions by the Cohen Gadol. However, the most accepted approach is that the URIM V’TUMIM was something placed into the folds of the material in the CHOSHEN. Rashi describes it as: This was an inscription of the Proper Name of God which was placed between the folds of the breast-plate through which it (the breast-plate) made its statements clear.

So, there was another object involved. The Ramban noticed that this object is referred to with the definite article, so everyone knew what it was. However, there was never any instruction to actually craft this object. Therefore the Ramban concludes that this article with God’s Name on it was of heavenly origin. The only Temple object not crafted by human hands.

Finally, we get to the $64,000 question: How did it work? So, the simplest answer seems to be that the Cohen Gadol in his purity would address the URIM V’TUMIM to seek counsel on pressing national needs. This happened when the Jews were trying to figure out the boundaries for the Tribes before entering Eretz Yisrael (Bamidbar 27:21), and again during the reign of David HaMelech when he wanted to know whether it was the opportune time to go to war (Shmuel I 30:7).

According to the Ramban, this phenomenon can be viewed as a form of RUACH HaKODESH (Holy Spirit or Divine Inspiration). He goes on to explain that this ability of the Cohen Gadol to access this information should be viewed as lower than true prophecy, but higher than the instances of BAT KOL (Divine voices) which appeared during the time of the Sages of the Talmud. When viewed this way it sounds less disturbing than comparing it to going to an oracle, soothsayer or Ouija Board. 

The famous Bible scholar Prof. Umberto Cassuto asserted that this was a concession on the part of God to help the still immature nation transition from idolaters to true monotheists. He feels strongly that the practice became less and less prevalent over time.

There is another way to view this entire process. The Netziv explains that the URIM V’TUMIM affected the Cohen Gadol because of their very presence on his body, covering his heart, AL LEV AHARON (Shmot 28:30). Remember, in the ancient world the LEV was considered to be the seat of knowledge and understanding. So, Aharon and future high priests wore the CHOSHEN with precious stones bearing the names of the Tribes and containing the URIM V’TUMIM (whatever you think that was, maybe the stones or perhaps, like Rashi a parchment with God’s Name) whenever he enters the Mikdash and performs any rites. This constant presence upon his body caused him to be continually aware of his duties and his responsibility for the welfare of the nation. 

In the view of the NETZIV, the Cohen Gadol wasn’t engaged in magic or even prophecy. He was totally concerned for the spiritual and physical needs of the nation. In this state of mind, he could advise Moshe or, later, the Kings about affairs of State. It wasn’t magic. It was FOCUS, and It was based upon profound concern and love for Yisrael.

We need this level of love and devotion for AM YISRAEL at all times. We have to hope and pray that our leaders place the safety and wellbeing of the Jewish People above all other considerations. Maybe they need a constant reminder of that heavy burden, too. 

Let’s pray that God finds ways to inspire our leaders to do what is best for AM YISRAEL, always.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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