Shlomo Riskin

“Urim ve-tumim”: God speaking to us and through us


Efrat, Israel — “And you shall put in the breastplate of judgement the urim ve-tumim, and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart when he comes before God…” [Ex. 28:30]

Of all the holy objects in the mishkan (tabernacle), the urim ve-tumim stands out as being particularly mysterious and otherworldly. All the other sanctuary accouterments have more familiar parallels. An ark remains a protective covering, a table remains a base on which food is placed, a menorah burns oil and gives light, and special garments are part of any individual’s wardrobe.

But the urim ve-tumim is unique, worn only at special times only by the High Priest. It seems Biblically-endowed with supernatural powers of decision making. The Torah describes the intricacies of the breastplate in exquisite detail, but with regard to the urim ve-tumim the text remains silent.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, as cited by Nahmanides, calls it the work of “a craftsman done in silver and gold,” and suggests that the designs were similar to the techniques of the stargazers and astrologers.

From other passages in his commentary, it is clear that Ibn Ezra believed in the accuracy of astrology, which was considered a legitimate science by many wise men of the ancient world. Since the urim ve-tumim was the instrument of telling the future, the Jewish People depended on its message when pondering whether or not to wage a voluntary war. Ibn Ezra may be suggesting the necessity of relying on the best knowledge of the science of the day.

Nahmanides disagrees sharply with Ibn Ezra. This may be either because Nahmanides opposed astrology as a valid means of arriving at the truth and/or because he believed that the urim ve-tumim revealed Divine wisdom. Nahmanides identifies the urim ve-tumim with the holy letters of God’s Name. These were the letters of the names of the twelve tribes inscribed in the stones of the breastplate, and individual letters would glow like a battery-charged light in response to a question presented by the High Priest.

Urim itself means lights, and the Divine response came in the form of the specific letters that were illuminated. But since letters can be arranged or interpreted in any number of ways, the “tumim” of the urim ve-tumim, that is, the purity of the High Priest himself, should provide the proper letter placement for the right answer.

In order to visualize the process, the Vilna Gaon gives as an example the incident whereby the childless Hannah (future mother of the great judge Samuel) entered the sanctuary in Shilo [I Samuel, Chapter 1]. Eli, the High Priest, thinks that she is drunk, a rather odd conclusion to reach based on the innocuous sight of a distraught woman in prayer whose lips are moving without making a sound. How did he make this determination?
The Vilna Gaon notes that Eli inquired of the urim ve-tumim to explain the woman’s plight. The letters shin, kaf, raish and heh, on the breastplate immediately lit up, letters which Eli put together as shikorah [drunken woman]. The Divine intent, however, was the word, ke-Sarah (like Sarah), intimating that Hannah, like Sarah for so many years, was childless, and/or k’sherah, she is kosher and pure. Eli’s inner soul, or tumim, was not properly activated, so he “misread” the situation in accordance with the former possibility.

Similarly, Maimonides sees the ability to properly interpret the urim ve-tumim as a Divine gift awarded to a High Priest who worked hard to attain it. It is on the level of ru’ah ha-kodesh [Divine Spirit], which is more significant than a bat kol [Heavenly voice) but less than actual prophecy. From this perspective, the proper lesson from the urim ve-tumim was dependent upon the spiritual level of the particular High Priest and his ability to receive and comprehend the Divine message.

Rashi offers an additional interpretation: the urim ve-tumim was the writing of the ineffable Name, which the High Priest placed inside the folds of the breastplate, by means of which light (urim) was shed upon the words and the words were rendered perfect (commentary to Ex. 28:30).

On the surface, Rashi’s explanation seems very close to Nahmanides. Both seem to be addressing the illuminating glow of the letters. But Rashi specifically mentions the ineffable Divine name, and adds that this name of God was placed inside the folds of the breastplate, the very place where the twelve tribes were spelled out.

Rashi may be hinting at another way of determining answers to difficult questions, different from astrology and different from the Divine spirit. The significance of the ineffable Name being so intimately linked to the people and the twelve tribes means that not only does God speak to us, He speaks through us.

About the Author
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men's and women's institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU. (Photo credit: Chaim Snow)