Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Lord at all times. Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Tumim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times. (Shemot 28: 29-30)
His eyes cannot detect the unrevealed
his ears cannot decipher hidden sounds
and secrets planted in Creation
can neither be unearthed.
Yet in the heights of yearning
to serve his people well
he lays the breast plate on his heart
and lovingly he holds their names
awaiting the illuminating glow.
In Parashat Tetzaveh we learn about the elaborate priestly garments that consecrated the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest, for service. Included among the sacred vestments was a breastplate, the choshen mishpat with twelve precious stones of different hues, 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” (Shemot 28:21). Inside the breastplate of judgment were placed some sort of oracular objects, the urim ve’tumim. Thus they would overlie Aaron’s heart when he came before God. Commentators speculate greatly on what the urim ve’tumim were and how they worked to seemingly channel God’s will. The Torah seems to assume that its reader knows what they are and gives neither instructions for the manufacture of the urim ve’tumim, nor an elaboration on how they work. They are mentioned in the Torah in only one further place: “So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership,and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.” (Bamidbar 27:18-21)
In an article on the urim ve’tumim, http://thetorah.com/the-urim-vetumim/, there is a summary of some commentators’ theories: firstly the view promulgated by the Talmudists (Yoma 73b) and expanded by Rashi (1041-1105) and the Ramban (1194-c.1270) on Shemot 28:30, that the urim ve’tumim was a piece of parchment on which the holy tetragrammaton was inscribed. The name is derived from “urim” related to “or – light”, implying shedding light on something obscure, and “tumim” being linked to “tam – whole”, implying that through this the truth would be ascertained. The urim ve’tumim were inserted inside the breastplate, and consulted in order to clarify the Divine will, when there were momentous issues to resolve. The letters on the stones, charged with the power of God’s holy name, would glow and relay the answer. The High Priest then had to assemble the letters into something meaningful, which resolved the dilemma. According to another view in the Talmud, mentioned further on, the letters actually jumped up and created the words themselves. The Ramban on Shemot 28:30) suggests that the urim ve’tumim correspond to two components of the answers; the letters lit up, and then they were combined in a complete and meaningful manner. According to him, there were separate divine names called Urim and Tumim, which were designated for each function, respectively, unlike Rashi’s view that only the tetragrammaton was inscribed on the urim ve’tumim.
Next is the Rambam’s view, in which the concept of magical amulets is inadmissible. The Rambam’s very detailed description attributes to the urim ve’tumim a mysterious Divine provenance. He maintains that the tumim were holy appellations by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastplate would glow and the priest would then decipher the message. Rabbi Menachem Kasher (1895-1983) notes that this view is also found in at least one Midrash and in the writings of several Geonim.
Then there is the rationalistic and practical explanation offered by Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bechor Shor of Orleans (12th century) who says that behind the name of each tribe on the Choshen Mishpat was placed a piece of paper on which was written the exact boundaries of the territories allotted to this specific tribe. Whenever a conflict would arise between the tribes over their precise boundaries, the high priest would easily solve the disputation by looking up the original boundaries recorded in the urim ve’tumim.
Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) a proficient astrologer, proposes an explanation, seen through the prism of his own expertise. He suggests that the urim ve’tumim were made of many gold and silver pieces, representing the universe and endowed with astrological powers – a form of astrolabe*. His view was accepted by other medieval rationalist scholars, but they clarified that this biblical astrolabe was much more powerful than contemporary astrolabes due to its Divine empowerment.
Finally, the urim ve’tumim were thought in more modern times to be a form of casting lots, which is a familiar procedure in the Tanach used to render decisions on complex matters, such as deciding which goat should be sent to Azazel and which should be sacrificed for God on Yom Kippur, or for dividing the portions of the land to the tribes of Israel. The decisions resulting from casting lots were considered divine messages, as we find in Proverbs (16:33) “We may cast lots in our lap, but God determines how they fall.”
In an article on the Parasha http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5373, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz says “This level of divine inspiration [the urim ve’tumim] was one that was often consulted throughout Biblical times helping to illumine God’s will…Prophets were not always able to receive prophecy, yet the urim and tumim guaranteed revelation to the high priest, no matter who he was or what he did. In each such case, the reading of the urim and tumim led our ancestors to act on account of the findings and to change their lives in substantial and impactful ways.” She concludes, “Imagine, if like the priests, we too placed God’s mystery in the folds of our breastplate, so close to our heart… What would it be like if we too could hope to find God’s revelatory messages and truth emanating from our breastpiece; if we too could see the light of the letters and unscramble the words of God’s message to find inspiration?”
In a commentary on Tetsaveh http://limmud.org/publications/limmudononeleg/5772/tetzaveh/ Rabbi Dr Eliezer Shore also addresses the urim ve’tumim. He wonders why the breastplate and thus the urim ve’tumim were designed to sit over Aaron’s heart, as opposed to in his hands to enable him to read the letters, or over his head perhaps to symbolize the intuition required to decipher the message? Rabbi Shore brings a teaching by Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823 – 1900), one of the great Chasidic masters of the 19th century: “The world we live in is filled with deep and profound secrets. “The eye does not know what it sees nor the ears know what they hear,” said the Baal Shem Tov. There are secrets of the creation all around us – secrets of the soul, and of the presence of G-d lying beneath the surface of this world, waiting to be revealed.” Rabbi Shore adds that the Torah contains deep secrets: “On this, R. Tzadok writes: “If a person loves the Torah, the Torah loves him back and reveals to him all of her secrets, just as lovers do” (Tzidkat HaTzadik 198). When a person loves the Torah and commits himself to her wholeheartedly, pouring his entire heart and soul into its study, so, the Torah loves that person back, and reveals to him or her all of her secrets. Indeed, R. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira – the Piasetzener Rebbe – spoke of the Torah itself as a type of urim v’tumim, a prophetic text whose words and letters shine into a person’s heart the deepest secrets of creation.”
Rabbi Shore continues that, as with the Torah and the world itself, each human being carries deep secrets within the heart. Each “carries within him or herself a profound, though at times hidden, connection to G-d – a vision of a perfect world, dreams and pains and myriad unshared insights into life and truth.” He adds that Aaron the High Priest, who so loved his people, was cognizant of their most hidden secrets. “Thus, he carried the names of Israel upon his chest – that is, upon his heart. When he needed to discern a concealed matter relevant to the Jewish people, he would meditate upon the names of Israel and the letters would swell up. As R. Tzadok explains, Aaron’s heart would literally swell in love when thinking about the Jewish people, and the letters on the stone would enlarge in response, thus revealing G-d’s hidden will for the nation.”
Rabbi Shore concludes, “May Hashem help us to see, hear and perceive the deeper dimension of those around us; our families, friends and coworkers, and may we open our hearts in love, to find in all these places the hidden presence of G-d.”
*The astrolabe is a very ancient astronomical device for solving problems relating to time and the position of the Sun and stars in the sky.