By: Rabbi Daniel Aronson
This week’s Torah portion, the first in Exodus not to include Moses by name, focuses exclusively on Aaron and his sons, i.e. the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the first Kohanim. The entire portion represents God’s instruction to Moses regarding the perpetual lighting of the menorah (27:20-21), the fashioning of the ornate priestly vestments (28:1-43), the inauguration of the Kohen Gadol and his sons (29:1-46), and the construction of an incense altar to be placed within a section of the Tabernacle just outside the Holy of Holies (30:1-10).
One of the most fascinating aspects of biblical Israel is described in this parashah, namely, the ḥoshen mishpat or “breastplate of judgment” (28:15-30), which the priests would consult prior to issuing judgments of national importance. The ḥoshen comprised a folded woven tapestry of “gold; turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool; and linen – twisted together” (28:15) half a cubit in height by half a cubit in width, roughly 18” x 18”.
The ḥoshen was inlaid with twelve stones, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel (28:7-21), arranged in four rows of three stones each. There is little agreement on what kinds of stones these actually were since the names of the stones as listed in the Torah do not seem to correspond neatly with the names of gems current at the time of the Temple. In any case, each stone was inscribed with the name of the tribe it represented.
Finally, tucked within the fold of the tapestry was a device known as “urim and tumim” (28:30). We cannot know with any certainty what this device was or even if it was one device or two, but Rashi, the premier medieval commentator, suggests the urim and tumim were an inscription of God’s ineffable four-letter name. It was believed that the Kohen Gadol would “consult” the urim and tumim when faced with a difficult matter and that God would answer him by lighting up individual letters on the stones of the ḥoshen. It was then the priest’s job to interpret the letters and discern God’s response.
The Vilna Gaon, the influential 18th century scholar and communal leader, allegedly points out that the priests would occasionally misinterpret the letters and come to the wrong conclusion! (Though this teaching is cited in several traditionally-oriented sources, such as The Stone Edition Ḥumash, the original source is never cited and appears to be unknown.)
What ever became of the “urim and turim”? Some scholars believe they, along with the Ark of the Covenant, were hidden from the Babylonians just prior to the destruction of the First Temple. Others believe the Babylonians themselves carried them away. In any case, the “urim and tumim” ceased to be consulted during the Second Temple period and archeologists have yet to unearth them. We are left to speculate over the whats, hows, and whys of this powerful and mysterious mechanism of interpreting God’s will.
©Rabbi Daniel Aronson, 2014