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March 23, 2006

Urim and Tummim
By Charles Lightner

Parashat Tetzaveh opens with the requirement of the ner tamid (continuously illuminating lamp), and it closes with the commandment of the ketoret tamid

(continuously burning incense). Between those two commandments the text
contains eight additional references to things that are to be done
‘continuously’ or ‘eternally.’ While it could be argued that one or two
of these commandments are symbolically observed in our day, clearly
none is observed as originally prescribed. Yet the text is filled with
references to unending practices! Perhaps these matters can be always a
part Jewish life in some way that lacks the concrete reality of the

The most opaque of the matters dealt within the portion is that of the object/s called the Urim and Tummim
(Ex. 28:30). There is no universally accepted explanation of the
physical reality, the oracular function, or the mechanics of this
element of the priestly garb.

It is clear that the function was oracular. It is clear that the physical reality was associated with the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol
(High Priest). It is not clear whether the twelve stones set in the
breastplate, on which were engraved the names of the twelve tribes of
Israel, actually constituted the Urim and Tummim, or whether the Urim and Thumin were, in fact, a separate, physical element, not specifically described in the text, that was placed inside the breastplate.

The use described in I Samuel (Ch. 14) makes it plain that the
oracle could have a binary, ‘yes or no’ output. Many scholars have, in
fact, associated the Urim and Tummim with the ‘lot
oracles’ of other peoples of the region. But it has also been proposed
that the output might have been far more complex, with answers to
questions being provided by the lighting of the letters on the stones
of the breastplate.

More is unknown than is known about this mysterious device, and the
question that it raises for me as I study the parashah this year is:
How can we understand the Urim and Tummim as a part of a
section of text containing such a strong suggestion of continual
relevance? Is there a currently relevant message that can be found in
what is, for us, an arcane and opaque prescription?

For me, there is.

The breastplate is suspended from the settings on the shoulders of the ephod of the Kohen Gadol.
In each of those settings is a stone, and on each of the stones is
engraved the names of six of the twelve tribes of Israel. The
breastplate itself, suspended equidistant from those two stones,
covering the heart, contains four rows of three stones each. Each of
those twelve stones is engraved with the name of one of the tribes.

In whatever fashion the oracular mechanism works, it works when it
is associated with the configuration specified: the breastplate
suspended from the two settings, the names of the tribes divided in
support at the shoulders and unified over the heart. One supporting
stone occupies the position of Hokhmah, symbolizing wisdom, activity and father-energy. The other occupies the position of Binah, symbolizing understanding, passivity and mother-energy. Six tribes in Hokhmah and six tribes in Binah support the twelve-tribe breastplate array associated with the Urim and Tummim.

The twelve-tribe array suspended in balance from wisdom and understanding occupies the position of Da’at, the unmanifest sefirah (Divine aspect) of knowledge. The Urim and Tummim
operate in the realm of knowledge, which is physically the location of
the heart. As the verse says: ‘they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he
comes before God.’

How might the oracular mechanism work in the context of Da’at, of unmanifest knowledge? Da’at

is also associated with the collective unconscious. The unconscious
character of the oracle is consistent with the unmanifest nature of the
sefirah. The collective nature of that consciousness is reflected in the representation of all twelve tribes in the breastplate.

How then does the unmanifest knowledge become manifest? How might the Urim and Tummim be conceived as working at a time when they do not physically exist?

When all of Israel is unified, balanced equally in wisdom and
understanding, in active search for truth, its collective unconscious
is activated and the knowledge that it requires becomes manifest. The Urim and Tummim

can, in this way, be seen as a process rather than an object: a process
whose effectiveness is dependent on unity, balance, seeking and

In this construct, the process of Urim and Tummim is
potentially eternal, but its potency is conditional. It depends upon
the existence in the people Israel of the characteristics of the
physical objects described in the text: unity, balance and

May we work for the day when the Jewish people itself becomes, collectively, the mysterious Urim and Tummim of parashat Tetzaveh!