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The Urim and the Tumim are first mentioned at Ex. 28:30. Unfortunately, there is no description of what they look like or how they were made and operated. The verse reads merely: “You shall put האורים and התמים into the המשפט חשן (=breastplate of judgment); they shall be on Aaron’s heart…”

We learn from additional verses that the חשן was folded so it looked like a pouch and that on the outside it had 12 precious stones. Each had the name of one of the tribes engraved on it. (Verses also call the חשן “choshen ha-mishpat” because the Urim and the Tumim, the decision making object, was connected with it.)

It seems from Ex. 28:30 and Lev. 8:8 that האורים and התמים are objects that are separate from the חשן. It is also clear from the phrase ולתמים לאורים at Ezra 2:63 that these objects are separate from one another.

The balance of the references to the Urim and Tumim are as follows. At Num. 27:21 we are told that Joshua will ask questions to God via the high priest and his Urim. (This would be in contrast to Moses who spoke directly to God.) Ezra 2:63 and Neh. 7:65 mentioned a genealogical issue that awaited resolution by the high priest with the Urim and the Tumim. (The implication was that there was no such item available in their time. See Tosefta Sotah 13:3.) 1 Sam. 28:6 records that Saul was afraid of the nearby Philistines and asked God what to do. But God did not answer him via “dreams, nor the Urim, nor prophets.” There is also a reference at Deut. 33:8 in the blessing to Levi: “Tumecha ve-Urecha…”

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So what precisely was it? (I am going to abbreviate now: “UT.”) Since UT seems to be a pre-existing object whose making is not described, Rashi takes the position that it is “ketav shem ha-meforash”= a writing of the explicit name. (Let us assume he means the four-letter name.) According to Rashi, this writing was placed inside the חשן. Once the writing was there, the letters on the stones would be able to light up and convey the answer to the question posed.

Many agree in a general way with Rashi’s “Divine Name” approach, including Nachmanides. He writes that the writing was שמים מעשה. That is why its formation is not described in Chap. 28. (R. Hai Gaon, writing before Rashi, strongly disagreed with the “Divine Name” approach. Rashi was not the first to suggest it.)

Rambam takes the position that UT is another way of referring to the stones themselves. It is possible to read this into the verses. See Daat Mikra, p. 203. (Others preceded Rambam with this approach.)

Based on Yoma 73b, both Rashi and Rambam understand the UT to be able to give messages with multiple letters, as many different letters could shine. (The names of the 12 tribes do not include all 22 Hebrew letters. But the Talmud states that the names of the Patriarchs and another phrase were also on the חשן, so all letters were included. Once the letters shined, the priest would have to rearrange them into words. According to another view, the letters actually jumped up and fused on their own.) According to the Talmud, “Urim” refers to UT’s ability to make lucid the answer and “Tumim” to the fact that the answer was complete (= would not change).

Many scholars take a different approach. They think the UT were merely two small lots (stones? wood?) that would provide only “yes/no” or “innocent/guilty” answers. I will now explain how they get to this conclusion. (The lots had to be small, so they could fit in the חשן.)

One way to get more clues about the UT is to look at the times in Tanach that a question is asked to God with the אפוד. It is reasonable to take these as a short-hand way of referring to the UT, since the ephod is the garment on which the חשן was worn.

At 1 Sam. 23:11, David asks two questions to the ephod: 1) will these men deliver me into the hand of Saul? and 2) will Saul come down? From the way these questions are phrased, it is evident that they are phrased to get only a “yes/no” response. (Even though the responses are stated at verse 11 and 12 to be ירד and יסגירו, the actual responses may simply have been “yes.” See similarly 1 Sam. 30:7-8.)

(Sometimes questions are asked to God without mentioning the instrument used. See, e.g., 1 Sam. 10:21 and 2 Sam. 5:23. These probably involved the UT as well. See, e.g, the comm. of Radak on the former.)

In the view of most scholars who take the two lots approach, “Urim” is the “negative” answer, coming from the root ארר= curse. It also could mean “the guilty one.” “Tumim” is the positive answer, with its meaning like “perfection.” It also could mean “the innocent one.”

Scholars also make the claim that the UT were merely two lots (=only able to give simple answers) from the additional words found in the Greek translation of 1 Sam. 14:41. This verse already has words like תמים הבה and הפילו, but there is much more in the Greek. This is all explained in Daat Mikra. This verse also has וילכד. This too is a “lot” word. See 1 Sam. 10:20 and Josh. 7:14. (I have to add that at the beginning of 1 Sam. chap. 11, we see from a Dead Sea text that an entire paragraph seems to have been lost from our Hebrew! See my “Roots and Rituals,” pp. 72-74.)

For evidence of an Assyrian parallel to the two lots view of the UT, see Vetus Testamentum 20 (1970), pp. 495-96 (=decisions are made by either the “desirable” stone or the “undesirable” stone.)

One problem with the two lots approach (which were perhaps both thrown in some way, or one picked from the חשן in a random manner) is that it does not explain why someone would ask and not be answered. See, e.g., 1 Sam. 28:6. So perhaps the manner of its use was not so simple. (Or perhaps there was a third lot that was blank.) Also, the answer at 2 Sam. 5:23 is too long. (But this can be explained.) One also has to explain the use of the plurals “Urim” and “Tumim” for each. But sometimes important objects in Tanach are referred to in the plural (e.g., God is “Elokim”).

According to Mishnah Sotah 9:12, when the Neviim Rishonim died, the UT were בטלו. The implication here is that they were functioning for at least part of the First Temple period. Tosefta Sotah 13:3 states that they functioned until the destruction of the First Temple.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica (16:8) has a very good article on this topic, as does thetorah.com (by a Satmar hasid who wrote anonymously). See also Brown-Driver-Briggs, the Pentateuch of Rabbi Hertz, p. 342, The Living Torah, p. 248, and Torah Shelemah of R. Kasher. For illustrations, see M. Levine, The Tabernacle, pp. 133 and 137.

The coat of arms of Yale includes ותמים אורים with a suggested Latin translation: “Lux et Veritas” (=Light and Truth.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He has been told that a Jewish society at Yale had shirts made with a picture of a bagel, and the slogan: “Lox et Veritas.”

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