Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

In the Torah portion Teztaveh we read about the priestly garments worn by the Kohen Gadol and those worn by the regular Kohanim. Each garment, thread and feature embodies vast spiritual significance, and to discuss them all would require a book.

This week I would like to explore perhaps the most mysterious and enticing of all the garments – the Urim ve’Tumim. Before we discuss the English translation of Urim ve’Tumim, first let us examine what it was.


The Urim ve’Tumim was a kind of “Enigma Machine” (lehavdil), via which Hashem communicated with Am Yisrael.

Who was allowed to ask questions from the Urim ve’Tumim? According to the Gemara (Yoma 73b), it was either the king, the Sanhedrin, or someone very important in the service of Am Yisrael.

According to one opinion (Yoma, ibid.) the person asking the question would stand facing the back of the Kohen Gadol, who was facing the Parochet behind which was the Ark of the Covenant. Another opinion (Rashi, ibid.) says that the person asking and the Kohen Gadol were face to face. Either way, the person asking would ask his question in sotto voce, as if in prayer. It was permissible to only ask one question. If the person asked more than one, he would only receive an answer to the first question asked. Until now everything is straightforward. Fasten your seat belts though; from here on the “magic” begins.

The Kohen Gadol would glance at the Choshen, the breastplate, with the twelve stones of the Twelve Tribes.

On each of the stones was engraved (in Hebrew) the name of the Tribe. In addition, the words “Avraham Yitzchak Yaakov Shivtei Yeshurun” were distributed between the stones in such a way that each stone ended up with six letters in total. For example, to Reuven (five letters in Hebrew) was added the letter aleph of Avraham. To Shimon (five letters) was added the bet of Avraham. To Levi (three letters) were added the last three letters resh, heh, mem of Avraham, and so on (R’ Bachye, Chizkuni, Baal HaTurim). The purpose of adding these extra words was to supplement all the letters of the alphabet missing from the names of the Tribes – for example, the letters tzadi and kuf.

There are different opinions on how the Kohen Gadol would receive the answer to the question. According to one opinion, the letters on the stones were illuminated forming the words of the answer. According to another, the letters stood out and became extruded. Another says that the Kohen heard the answer via a bat kol, a heavenly voice. Yet another opinion says that there was both a message in the letters of the stones and a bat kol. Whichever it was, only the Kohen Gadol could decipher the answer, which he related to the person asking.

Getting back to the name Urim ve’Tumim, some opinions (Rashi, Baal HaTurim) say that the Urim ve’Tumim was a separate component to the Choshen and consisted of a parchment or a metal plate with Hashem’s full name of 72 letters inserted between the folds of the Choshen, which empowered the letters on the stones to light up. According to the Rambam, the stones of the Choshen were themselves called the Urim ve’Tumim. The word urim (“lights”) hints at the opinion that the stones lit up. The word tumim (“innocence”) refers to the Kohen Gadol, who was pure of heart.

In the time of Yehoshua, the Urim ve’Tumim was used to tell Am Yisrael where and when to wage the war of conquest over Eretz Yisrael. It was used to allocate the different inheritances to the Twelve Tribes. It was also used to locate Achan, who had stolen from the spoils in Jericho.

The prophet Shmuel used the Urim ve’Tumim to reveal who would replace Shaul as king. David HaMelech used it to determine when and with whom to wage war. Following that, until the death of the last of the prophet, Malachi, the Urim ve’Tumim was used in its original capacity. After the death of Malachi, the Kohen Gadol still wore the Choshen on his chest, but the Urim ve’Tumim was no longer used as originally intended.

Interestingly, Moshe is not commanded to “make” an Urim ve’Tumim but only to “place” the Urim ve’Tumim in the Choshen. This adds an extra shroud of mystery to this already top-secret object. The different commentators give different reasons why (beyond the scope of this article). Hint: It was top secret!

The main question that begs to be asked is, “Why did Hashem choose this “esoteric” method to communicate with Am Yisrael?” Why could Hashem not communicate, for example, using the bells on the bottom fringe of the Kohen Gadol’s coat, sending a message in code? Why specifically choose this medium that revolves around the Twelve Tribes and involves a “sound and light show”?

I believe that the answer is twofold.

Firstly, the major questions asked of the Urim ve’Tumim all affected the entire Am Yisrael, so all the Twelve Tribes had to be involved. On a deeper level, the power of the Urim ve’Tumim was derived from the unity of the Twelve Tribes. When this unity fell apart, as in the period of the Second Temple, the Urim ve’Tumim lost its power.

Secondly, the medium of the message – sound and light – are reminiscent of Har Sinai. Just as Hashem communicated with Am Yisrael in a way that they could see the sounds, so too did the Urim ve’Tumim encapsulate that medium of transfer. On a deeper level, the answer to a question asked of the Urim ve’Tumim required sound – the united voice of Am Yisrael – and light, the light of the Torah and Hashem. Only through unity and devotion to Hashem did we merit this Divine form of communication.

How ironic is it that the only modern manifestation of the Urim ve’Tumim is that it is part of the logo of Yale University, the same university recently under investigation for allegations of antisemitism – everything the Urim ve’Tumim does NOT stand for.

Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: There were different hats for the Kohen Gadol and a regular Kohen. What were each called?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: Which components of the Shulchan are the Kesavot and the Menakiyot? The Kesavot are the upright supports flanking the two stacks of six loaves. The Menakiyot are half pipes (cut in half along their length), placed under the loaves to provide support and ventilation so the breads do not become moldy.


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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.