The rabbis and commentators are as puzzled as anyone by the urim and thummim, the instruments of decision (or judgment) that are to be placed into the breastplate at G"d's direction. Nevertheless, they aren't afraid to offer explanations.
Are they some form of sympathetic magic or conjuring devices? Aren't we Israelites not supposed to have such things? Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, Rashi's grandson, (1183-1174) says (to paraphrase) "So what? Other nations have such methods of divination...so it should be even more so that G"d should be able to offer divine answers for the Israelites." That one falls flat for me.
Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) says they were an inscribed Tetragrammaton, and the holy power of G"d's name, the urim and thummim would cause the breastplate itself to bring words to light (ur), and fulfill them (thummim.) I like the use of the meanings of the words urim and thummim, but something is missing. (Something needs "thummim-"ing?)
Ibn Ezra (Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, b. 1089) says that are just what the text says, pieces of gold and silver. He even takes Rashi to task for suggesting that GV"d's name could be use to foretell the future. He goes on to make all sorts of astrological connections, which, he says, simply cannot be understood without a great deal of astronomical knowledge. Sorry, I don't go for the "too difficult to understand, just accept what I say" argument.
Nachmanides (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) agrees with Rashi, up to a point, and also supposes that the urim and thummim were actually the other precious stones in the breastplate shining, or lighting up in a particular way to indicate answers. He also commented on the particular fact that, of all the various holy objects, there is no direction to make them given (whereas G"d is quite specific in telling Moshe what needs to be made and exactly how it is to be made and how it is to be used. But for the urim and thummim, Moshe is simply told to place them into the breastplate over Aharon's heart so that he may carry the "instruments of decision." So who made the urim and thummim? Nachmanides speculates that G"d did. They were forged in heaven. Then Nachmanides goes beyond Rashi to say that the urim were holy names that caused the stones in the breastplate to light up in certain ways to make letters, which could be read by the priest. The information given by the urim was incomplete however, without the additional input of the thummim, which were other holy names, through which were completed or perfected the priests ability to correctly interpret what the urim were indicating. He suggests that the priest first "reads" the urim, and then focuses on the thummim, from which he gains the insight to understand the message.
I think Nachmanides is on to something here. There are so many examples. Imagine, first, a microscope. First you do a macro focus by choosing the right lens, then you fine focus it. To set up a video projector, you first set the zoom ratio to fill the screen, then you adjust the focus. You start a paper as an outline, and then you flesh it out. (Ezekiel's dry bones had to be fleshed out, as well.)
Now, I've heard many speculate that the urim and thummim were simply stones, perhaps one black and one white (or gold and silver.) Were they like dice, perhaps one color on one side and the other color on the other side?) Still, I think it could be awfully difficult to divine answers with an even number of objects. Seems to me that one really needs an odd number in order to see a clear decision!
That's why Nachaminides explanation appeals to me. Whether tea leaves, runes, sticks, stones, dice, tarot cards, a ouija board, or even things like quantum mechanics and string theory, you need to insight to understand what the signs (or observed data) are telling you.
G"d, apparently, decided to provide such insight to the priests by means of the thummim, at least according to Nachmanides. (Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) appropriately asks why the urim and thummim were as available to the worthy priest as to the unworthy one.)
My question is, why not make this insight available to all? (or, in fact, is that really the case all along? Is that what we learn from "lo bashamayim hi" ?)
Portents, prophecies, divinations. No shortage of those either int he time of our ancestors, or even now. Information, knowledge, data. All of them are great. Nowadays, they are also easy to accumulate. The real trick, the "thummim" (completion, perfection) comes from the ability to sift through the information/data/knowledge/portents/prophecies/divinations and coalesce/synthesize it into a coherent and meaningful form. How does one gain such insight and ability? There are many ways. Seems to me that at least one of them should include Torah. For, as we read in Proverbs (6.23) "The mitzvah is a lamp, and the Torah is a light." The psalmist wrote: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." (Ps. 119 v.105)
Is Torah urim or thummim? Or both? Or neither? Only one way to find out. Tzei ulemad - go and learn.
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon's Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn't Smell Quite Right
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