One of the best-known aspects of the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate (Choshen HaMishpat) is the Urim VeTumim. Many people, when asked what the Choshen HaMishpat contains, will automatically answer the Urim VeTumim. The famous Urim VeTumim can even be found in literature, such as Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. However, what many people do not actually know is what exactly are the Urim and the Tumim?
Towards the beginning of this week’s Parashah, the Pasuk states, “VeNatata El Choshen HaMishpat Et HaUrim VeEt HaTumim VeHayu Al Leiv Aharon BeVo’o Lifnei Hashem” “Into the breastplate of judgment shall you place the Urim and the Tumim, and they shall be on Aharon’s heart when he comes before Hashem…” (Shemot 28:30) The Torah itself does not provide a description for the Urim VeTumim which are mentioned here. Rashi, however, provides us with an understanding as to what the Urim and Tumim are. He explains (ad. loc. s.v. “Et HaUrim VeEt HaTumim”) that the Urim and Tumim are a writing of Hashem’s forty-two letter name, embedded in the Choshen HaMishpat. The letters of the Urim and Tumim lit up when necessary, to convey a message to the Kohen. He continues to add that in the times of the Second Beit HaMikdash, although the Choshen was present as it was part of the wardrobe of the Kohen when he performed the daily sacrifices, the Urim VeTumim were not inside of it. The Chizkuni offers a similar explanation. He says that the Urim VeTumim was the seventy-two letter name of Hashem, not the forty-two letter one.
Rav Hai Gaon presents a different interpretation as to what the Urim and Tumim are. He explains that they are the actual stones of the breastplate. This is contradictory to Rashi and the Chizkuni, because this interpretation implies that the Urim VeTumim are part of the actual breastplate, as opposed to being embedded in the breastplate. Now that we have a basic understanding of what the Urim and Tumim actually were, we must ask what function did they serve?
Rabbanit Sharon Rimon answers this question by analyzing the successor to Moshe Rabbeinu, Yehoshua. When Yehoshua went out to war, he approached the Kohen Gadol and asked for the judgment of the Urim VeTumim before Hashem. We can deduce that the role of the Urim VeTumim was to serve as a connection between the leader of Israel and the will of Hashem. The leader of Israel must communicate with Hashem through it, and he must hear what Hashem wants prior to war. When it is stated in this week’s Parashah that the Urim and Tumim represent judgment, it means that the judgment of the Urim and Tumim is Hashem’s answer to questions posed by the leader of Israel. The King of Israel was supposed to use the Urim and Tumim as a way to appeal to Hashem on how to strategically conduct the war.
The role of the Urim and Tumim has a significant message for us, proven throughout early Jewish history. Throughout the generations, the leaders of Israel whether it be the early prophets or King David have summoned the Urim and Tumim prior to engaging in battle. The message we can learn is one of humility. Even the most supreme authority in Israel must not act independently from Hashem. His moves are guided by Hashem and His will. If a King and the leader of Israel who are the supreme human beings must communicate to Hashem through the Urim and Tumim, then even more so we as individuals should be communicating with Hashem daily through our prayers. Even a King or leader must humble himself and recognize that he is not the one responsible for our victories as a nation; rather, it is Hashem who makes the crucial decisions as the ultimate commander in chief. This message is communicated through the Urim VeTumim.