Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Kohen Gadol as Divine Medium by Yaakov Bieler

April 1, 2012 by  
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Donning the Priestly garments.

The first time that Aharon puts on the clothing of the high priest, the Kohanim and the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are being dedicated, as described in Parashat Tzav (VaYikra 8:7-9). The eight garments designated for the high priest to wear while performing the Avoda (sacrificial service), whose fabrications are articulated in exacting detail in Parashiot Tetzave (Shemot 28:4-43) and Pekudei (Shemot 39:2-31), are finally put to use when the Mishkan begins to serve as the focal point for the Jewish people’s sacrificing to HaShem in this week’s Parasha.

The High Priest’s Breastplate.

                Clearly, the most mysterious and evocative of the various garments worn by the Kohanim (priests) in general and the Kohen Gadol (high priest) in particular, is the Choshen (breastplate). It consists of woven panels front and back (Shemot 28:15; 39:9), to which are affixed twelve precious and semi-precious jewels, each representing one of the twelve tribes of the Jewish people (28:17-20; 39:10-13). Upon each of the stones is carved the name of the tribe which it represented (28:21; 39:14). And in between the two woven panels, behind the rows of jewels, is placed the Urim VeTumim (lit. lights and wholeness) (28:30; VaYikra 8:8).[1]   

Are the Urim VeTumim intrinsic to the Choshen, or are they considered a separate entity?

                From VaYikra 8:8, it appears that the Urim VeTumim, rather than serving as merely one of many necessary component of the Choshen, is in fact the most important part of the breastplate,[2] or at least the component that “activates” its capacity for God Sharing Communications with the high priest, as explicitly indicated later in BaMidbar 27:21.  In contrast to the full descriptions in Shemot of what the Choshen consists of, in VaYikra all details are omitted, e.g., how it is woven, the twelve stones, etc. with the exception of the Urim VeTumim:  “He (Moshe) put into the Choshen, the Urim VeTumim”.[3]  Furthermore, in BaMidbar 27:21, the word “Urim” replaces Choshen altogether, “…And he will ask him regarding the judgment of the ‘Urim’ before HaShem…” implying that just as Urim VeTumim is more important than Choshen, Urim is more important than Tumim.

Urim VeTumim as a vehicle for Prophecy.

That the Urim VeTumim are not merely just another part of the Choshen, but in fact constitute a means for human beings to determine the Divine Will, is outlined in BaMidbar 27:21.  After informing Moshe that his student, Yehoshua, will succeed him as leader of the Jewish people, HaShem adds that Yehoshua will be expected to consult with the high priest who in turn will be guided by Messages from HaShem via the Urim VeTumim, before making important decisions. The Tora writes, “And before Eliezer the priest he (Yehoshua) will stand, and he (Eliezer) will ask by means of the judgment of the ‘URIM’ before HaShem…” It would appear that since the close relationship enjoyed by Moshe with HaShem was not to be replicated in lesser prophets like Yehoshua, a substitute had to be found whereby certain major decisions would not be made exclusively by the Shofet (Judge)[4]  or Melech (king), but would be subject to Divine Input. BaMidbar 27:21 is structured as a Kellal U’Prat[5] with a general statement (Yehoshua will ask questions of Eliezer who will in turn ask HaShem) followed by specific examples of the types of situations calling for these types of consultations: “…According to what issues from his (the high priest’s) mouth they (the Jewish people) will GO OUT and according to what issues from his mouth they will COME IN, he and all of the Children of Israel with him, and all of the congregation”. On the one hand, the Rabbis interpret these phrases in terms of going to war, indicating that engaging in optional, expansionist wars (as opposed to either religiously mandated wars against the seven Canaanite nations and Amalek,[6]  or defensive wars which need no consultation,[7]) will require the Divine Imprimatur Delivered by means of the Urim VeTumim:[8]

Yerushalmi Shabbat 2:6

“According to the ‘Seder’ (order) of the Urim” is not stated here, but rather the “’Mishpat’ (judgment) of the Urim”. This is to teach that when the Jewish people goes out to war, the Beit Din (court) on High sits in judgment of them whether they will be victorious or defeated. From here one learns that the Satan accuses specifically during times of danger.[9]  

The Urim VeTumim therefore provides “insider” information regarding the chances of the Jews succeeding in their expansionist military operations. Since Jewish theology presumes that wars cannot be won unless God is Assisting the Jews in their efforts,[10] should it be determined that the war will be lost due to either the lack of merit on the Jewish side (Devarim 19:8-9 states that greater Israel will be realized only if the Jews adhere to HaShem’s Commandments), or because those currently inhabiting the land are not deserving of being displaced from it (see Beraishit 15:16), it would be foolhardy to needlessly and futilely risk lives.

Additional contexts during which the Urim VeTumim would be called into play.

                In addition to times of war, the redundant language at the end of BaMidbar 27:21, “…He and all of the Children of Israel with him, and the entire congregation”, is interpreted Rabbinically to indicate who would be entitled to pose questions about other topics to the Urim VeTumim:

Yoma 73b

It is taught (in a Mishnaic source):

“He”—this is a reference to the king;

“And all of the Children of Israel with him”—this is a reference to the priest who accompanies the Jews in battle;

“And all of the congregation”—these are the men of the Sanhedrin (the high court).

All of this is to teach that the Urim VeTumim is consulted only by the king, the head of the court, and anyone else upon whom the community is dependent.

Apparently there was a concern that once people would have available to them this “direct line” to HaShem, they would expect that relatively trivial questions ought to be addressed, or for that matter, issues of law that should properly be adjudicated by means of majority rule by the judges of the time, would be made dependent upon Divine Resolution, as exemplified in the confrontation between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua in Bava Metzia 59b. The Urim VeTumim therefore was to be consulted only in very specific instances when the welfare of the entire nation was at stake.

A specific example of the usage of the Urim VeTumim for a non-military issue.

One such extremely important juncture in Jewish history when according to the Rabbis, the Urim VeTumim played a crucial role, was the manner by which the high priest Eliezer   was able to predict which particular portion of Canaan would be turned over to a particular one of the twelve tribes for settlement. While the verses in BaMidbar 26:53-56 emphasize that a lottery system was employed to distribute the land to the various tribes, the account in Yehoshua adds a phrase that precipitates an interpretation that the Urim VeTumim were involved in the distribution process as well. In Yehoshua 18:10 it is stated, “And Yehoshua cast lots for them in Shilo ‘Lifnai HaShem’ (before God), and there Yehoshua divided the land to the children of Israel according to their divisions.” Whereas any lottery in its own right, assuming that it is conducted honestly, should remove suspicions of impropriety and unfairness with regard to the results, the addition of the phrase “before God” suggests that an extra religious dimension was added in order to allay feelings that “the fix was in”. The division of the country among the tribes was potentially a source of great discord and even violence. Were a prophet, even the likes of Moshe, let alone someone of lesser spiritual standing such as Yehoshua, to attempt to pronounce in God’s Name the allocation of specific parcels of land of unequal size, location and quality to particular tribes, there is no reason to think that the unpleasant accusations of nepotism, favoritism and other biases that accompanied the appointments of Betzalel[11]  and Aharon[12]   to positions of importance, would not surface again.[13]   RaShI on BaMidbar 26:24, based upon the Talmud in Bava Batra 122a, describes how a “double blind” system consisting of an ostensibly random lottery combined with predictions based upon the Urim VeTumim was utilized to convince the Jewish people that the distribution of Canaan was in fact Divinely Ordained:

…Elazar, the priest, would be dressed in the URIM VETUMIM. (Note that this text also does not mention the term “Choshen”.) He would predict, based upon Divine Inspiration, (i.e., using the Urim VeTumim) “When such-and-such a tribe is chosen, such-and-such a portion will be chosen along with it.” The names of the tribes were inscribed on twelve separate lots, and twelve portions of land were inscribed on another twelve lots. The lots would be mixed in a box, and the head of a particular tribe would put his hand into the box and extract two lots. Invariably he extracted the lot with the name of his tribe along with the lot of the portion of land that had been predicted would be given to this tribe…[14]  

It would appear from the texts in BaMidbar and Yehoshua that there was no subsequent dissension regarding the land division, and therefore the various measures adopted in order to convince the people that they had been dealt with fairly had the desired affects.

What was the activating element of the Urim VeTumim?

                So what exactly are the Urim VeTumim that were placed in the “Choshen”, and how was the High Priest thereby enabled to receive Divine Communications with regard to going to war, distributing land and other important decisions that would affect the Jewish people as a whole?  RaShI, on Shemot 28:30 and VaYikra 8:8, defines the Urim VeTumim as the mystical power generated by the Shem HaMefurash (lit. the Explicit Name), i.e., the Tetragrammaton in written form.

                We encounter the supernatural power of the Tetragrammaton, the most intense and specific version of the Divine Name,[15]   in two other Midrashic contexts in Shemot:

a.   When Moshe slays the Egyptian taskmaster whom he encounters administering a potentially fatal beating to a Jewish slave (Shemot 2:12), Shemot Rabba 1:29 cites a Rabbinic position that rather than laying a hand on the Egyptian, all that Moshe did was invoke the Tetragrammaton.[16]   

b.   The staff by which Moshe initiates many of the plagues is referred to in Shemot 4:20 as the “Mateh Elokim” (the staff of God). Midrash Sechel Tov 4:20 contends that the staff was particularly associated with God and therefore was able to cause various supernatural phenomena, because the Shem HaShem (the Name of God) was engraved upon it. 

                In terms of an association between the Shem HaMefurash and human beings discerning the Divine Will which more closely parallels the usage of the Urim VeTumim discussed in BaMidbar, a popularly known reference appears in “Eleh Ezkera” (lit., these I remember), one of the central “Piyutim” (liturgical poems) read on Yom HaKippurim. We are told how ten great Tannaim (Rabbinic scholars from the period of the Mishna) are tortured to death by their Roman captors. When they originally are informed of the evil decree, the Rabbis ask for time to verify whether their fates have been irrevocably sealed in Heaven:

“Give us three days, until it can be known whether this has been decreed from on High. 

If we find that we are truly guilty and sinful, then we will comply with this decree that must be based in Mercy.”

They all feared, trembled, and shook, and they finally turned their eyes upon R. Yishmael, the High Priest, with the expectation that he would invoke “HASHEM” (the Name) and thereby ascend to their Master, in order to know whether the decree originated from their God.

Rabbi Yishmael purified himself and pronounced “HASHEM” with great trepidation. He ascended to the Heavens and inquired of the “man” dressed in simple white linen,

And he said to him, “Accept upon yourselves, holy beloved ones, because I have heard from ‘behind the curtain’ that you are trapped in this matter.”

What was the process by which God’s Will was Communicated via the Urim VeTumim?

                Once we establish the identity of the Urim VeTumim, and its power to help an individual like the high priest to understand the Will of HaShem, what is assumed concerning the manner in which the Choshen would optimally function? According to Yoma 73b, when the Urim VeTumim, the Tetragrammaton is placed into the Choshen, questions that were posed would generate a response whereby various letters of the names of the tribes engraved onto the twelve stones[17] would either be visually highlighted (light up, as implied by “Urim” [lights]) in a particular sequence or, in a jumbled sequence that would  first attract the high priest’s mental attention, and them require him to properly unscramble the anagram.[18]  From the series of letters that would present themselves in this manner, messages would be spelled out such as, “Aleh VeHatzlach” (rise up and be victorious). 

An additional human element may be required.

                It is also possible that the term “Urim VeTumim” does not connote a single entity, but rather a synergy between two separate and extremely different existences. Commentators such as Rabbeinu Bachaye insist that the term Tumim (wholeness) describes not so much the Choshen or the Tetragrammaton, but rather the qualities required of the high priest in order to be able to recognize and then interpret the Divine Message that HaShem may Wish to convey. If the Kohen Gadol is not sufficiently holy, then just like not everyone is able to receive prophecy, so too not every high priest is able to utilize the Choshen for divining purposes.  Consequently, as in so many other aspects of Jewish law, ideally, a partnership has to be struck between God and a human being, be it in terms of bringing the world to a higher state of physical perfection, exercising judicial wisdom so that property ends up with its rightful owner, and/or understanding and then publicizing God’s Will with regard to some aspect of Jewish political or military life. The view in the Talmud that during the second Temple, there was no Urim VeTumim, just as actual prophecy ceased at about the same time, probably had more to do with the level or lack thereof of the high priests of the time, than the physical Choshen. One could always physically recreate this garment according to all of the specifications listed in our primary sources, and even place the Tetragrammaton within it; yet there may not be anyone who is worthy of serving as God’s Partner and receiving and interpreting messages from the Urim VeTumim.


[1] HaKetav VeHaKabbala on Shemot 28:30, due to RaMBaM’s omission in Mishna Tora, Hilchot Kelai HaMikdash 9:7-9 of any reference to the Urim VeTumim as an object separate from the rest of the Choshen, suggests that RaMBaM believed that the twelve stones themselves were what was known as the Urim VeTumim. But even the Kesef Mishna, in his commentary on RaMBaM Hilchot Kelai HaMikdash 9:6, follows the traditional view that the Urim VeTumim was the Shem HaMefurash (lit. the Explicit Name, i.e., the Tetragrammaton).

[2] While the Urim VeTumim almost have a “stand-alone” quality in the sense that the Tora talks about Moshe placing them “within” the Choshen implying that the Choshen is considered complete even without the Urim VeTumim, in all of the listings of the priestly garments, e.g., Shemot 28:15-30; 39:8-21, the Urim VeTumim are subsumed under the category of the Choshen.  In fact, in the latter instance, the Urim VeTumim is not mentioned at all. While the Urim VeTumim might be necessary in order for the Choshen to function in a particular manner, nevertheless with regard to whether or not the Kohen Gadol was fully clad in the garments required for him to perform the Divine Service in the Tabernacle, it could be concluded that the Urim VeTumim were not necessary for satisfying this requirement.

[3] The Tora could have simply said that Moshe placed the Choshen upon Aharon, without stressing how he inserted the Urim VeTumim into the Choshen.

[4] The leaders that the Jews had during the periods described in the books of Yehoshua and Shoftim were essentially military figures who led the people intermittently during times of warfare. Shmuel is the last Shofet and the institution of kingship begins with Shaul, followed by David, both anointed by Shmuel.

[5] The fourth of the hermeneutic principles listed by R. Yishmael, appearing at the end of Korbanot section of Shacharit,  e.g., see The Koren Siddur, p. 55.

[6] It could be argued that the wars against the Seven Nations and Amalek are also defensive in the sense that were the Jews to live in Canaan alongside these morally reprehensible societies, their lifestyle would become corrupted as well. RaMBaM writes in Mishna Tora, Hilchot Melachim 6:4 that were these nations to agree to accept the Seven Noachide Commandments, among other social restrictions, they would be allowed to remain in Canaan since they no longer posed a moral and religious threat to the Jews.

[7] The source that for defensive wars, no special Divine Authorization is required is an expansion of   Shemot 22:1, whereby regarding someone breaking into your house whose intentions are unknown to you, you are permitted to kill him, in accordance with the principle “HaBa LeHargecha Hashkeim VeHargo” (one who comes to kill you, rise up early and kill him first). If this is so with respect to a single individual, it is all the more pertinent when the entire Jewish people is under threat from external attack.

[8] David consults God presumably via the Urim VeTumim on a number of occasions prior to military action, e.g., I Shmuel 23:2, 4, II Shmuel 5:19.

[9] If the Heavenly Court is sitting in judgment, then it is assumed that the trial will involve prosecution and defense. Satan is typically depicted as the prosecutor not only in Rabbinic literature but even in Iyov 1:6 ff.

[10] The paradigm for such a view is the original war against Amalek:

Shemot 17:11 : “And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.”

Mishna Rosh HaShana 3:8 : And did the hands of Moshe succeed in war or fail in war? But rather it is to tell you that as long as Israel would look upwards and make their hearts subservient to their Father in Heaven, they would prevail; and if not, they would fall…

[11] See Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat VaYakhel, Siman 3.

[12] See BaMidbar 16-17.

[13] While a literal reading of the desire of Reuven, Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe to remain outside of Israel so that they could take over the grazing land of Sichon and Og was due to their great herds (BaMidbar 32:4), could an underlying motivation for their request be that they did not have confidence in the objectivity of the distribution system of the land of Canaan, and therefore preferred to operate on the principle, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”?

[14] RaShI goes on to claim an even more supernatural aspect to the process of assigning land to tribes by interpreting the phrase in BaMidbar 26:56 “Al Pih HaGoral” which is an idiomatic expression connoting that the division will be done BY MEANS of a lottery, extremely literally and asserting that the lots “spoke” (“Al Pih” literally means by their “mouths”) and exclaimed “I am the lot for such-and-such a tribe which has been apportioned such-and-such a piece of land”; “I am the portion of land for such and such a tribe.” Whereas on the one hand, some could view such an assumption as begging credulity, if it served to quell dissent and discord among the tribes, then it would more than serve its purpose!

[15]While HaShem has many Names associated with Him, the Tetragrammaton is considered in a class by itself, while all other names are defined as Kinuyim (secondary names). Examples of Halachic implications for the different sorts of names of HaShem include: a) For which Divine Name is one considered in violation of the prohibition of blasphemy? b) With regard to which Divine Names is one supposed to be careful in terms of the creation of “Sheimot” (written documents that must be buried rather than discarded in some less respectful manner) and c) Is one allowed to take American currency into the bathroom since the motto “In God we trust” is inscribed upon it? Etc.

[16]RaShI on Shemot 2:14, reads carefully the comment made the following day by the Jew whom Moshe tries to restrain from beating his coreligionist, “…Are you (Moshe) SAYING that you will kill me?”, and contends that the use of the verb “to say” in connection with taking someone’s life suggests that this was Moshe’s method for eliminating his enemies. Particularly were we to assume that Moshe was only thirteen when he went out to see the condition of his brethren—Shemot 2:11 employs the phrase “And the ‘Yeled’ (boy) grew up…”, an expression that RaShI in other places interprets to connote reaching puberty, e.g., Beraishit 25:27—attributing the death of the Egyptian to uttering the Divine Name would make it more understandable how a boy of barely thirteen could have ended the life of a brutish, mature adult. While the example of David dispatching Golyat with nothing more than a slingshot can serve as a paradigm for such a confrontation, no particular weapon is explicitly mentioned with respect to Moshe. Furthermore, since the latter is first emerging from a supposedly comfortable life growing up in Pharoah’s  palace at this point, in contrast to David, who had been a shepherd for so many years needing to protect the flock from powerful predators, it would not necessarily stand to reason that Moshe would have acquired the skills necessary to successfully take on both the taskmaster as well as the adult Jew, unless we assume a metaphysical special talent.

[17] The assumption that the letters spelling out the names of the various tribes would provide a full alphabet for spelling out messages is challenged by the Gemora and commentaries when it is noted that the letters “Chet”, “Tet”, “Tzadi” and “Kuf” are not included in the names of the twelve tribes. To alleviate this difficulty, the Gemora posits that in addition to the names of the tribes, the names of the three forefathers, Avraham, Yi-TZ-CHA-K and Yaa-K-ov, as well as the phrase “Shiv-T-ei Yeshurun” (the tribes of Jeshurun, an ancient form of Yisrael) were also engraved on the stones.

[18] This latter view serves as the basis for the Vilna Gaon’s  hypothesis in Aderet Eliyahu on I Shmuel 1:13-16, that Eli’s accusation of Chana’s being drunk was due to a false solution of a message from the Urim VeTumim:

He (the High Priest Eli) inquired by means of his Urim VeTumim and the letters that either bulged out or lit up were: “Heh”, “Chuf”, “Shin” and “Reish.” And he unscrambled them to means “Shikora” (a drunken woman)—“Shin”, “Chuf”, “Reish”, “Heh”; but the true solution was “Kesheira” (worthy, appropriate) “Chuf”, “Shin”, “Reish”, “Heh”.

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