Monday, February 15, 2016

What are Urim v’Tumim? / Parshat Tetzaveh 2016/5776

The seal of Yale University displays words from this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, across an open volume. When our daughter attended Yale as an undergraduate, I asked her: What are those words doing there? She replied: Yale started as a Divinity School. And at the time, the conversation ended there. But now that she’s completing her PhD at Yale, I find myself wondering: How did they get there? So I did a little poking around.

Timothy Cutler (b. 1684 in Massachusetts), after graduating from Harvard College at the age of 17, moved to Connecticut and assumed the post of preacher at the Congregational Church in Stratford.  A few years later, Cutler was called to serve as the rector of Yale College (a Congregational college), being a “good Logician, Geographer, and Rhetorician,” “an excellent Linguist,” and beyond those, “in the Philosophy & Metaphysics & Ethics of his Day or juvenile Education he was great… He was of an high, lofty, & despotic mien. He made a grand figure as the Head of a College”—according to ironically-named The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles. It’s not for me to say, but it may be that his appointment to rector of Yale College might also have had something to do with Rector Cutler’s marriage to Elizabeth Milford, whose father was the previous rector of Yale College. On September 13, 1722, Rector Cutler and several others met with the trustees of the college and, espousing an Anglican-Arminian viewpoint, called into question the validity of the ordination of, well, most every minister in New England. This amounted to a rebellion against Calvinism. On October 17, the Yale trustees fired Mr. Cutler and directed that all faculty members be required to make a confession of faith. Thereafter, Yale students studied Johannes Wollebius’s The Abridgement of Christian Divinitie every Friday afternoon. Samuel Johnson (Yale 1714) observed, tongue-in-cheek, that Wollebius was “considered with equal or greater veneration than the Bible itself.” On that same day (October 17), the trustees applied for the seal that to this day bears words of great significance to Wollebius, who wrote that Urim v’Tumim signified “Christ as the Word and Interpreter of the Father, our light and perfection.” (“Light and perfection” was rendered “lux et veritas” in the Latin beneath the book in the seal; that’s a whole other story, not for this drash.) 

The pursuit of God’s will, God’s law, God’s word, and God’s purpose animate religious people around the world in every generation, the the claim to know conclusively God’s will, God’s law, God’s word, and God’s purpose, is not the same thing. Certainly Christian history is shaped by the struggle to assert one understanding over another, and battles for authority and power have caught many in their claws. (Recall that the Salem Witch Trials, supported by the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, had ended less than 30 years prior to Mr. Cutler’s pronouncement and firing, and taken place less than 150 miles from New Haven.)

The Urim v’Tumim, oracles worn and employed by the High Priest, facilitated decision-making that could not be questioned. They are first mentioned in Parshat Tetzaveh, which opens with the instruction for lighting the ner tamid (eternal lamp) in the Tent of Meeting and then moves on to Aaron’s elaborate priestly vestments. Next you shall instruct all who are skillful whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest. These are the vestments they are to make: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash (Exodus 28:3-4). Of the items named, the choshen mishpat (breastplate of judgment/decision) that hangs across Aaron’s chest arguably receives the greatest attention. It is encrusted with twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel, set in a three-by-four array. Each gem is engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel and framed in gold. Torah next tells us about the Urim v’Tumim, a mysterious apparatus—some sort of oracle—with which Aaron divines the correct answer to questions he poses to God:

Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breast piece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary for remembrance before the Lord at all times. Inside the breastplate of decision you shall place the Urim v’Tumim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times. (Exodus 28:29-30)

In other words, Aaron discerns God’s will, God’s law, God’s word, and God’s purpose from the Urim V’Tumim.

If you’re finding Torah’s description of the Urim v’Tumim inscrutable, you are not alone. The classical commentators struggle to comprehend everything from its physical nature to its functionality.  Behind their confusion lies some discomfort. Here’s a brief survey: Rashi (11th century) says that the Urim v’Tumim was writing enfolded in the breastplate and engraved with God’s Name. Ibn Ezra (12th century) thought they were figurines sculpted of gold and silver, much like those used by astrologers. Ramban (13th century), based on the definite article “the” preceding Urim v’Tumim (contrasting with Torah’s instructions to make an ark, a table, etc.) concedes that Moses made the Urim V’Tumim himself with secret knowledge imparted to him by God. He explains how the Urim v’Tumim functioned based on the Talmud (BT Yoma 77): answers were spelled out from the letters of the names of the tribes plus several phrases added to insure the entire alphabet was available. 

Perhaps most interesting is the explanation of the Vilna Gaon (18th century) who applies Ramban’s explanation to the famous interchange between Hannah and Eli (1 Samuel chapter 1, the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah). Here’s the backstory: Hannah has been unable to bear children. Her husband, Elkanah, an egregiously insensitive boor, takes Hannah to the sanctuary in Shiloh along with his other wife, Peninah, and Peninah’s many children. Hannah, overcome by sadness that she is childless, weeps and cannot eat. Her husband Elkhanah said to her, “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8) Elkanah’s rival for the Clueless-Clod-of-the-Year Award is the priest who presides over Shiloh, Eli. Eli sees Hannah praying fervently—her lips move but she prays silently, pleading with God to give her children. Eli presumes Hannah is drunk and callously chastises her for making a spectacle of herself at a public sanctuary. Being a priest, the Vilna Gaon brilliantly explains, Eli had consulted his Urim v’Tumim, and it delivered the letters שכרה, which he read as shicorah (״drunk”). Eli was too incompetent to arrange them properly to reveal כשרה, which could be read as either ke-Sarah (“like Sarah”) or k’sheirah (“fit/reputable”). The Vilna Gaon explains that Hannah, realizing that Eli has misread the Urim v’Tumim, gently informs him that he is lacking the ruach ha-kodesh at that moment. The Urim v’Tumim do not guarantee a direct line to/from God. There is still a level of interpretation that is required. The one wearing the Urim v’Tumim, regardless of lineage and the authority invest in his position, must also have the skill to interpret the message communicated by the oracle.

The Yale seal translates Urim v’Tumim as “lux et veritas” (Latin for “light and truth”), a presumptuous rendering. Urim comes from or, which  certainly means “light,” in the sense of clarity of vision and understanding; tumim comes from tam which means “innocent.” From the wisdom and warning implicit in the Vilna Gaon’s commentary, let me suggest an alternative rendering: “insight and innocence”—a phrase that, rather than claim divine authority for one’s own understandings and interpretations, is aspirational in nature, reflecting the insight and humility an authority figure requires to arrive at decisions that will serve the best interests of everyone.

Like many people, I am deeply worried about the political fight that is brewing over filling the position on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died this past weekend. His intellectual acumen was matched by the passion he held for his positions. But the “originalist” and “textualist” approaches, claiming to know the full intent of the Constitution for issues that could not even have been considered in the 18th century, strike me as equivalent to Eli’s misreading of the Urim v’Tumim with full assurance that the interpreter always gets it right when, in fact, personal views and values are frequently misconstrued as those of the document. The Republicans have openly threatened to block the nomination of a successor in President Obama’s term, in the hopes of finding another right wing jurist to fill the empty chair on the bench, obstructing the proper functioning of our courts and our democracy. If they do so, they will unabashedly seek to turn the Supreme Court into a political tool to serve partisan political, economic, and social ambitions. They have the murky clarity of Eli where they need the insight humility of Moses and Aaron, without which we are all ill-served.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


  1. Any suggestions who would make a well rounded candidate for the Supreme Court?

  2. I like that you 'rephrase' the purpose of Urim and Tummim as being admonition for leadership to humbly seek wisdom