Next to those two crispy critters Nadav and Avihu, I think my next favorite pair of names in Torah is—yep, you guessed it—Urim and Thummim. I’ve written before about my confusion as to the Israelites (and G”d) requiring some sort of oracular device however today my interest in the Urim and Thummim is different.
What are they? How were they used? Those are questions for another time. Today, there is no how, why, what, where, when. There is only “they are.” There is only Urim and Thummim. The Torah goes into great detail about the construction of the priestly robes—the undergarments, the ephod (the overall tunic or garment,) turban, the tzitz (the frontlet on the turban,) the sash, khoshen (breastplate,) the me’il (the overcoat or robe,) etc. G”d instructs us, in intricate detail, how to create, how to make each of these magnificent pieces of the priestly wardrobe.
In intricate detail it is explained how these items are ornamented, woven, adorned, connected, fastened, and worn. Then we are told, plain as day, to put the Urim and Thummim inside the breastplate so they rest over Aharon’s heart when he goes before G”d. “Thus,” says the text, “Aharon shall carry the “instrument of decision” (in Hebrew, simply “et-mishpat” or literally, the judgment) for the Israelites over his heart before the L”rd at all times.”
Everything else we are told to make, to create. The Urim and Thummim we are simply told to put or place in the breastplate.
So where did they come from, and what part did they play in the life of the Israelites before then? They were clearly a known and extant thing. They are not included among the six or seven items that some of the rabbis claim existed before creation. So they must have been made or created at some point.
We’ve all found ourselves or others in situations where it was assumed something was known when it actually wasn’t. The Urim and Thummim are mentioned so matter-of-factly that the biblical authors/redactors are assuming their readers knew exactly what they were talking about. Or did they? “Urim and Thummim? Yeah, we all know what those are right? Right?” Nobody dares to raise a hand and suggest that none of them really know what the Urim and Thummim are. We all just play and game and pretend. Maybe this is Torah (or G”d’s) little joke on us. After all, cleromancy as an essential practice of a religion that abhors augury, divination and diviners? (Notice in the Purim story how the Persians used lots, a form of cleromancy against the Jews. In Jonah, as well, the non-Jews are the ones casting lots.) On the other hand, in just a few weeks we’ll read about Aharon “casting lots” to chose which goat to sacrifice and which to send to Azazel. Joshua casts lots to aid in dividing up the land among the tribes. So it would seem some forms of divination are permitted in Judaism – at least in Biblical Judaism.
Yes, mention of the Urim and Thummim comes before the prohibitions in Leviticus against divination and augury, but we all know the Torah need not be seen as linear or chronological. So I am only a little troubled by the inconsistency that some forms of divination are approved while others are not. I remain troubled, however, by the fact that the Urim and Thummim just are, with no explanation, no etiology. (That they are not mentioned as something that existed before creation is perhaps related to the concerns I expressed previously about Judaism’s somewhat unclear position on divination.)
Life is rife with competing philosophies. Some teach us to rail and protest and work against what is, and others urge us to learn to live with what is. Both philosophies (and they are but two among many) have their positive and negative points. The Serenity Prayer found at the core of many Twelve-Step programs, which, despite its likely origins (the general consensus these days is that it is by Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr,) can feel very Jewish in its essential acceptance of balancing life’s realities, seems to embrace both philosophies. You can easily reorder and subtly alter the wording to fit a whole host of situations.
Life is also rife with things which simply just are. Ah, but science can help us understand everything. Are we so certain of that, in an entropic universe where orderliness tends to flow towards chaos?
However, there is also an inherent danger in acceptance of things as they are. This can be used as a tool to manipulate and dominate. If every time someone tells us “well, that’s just the way things are” we simply accept it, what hope for change and improvement is there? It is dangerous to overly embrace either extreme view – that all is knowable and nothing is knowable. Urim without Thummim or vice versa? What kind of universe would that be?
Which are the Urim and Thummim? Are they something whose origin I can know, or that I can never hope to know? Whence the wisdom to know which they are? Whence the wisdom to know if it is even worthy to worry about it? Allow me to be bold enough to suggest that the answer to the latter questions might very well be Torah. Or not.
Some things needs to be created. Some things just are. A circle has no beginning and no end, so we know such things are possible. Our universe will eventually expand so much it will fall apart (or so we currently believe) so even the infinite is finite.
Using the Urim and Thummim to answer the very questions their existence raises. There’s an interesting concept. Hey G”d, is all pre-ordained or is all free will? Only if we assume the use of the Urim and Thummim does not preclude the answer being both or none do we really have any hope of getting an answer. None of the above and all of the above have to be included along with Urim or Thummim as possible answers. That they very words Urim and Thummim are themselves in a plural form already says something about them as instruments of determining probabilities and answering questions with a simple yes/no. The Urim and Thummim are both Schrödinger’s cat experiment at the same time. Scholars have tried to interpret the names of the Urim and Thummim and representing polar opposites, but what if they are not. What if they are both just multiple possibilities and options? Is the lesson here that we should never truly believe black/white yes/no answers are the only possible answers? That’s Torah wisdom.
I can hear Tevye now. The Urim are right. The Thummim are right. They’re both right. Down the rabbit hole we go.
©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim 5773 – Fighting Dirty
Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect
Tetzaveh 5770 – A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The 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