Parshat Tetzaveh: The Mystery of the Urim and Thummim (27:20 - 30:10)

Parshat Tetzaveh: The Mystery of the Urim and Thummim (27:20 – 30:10)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Last week’s portion discussed the physical construction of the Tabernacle (also called the Tent of Meeting). For more understanding of how the Tabernacle was built, I’d like to recommend Rabbi/Hazzan Eva Robbin’s brand new book, Spiritual Surgery [1] which approaches this intricate subject from both a mystical and artistic perspective. In Tetzaveh, this week’s parsha, the Torah describes in a very detailed way the sacral clothing that the priests must wear as officiants.

Since Jews are directed to be “a kingdom of priests” (Shemot 19:6), re-reading Tetzaveh  inspires respectful honor of that tradition. Although rabbis and congregants both tend to dress much more casually today, the ancient dress code, replete with adornment crafted from threads made from beaten gold and beautiful designs using blue, purple, and crimson-dyed yarns, was intended to convey elevation and holiness of purpose.

In her recent article, “Sartorial Splendor,” Rabbi Janet Madden takes a scholarly and symbolic approach in explaining the special garments the Israelite priesthood was directed to wear. The priests all wore garments woven from the fine linen (six threads to a strand!) derived from Egyptian culture (sheets made from fine Egyptian weave are still sought after today). Furthermore, the high priest (the Kohen Gadol), was instructed to wear four additional garments [the other priests wore four] to signify the status and literally weighty responsibility of his high office:

“the efod, an apron-like garment made of blue-purple and red-dyed wool, linen and gold thread – the colors of royalty; the chosen, a breastplate containing twelve precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; the me’il, a cloak of blue wool, with gold bells and decorative pomegranates on its hem, and the tziz, a golden plate worn on the forehead, bearing the inscription ‘Holy to God’”[2].

He was also instructed to wear linen breeches! The medieval rabbis, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, and Rashbam, along with many others through the years, all speculate further on the details of these intricate garments [3]. But two additional items have always especially intrigued me: first of all, the hem of the high priest’s garment was ringed with little golden bells – so that he would tinkle wherever he went.  The Kohen Gadol was not simply making music; there was a purpose to the bells. Only the High Priest was tasked with entering the Holy of Holies, where the Ark containing the tablets would be kept. The bells were intended to protect him from harm in so closely approaching the Divine word of God. During my rabbinic studies, I once read, but cannot remember the source, that on Yom Kippur, a slender, woven rope was attached to the High Priest’s ankle when he entered that dedicated space, so that he could be pulled out if his sensibilities succumbed to the sacredness of the occasion.

Secondly, under the jeweled breastplate, close to his heart, the High Priest wore the urim and thummim, which are clouded in mystery. In the thousands of years that have passed since ancient Israelite days, no one has ever been able to figure out exactly what they were. According to Rashi, like the various semi-precious jewels on the breastplate, each of which was inscribed with the name of a tribe, “the sons of Israel,” the urim and thummim were inscribed with the true name of God, “the Tetagrammaton. This would be put within the folds of the breastpiece. By means of it, the breastpiece would bring its words to light, ur, and fulfill them, thummim” [4]. For this reason, they were said to be used for discernment, judgment.

How this goal could be achieved is still unknown. Were they cast, like dice? Were they a kind of early, two-part computer working in concert? Were they connected to some mysterious power source – or to the Divine? Were they operated by thought control? When I let my imagination run wild, I imagine that they were a pair of inscribed crystals that echoed sounds, like the spiritual vortex between two crystal-laden mountains in Hawaii.

Interpreting the text in his own way, Nachmanides suggests that they were “put” in the breastplate, but not made by artisans like the other objects.  Rather,

“they were a mystery transmitted to Moses directly from the Almighty, and he wrote them in holiness….They were Holy Names, by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastpiece could light up, for the priest who was inquiring of them to read….Now these letters [of the Urim] could have been arranged in any number of ways to spell words. But there were other Holy Names there, called Thummim, through whose power the mind of the priest was “perfected,” thummim, in the knowledge of how to interpret the letters” [5]. (Carasik, 249-250).   

But, despite all the great rabbinic minds, no one really knows. Today we simply appreciate the forever mystery.

[1] Spiritual Surgery is available on

[2] Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D., “Sartorial Splendor,”, 2018.

[3] See Michael Carasik, Ed. The Commentators’ Bible:Exodus,“Tetzaveh” (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005),242-254.

[4] Ibid., 249.

[5] Ibid., 249-250.   

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.