Tetzaveh: Divining

What should I do?

Usually human beings carry on with their habitual behavior, but sometimes we have to make a deliberate decision.  And we do not know whether a particular choice will lead to good or evil, or to happiness or disaster.  If only we knew ahead of time!

The longing for foreknowledge has been with us for millennia.  Most cultures have had their own methods of divination, of gaining knowledge that is normally outside the human realm.

High priest’s vestments, artist unknown

In the Hebrew Bible, leaders and kings ask the high priest to consult the urim and tumim tucked into his breast-pouch. These mysterious items are introduced in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command”), but we do not learn their purpose until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when God tells Moses what Joshua must do after Moses has died. Since Joshua, unlike Moses, cannot hear God directly, he must ask the high priest for divination when he needs to decide whether to go out to battle:

He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, and ask him for the ruling of the urim before God. (Numbers 27:21)

urim (אוּרִים) = firelight? illumination?

But the book of Joshua never refers to the urim. The only time the Torah says someone actually consults them is in the first book of Samuel:

And Saul inquired of God, but God did not answer him, either with dreams or with urim or with prophets.  (1 Samuel 28:6)

Several other times in that book both Saul and David “inquire of God” in the presence of a priest, and when David receive yes/no answers, we can assume the answers are indicated by the urim.  But no description is given.

This week’s Torah portion describes everything else the high priest wears, from his headband to his underpants. Over his sky-blue robe, the priest must wear an eifod, a kind of tabard with shoulder-straps and sewn-in ties at the waist.  A chosen, a square pouch, will hang from the shoulder-straps of the eifod, secured on the high priest’s breast.  This breast-pouch will be folded at the bottom, and twelve gems will be set into the front.  Each gem will be engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel.

And into the breast-pouch of the law you will place the urim and the tumim; and they will be over the heart of Aaron when he comes before God, and Aaron will carry the law of  the children of Israel over his heart before God constantly.  (Exodus/Shemot 28:30)

tumim (תֻּמִּים) = ? (a noun probably based on the adjective tamim, תָּמִים = whole, flawless, blameless.)

Obviously a high priest could not carry firelight and wholeness in a pouch on his chest; the names of the actual items are symbolic.  But what do they mean?  Throughout the book of Isaiah, urim means “fires” or “firelight”, not an object worn by a high priest.  In Ezekiel, ur is a destroying fire.  Everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, the word urim refers to the item worn by the high priest.

Traditional commentary says the word urim means light, illumination, clarity, because it has the same root letters as the word or = light. Some modern language scholars speculate that urim is derived from nei-arim (נֵאָרִים) = cursed, inflicted with a curs. In that case, urim and tumim would mean “cursed” and “blameless”. In other words, one object indicates a bad outcome and the other indicates a good one.

Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) suggested that the two words urim and tummim were written on a single piece of parchment, and the high priest would look down through the open top of his breast-pouch to see which word was facing up.

In the Talmud tractate Yoma 73b, the rabbis seem to use the phrase “urim and tumim” interchangeably with the phrase “breast-pouch of the law”.   Some speculated that the names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the urim and tumim, and the letters lit up or moved around to create an oracular message.  Others said that the urim and tumim caused the stones on the front of the breast-pouch to light up, and the message could be deciphered from the pattern of flashing lights.  The important thing was that both the person with the question and the high priest had to direct their minds toward God.


Some passages in the Torah appear to forbid using any kind of divination, along with any other kind of magic.  For example:

No one must be found among you who sacrifices his son or his daughter in the fire, or who reads omens, a cloud-conjurer or a diviner, or a sorcerer; or a charm-binder, or a medium who consults ghosts or a medium who possesses a familiar spirit, or who questions the dead.  For anyone who does these is an abomination of God, and on account of these abominations, God, your god, is dispossessing them before you.  You shall be whole with God, your god.   (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:10-13)

Here Moses is banning all the divination practices of the people surrounding the Israelites.  In other places, the Torah approves of a few practices for getting a bit of divine knowledge.

The two most common ways that God shares foreknowledge with humans is through dreams, and through communication with prophets.  In the absence of dreams or prophetic utterances, a person can take the initiative by casting lots, or by consulting the high priest’s urim and tumim.


When this week’s Torah portion introduces the urim and tumim, it says “they will be over the heart of Aaron when he comes before God”—like the gems representing twelve tribes of Israel.  Maybe the primary purpose of the urim and tumim is not to enable divination, but to keep light and wholeness in the high priest’s awareness whenever he approaches God.

Even today, people who want to make the right decision resort to dubious divination methods.  Instead of reading omens in entrails or conjuring clouds, they flip a coin, or buy something from a New Age shop, or consult a medium who channels the spirit of a dead person.  It is hard to accept that we cannot have foreknowledge, only good guesses.

Yet we can answer the question “What should I do?” without knowing the outcome of our choice.  And when our intuitions are not clear, we can use approaches similar to the kind of “divination” the Torah approves of.  Dreams still help by connecting us with hidden parts of ourselves that are connected with the divine.  And we can improve our conscious thought by keeping certain ideas in our awareness, carrying them upon our hearts like high priests.   We can consciously stay in touch with urim, the light shed by the fire of our passions; tumim, the continual effort to complete ourselves and become whole; and on the outside, the gemstones of our own tribes, our own families, friends, and communities.

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