Urim and Tummim, Messiah’s Light and Perfectness
Urim and tummim are perhaps the most peculiar article of the high priest attire. How they looked like, most unfortunately the Torah does not tell much. Nevertheless, what the Torah tell us is that they functioned as a means of communication between YHVH and His people.
Mosheh (Moses) is distinguished from the people as the mediator of the Covenant of YHVH. He led the people out of Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai where Israel received the revelation of the Torah and became a nation set-apart to YHVH.
Mosheh placed the tablets of the Covenant into the Ark never to see them again, and his brother Aharon was anointed as the first high priest of YHVH for a perpetual mediator between YHVH and His people.
Although Aharon was anointed to serve YHVH, Mosheh was still the mediator between Him and the people, to whom the Creator talked face to face and mouth to mouth. And even after his death, neither Yehoshua, nor the high priest or someone after them were able to speak directly to Him, as Mosheh did.
But before Aharon could even draw near to YHVH to serve Him, it was necessary that the high priest should be covered and adorned with set-apart garments, which the craftsmen were to make — a breastplate, a shoulder garment, a robe, an embroidered long shirt, a turban, and a girdle — for him to serve as priest to YHVH (Exo 28:1-4).
The different portions of the priest’s clothes have their own signification, but in this study we will come closer to one of them, and more particularly to the breastplate that contained the peculiar urim and tummim of YHVH.
The high priest’s shoulder garment
And concerning the shoulder garment it was said to be made with two onyx stones engrave with the names of the sons of Israel — six of their names on one stone, and the remaining six names on the other stone, according to their birth order: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Dan, Naphtali, on the one and on the other, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zevulun, Yoseph, and Binyamin. (Exo 28:9-10)
And further it was said to make a choshen mishpat (“breastplate of judgment” but literally of “right of decision”), a work of a skilled workman, like the work of the shoulder garment. It was to be made of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet, and fine woven linen. (Exo 28:15)
This breastplate of decision was to be a woven fabric of the same material and the same kind of work as the shoulder garment. The woven cloth was to be laid together double like a kind of pocket in the shape of square.
The golden capsules, in which the onyx stones were set were to be surrounded by golden ornaments, which not only surrounded and ornamented the stones but helped to fix them firmly on the woven fabric.
Twelve tribes of Israel on the high priest’s heart
And on the breastplate of decision, the gemstones were to be set in gold settings in four rows according to the names of the sons of Israel, twelve according to their names, like the engravings of a signet, each one with its own name. (Exo 28:17-21)
According to the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7), the colorings of the stones in Exo 28:17-21 were given with their Hebrew names, as follows:
- Reuven’s, odem, was red;
- Shimon’s, pitedah, was green;
- Levi’s, bareket, was white, black and red;
- Yehudah’s, nofech, was sky-colored;
- Issachar’s, sapir, was dark blue;
- Zevulun’s, yahalom, was white (lavan, which can also mean clear);
- Dan’s, leshem, was of a similar hue as that of the sapir;
- Gad’s, shvo, was gray;
- Naphtali’s, achlamah, was the color of clear wine;
- Asher’s, tarshish, was “the color of the precious stone with which women decorate themselves”;
- Yoseph’s, shoham, was black;
- Binyamin’s, yashpei, had the colors of all twelve stones.
Urim and tummim on the high priest’s heart
And Aharon shall bear the names of the sons of Israel on the breastplate of right over his heart, when he goes into the set-apart place, for a remembrance before Yehovah, continually. And into the breastplate of right you shall put the urim and the tummim, and they shall be on the heart of Aharon when he goes in before Yehovah. And Aharon shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel on his heart before Yehovah, continually. (Exo 28:29-30)
Into this choshen mishpat (breastplate of decision) Mosheh was to put the urim and tummim, that they might be on Aharon’s heart whenever he came before YHVH, and that he might thus constantly bear the right (Heb. mishpat) of the children of Israel on his heart before Him. Here מִשְׁפָּט mishpat, right, signifies the decision of YHVH as by the urim and tummim.
It is evident from this, that the urim and tummim were to bring the right of the children of Israel before YHVH, and that the breastplate was called such, because the urim and tummim were in it and distinct from it.
The breastplate served as an oracle only by virtue of the urim and tummim. Nonetheless, they were not an integral component of the breastplate, because if they were missing, the high priest was still considered fully and properly attired despite the fact that the breastplate could not function as an oracle.
Thus fully dressed, Aharon was to come into the Tabernacle, or near the altar, so that he would do not bear crookedness and die — a law forever to him, and to his seed after him. (Exo 28:43)
How exactly the urim and the tummim functioned on the chest of the high priest, most unfortunately, we are not told in the Torah. We are not told what role they played in the Temple service, nor how they looked like.
However, in the context the urim and tummim appear in the Scripture, we understand that they were used in some type of communication between the high priest, as a representative of the people, and YHVH Himself. But what type of communication, how they worked and were used by the high priest we simply do not know—we do not know from the Tanak.
The only account of the actual usage of the urim and tummim we find in Numbers, as we read thus,
And he (Yehoshua) is to stand before El’azar the priest, who shall inquire before Yehovah for him by the right of the urim. At his word they go out, and at his word they come in, both he and all the children of Israel with him, all the congregation. (Num 27:21)
From this passage in Numbers we learn that a king or a leader of Israel may inquire before YHVH by urim and tummim on the chest of the high priest and at his word they (the urim and tummim) go in and out.
But even here in the most descriptive account of the work of the urim and tummim, we cannot obtain clear understanding of the specific work they performed other than that through them YHVH was inquired.
It is evident from the description that what the urim and tummim really were and looked like, cannot be determined with certainty. If the urim and tummim had been intended to represent any really existing thing, their nature, or the mode of their function, would certainly have been described.
So, in order to get a better understanding of the urim and tummim, we should study the meanings of their names.
The Hebrew word אוּרִים urim, literally means lights. Urim is plural of אוּר ur, which means flame, fire, thus ur means light and urim — lights.
Ur is derived from the primitive root אוֹר or, which means to be luminous (literally and metaphorically), to kindle light, fire, to shine. As a noun it means “light”.
The second Hebrew word we will study is תֻּמִּים tummim, which means perfections. Tummim is plural of תֹּם tom, completeness and figuratively it means innocence in a moral sense, since one is innocent when he is complete, full, upright before YHVH, hence tummim means perfections.
The noun tom is derived from the primitive root תָּמַם tamam, which means to complete, in a good or a bad sense, literally or figuratively, to accomplish, cease, consume, make an end.
Hence, contextually in our passage urim and tummim are together an instrument of the enlightening oracle in the high priest’s breastplate that inquires and brings the complete truth of YHVH, His decision, to the people and denotes the means with which the high priest was entrusted of ascertaining the will and counsel of YHVH in the life of the nation.
Therefore, we may deduce that the urim and tummim are altogether the pledge, which the high priest wore in his breastplate, that YHVH would continually give light (urim) and completeness (tummim) according to the right of decision (mishpat) of His people to know the Truth.
In other words, urim and tummim is the light and perfectness of the Word of YHVH.
But how did they look like and function, because the Scripture is very scarce in their description?
Here comes to help, however, the account of Flavius Josephus (Yoseph ben Matthias), a Jewish priest and general who led the revolt of the Jews against the Romans in the first century Judea and then wrote the history of Israel. Let us note here that Josephus was a priest serving at the Temple.
We read thus from his work Antiquities of the Jews,
For as to those stones, which we told you before, the high priest bare on his shoulders, which were sardonyxes, (and I think it needless to describe their nature, they being known to everybody,) the one of them shined out when God was present at their sacrifices; I mean that which was in the nature of a button on his right shoulder, bright rays darting out thence, and being seen even by those that were most remote; which splendor yet was not before natural to the stone. … Yet will I mention what is still more wonderful than this: for God declared beforehand, by those twelve stones which the high priest bare on his breast, and which were inserted into his breastplate, when they should be victorious in battle; for so great a splendor shone forth from them before the army began to march, that all the people were sensible of God’s being present for their assistance. … Now this breastplate, and this sardonyx, left off shining two hundred years before I composed this book, God having been displeased at the transgressions of his laws. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 8:9
So, according to Josephus, not only did the breastplate stones played a significant role in the communication process with YHVH, but so did the two onyx stones on the high priest’s shoulders by illumination. More specifically, Josephus says that the onyx on the right shoulder of the high priest illuminated when Elohim was present. Not only that but a splendor shone forth from the twelve stones, as well.
Let us say it again that the answers by the oracle of urim and tummim, the Light and Perfection of YHVH, His will was revealed to His people (Num 27:21), after a perfect and true manner, and that these precious stones on the shoulders and on the chest of the high priest were engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Exo 28:9-10).
And if the stones were illuminating in response from YHVH to the inquiry of the people and the names of the twelve tribes were engraved on them, then it is very plausible to say that the letters with which their names were engraved illuminated, too, thus serving like a means of communication.
But, for the precious stone to function as an oracle, the whole Hebrew alphabet must be on the stones. The issue, however, is that the names of the tribes do not include all twenty-two letters of the alphabet.
Here comes again the tradition.
The Jewish tradition handed down from generation to generation, says that in addition to the twelve names of the tribes, the stones also contained the names of the patriarchs Avraham, Yitschak, and Ya’akov engraved on the first stone on the breastplate and the words “Shivtei Yeshurun” (righteous Israel) on the last one, so that the high priest’s breastplate should contain all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew tongue.
With that being said, we may deduce that YHVH was answering the inquiries by illuminating the necessary Hebrew letter to form a sentence, which the inquirer would read: pretty much like a computer screen today displaying a text letter by letter.
Is the Jewish tradition just a myth or legend?
As a matter of fact, the validity of the Torah and Josephus’ historical writings have been confirmed to be true.
According to Breaking Israel News, one of the two sardonyx stones on the shoulders of the high priest was found in a private collection in South Africa.
And which is even more fascinating, the stone was actually illuminating to the amazement of the examiner as if it was speaking.
The actual urim and tummim
But what were the actual urim and tummim that were placed inside the breastplate of the high priest?
According to the tradition, the Most High told Mosheh to place a parchment inscribed with His Name into the fold of the breastplate of decision. This parchment on which the Name of Creator was written was known as “urim and tummim”.
However, the eminence and authority of Mosheh, with whom YHVH spoke face to face, were not entirely transferred to Yehoshua (Joshua) after his death, because they were bound up with Mosheh alone (Num 12:6-8), and Yehoshua was neither the lawgiver nor the absolute leader of Israel, as Mosheh was.
But to communicate with the Most High, Yehoshua (and everyone after him) needed the medium of the urim and tummim, with which Eleazar the high priest was entrusted concerning the supreme decision of the nation (Num 27:21), in order to bring YHVH’s righteous judgment.
But there is more to come.
We should note here that in Hebrew urim אוּרִים begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet א aleph and tummin תֻּמִּים begins with the last letter ת tav, hence, urim and tummim are את the Aleph and Tav of YHVH, i.e. the first and last and everything between them, thus expressing completeness and perfection.
Since, the breastplate was a shining (urim) and perfect (tummim) oracle, it was causing the letters on it to light up in sequence, spelling out YHVH’s complete answer to the question of the people posed by a king or a priest.
Josephus further says that in the establishment of the oracle of the urim and tummim, Mosheh left no room for the evil practices of false prophets and any attempt to abuse the “Divine authority”, but he left it to Elohim to be present or absent at his sacrifices when He pleased.
Urim and tummim ceased
The practice of the oracle of the urim and tummim ceased at the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple and it may seem to have been restored for some time after the Babylonian exile but ceased again two-hundred years before Josephus’ writing.
And if the oracle of the Urim and Tummim ceased two-hundred years before Josephus completed Antiquities of the Jews, then this cessation falls sometime in the period of the Maccabees.
Josephus does not recount any specifics, but in his work, he simply says, “God having been displeased at the transgressions of his laws”. As for who transgressed His laws and what laws were transgressed most unfortunately, we are not told.
In conclusion, urim and tummim, את the Aleph and Tav of YHVH, are the appointed medium for the revelation of His will by which Israel possessed the means of asking for the decision of YHVH through the right of the Urim and Tummim, provided He did not reveal it through a prophet.
The obtainment of the complete (final) decision of YHVH on certain issues by urim and tummim presupposes His gracious presence in the midst of His people Israel, most remarkably above the Ark of the Covenant (Exo 25:22).
The high priest, bearing on his chest the urim and tummim, את the aleph and tav of YHVH, was to appear before Him in the most Set-apart Place to bring the right of Israel to beseech His decision (Exo 28:30).
YHVH — the Aleph and Tav
In the Hebrew Scripture, one of the titles of the Creator YHVH is Aleph and Tav representing the first and the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and everything in-between.
The letters aleph and tav, are the first and last letters in the Hebrew alphabet. When found together in the Scripture, Aleph-Tav represents the Creator as the beginning and the end.
Thus said Yehovah, King of Israel, and his Redeemer, Yehovah of hosts, ‘I am the First and I am the Last, besides Me there is no Elohim’. (Isa 44:6) (see also Isa 48:12 and Rev 1:11)
Furthermore, YHVH declared through His Son (Rev 1:1) the following,
I am the Aleph and the Tav, Beginning and End, says Yehovah, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Rev 1:8)
While in exile, the judgments of the urim and tummim could not have possibly carried out, because of the wanting of the Temple and Levitical priesthood. Likewise, today in the longest [Roman] exile, and because the new Temple in Jerusalem where the high priest can inquire Elohim is not yet built, the use of the urim and tummim is simply inapplicable.
But the day will come when the third Temple of YHVH will be built and the Torah will be the law of the land.
But even then, under the reign of Messiah and the third Temple built, as prophesied in Eze 40-48, there would be no need for the Urim and Tummim as a medium to inquire YHVH, because the Messiah Himself, as the Messenger of His Face and the Living Torah (see John 1), is the Light and Perfectness to the people.
The people will have no need for the urim and tummim, because the true Urim and Tummim, את the Aleph and Tav of YHVH, will be here and the Creator will speak directly through His Son, as He spoke to the people at His first coming.
For the next peculiar part of the high priest attire: And you shall make a plate of clean gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet: SET-APART TO YEHOVAH. (Exo 28:36), proceed to the article “The Name of Yehovah is above all“.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.