The last Mishna in perek 7 of Masechet Yoma itemises the garments that the Kohanim wore during their avodah. Regular kohanim were required to wear four garments –kutonet, michnasayim, mitznefet and avnet. A kohen gadol would wear an additional four items – choshen, ephod, meil and tzitz. The Mishna ends by stating that the kohen would be required to wear these eight garments while posing questions to the urim v’tumim. The urim v’tumim would then provide instructions that would have to be followed.
The Gemara in Yoma (73b) states that the urim v’tumim were so named because urim comes from the root of ‘or’ (light) and they enlighten Bnei Yisrael with regard to the will of Hashem and tumim comes from the root of ‘tamim’(complete) because this directive will only come when the people are pure and complete.
There are various interpretations as to what the urim v’tumim actually were. Rav Hai Gaon is of the opinion that the actual stones of the Choshen were the urim v’tumim. A support for this opinion is found in the Meor Einaim who states that there were two sets of stones on the garments of the kohen gadol – that of the choshen and on the straps of the ephod. It is these two sets of stones that are referred to as the urim and the tumim. Interestingly, the Ba’alei Hotosfot have an explanation on the name based on this interpretation. They state that the various divisions of stones placed in the choshen allude to the division of Eretz Yisrael between the tribes. The reference to this is seen in the urim which means ‘medinot’ (states) and tumim meaning boundaries.
The most common explanation of the urim v’tumim is that it was a parchment or scroll inscribed with the shem hameforash that was placed between the folds of the choshen.1 The Ramban maintians that the urim v’tumim were inscribed with many holy names of Hashem. This is why they are referred to in plural, rather than singular form. The various names referred to as the urim would light up a number of letters on the choshen. However, these letters would be in no particular order and would require further interpretation from the Kohen Gadol. The various names referred to as the tumim would ‘complete’ the answer for the kohen, by providing him with the knowledge to associate the letters into a cohesive unit that would formulate the response. The Ramban states that this level of communication from Hashem was ranked between the higher level of nevuah, and the relatively lower level of bat kol.
The Ramban also brings the opinion of the Ibn Ezra who states that the urim v’tumim were made of silver and gold and were made by the artists along with the instruments of the mishkan. These ornaments were placed for safekeeping between the folds of the choshen, until they were needed, when they were taken out of the folds. The Ramban however disagrees. Firstly, there was never any command in the Torah to fashion the urim v’tumim. This is different from all other keilim of artistry, which had pesukim detailing their size, dimension and function. Secondly, there was never any detail given by the Torah about them having been made. This is different to the other garments and instruments which have pesukim outlining that they be made (eg. “vayaas et haephod”; “vayaas et hachoshen”). Rather the Ramban states that the urim v’tumim were not made of gold and silver or fashioned by artisans. In fact, the Ramban writes that they were not made by Bnei Yisrael at all. Either it was a sod that was passed on to Moshe from Hashem which he wrote down, or they were made in shamayim by Hashem himself and passed on to Moshe.
There is an important practical difference between the interpretations. The Ramban and other rishonim who understand that it is the shemot hakedusha would hold that the urim v’tumim were not included in the items of the bigdei kehuna. However, those that understand it as the stones in the choshen or as a metal item (Ibn Ezra) would see the urim v’tumim as an item included in the bigdei kehuna. The difference in these opinions would be if a kohen was missing the urim v’tumim (as was the case in the times of the second temple). The halacha states that a kohen cannot undertake the avodah while lacking any of his prescribed garments (mechasar begadim). A possible answer for the latter opinions would be to say that the urim v’tumim did exist in those times, however not as it had previously. In the second temple it was only fashioned as an ornament and had no power to provide any response to Bnei Yisrael. Therefore it was in use only to complete the quantity of garments required by the kohen gadol without having an inherent function.
1 The dimensions of the choshen were 1 amah long, and a zeret (half amah) wide. When folded in 2 (by length) its measurement was a zeret by a zeret. The urim v’tumim were placed between this fold.
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