Multiplicity Of Meanings
The high priest's breastplate reminds us of the numerous ways to understand text and reality if we free ourselves to question normative readings and consider interpretations from new perspectives.
What Are Urim and Tummim?
What exactly these Urim and Tummim were is an interesting question. In general, most commentaries think that they were some sort of written formula--the name of God, according to Rashi--which somehow gave the breastplate its oracular ability.
The Ramban (Nahmanides) says that they were "holy names, by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastplate lit up to the eyes of the priest who was asking for judgment." The Ramban's language is suggestive; his use of the phrase "to the eyes of the priest" seems to indicate that the stones did not actually light up, but, rather, that by concentrating on and/or reciting these divine names, the high priest had a vision in which the letters carved in the stones lit up.
The Ramban goes into some detail describing this process: "For example: when they asked 'who should lead the way for us to fight against the Canaanites?' the priest would concentrate on the divine names which are the Urim, and the letters would light up to his eyes... .
“And when the letters lit up to the eyes of the priest he still did not know their correct order, for from the letters which can be ordered 'Yehuda ya'aleh (Judah shall go up)' it is possible to make of them 'hoy hed alehah' (perhaps 'oh, echo upon her') or 'hey al Yehuda' (perhaps 'woe unto Yehudah'), and many other words.
“But there were also the holy names which are called 'Tummim,' through whose power the heart of the priest was made perfect in the knowledge of the meaning of the letters which lit up to his eyes, for when he concentrated on the Urim and the letters lit up, he then immediately concentrated on the names which are the Tmumim, while the letters were still lit up to his eyes, and there appeared in his heart that the order was 'Yehuda ya'aleh' ('Judah shall go up)'. And this is one of the levels of the holy spirit, lower than prophecy, and higher than a heavenly voice..."
On its own, this process is fascinating, and is very suggestive in the way in which it views the 'text' of the lit up letters as something plastic, undetermined, containing a multiplicity of possible meanings and interpretations, which need to be worked through by the process of the Tummim. In fact, the Ramban himself, in his preface to Genesis, describes the entire Torah in a similar fashion: the Torah is written with no punctuation, no sentences, just letters in a row, and therefore could, in theory, be divided up into words and sentences in a way other than the way we traditionally divide it up. The Torah would then be read in a way that is substantially different from the way in which it is traditionally read, communicating other meanings, other messages, other truths.
This way of looking at the information communicated by the Breastplate of Judgment, and, in fact, at the message of the entire Torah itself, is, in many ways, a destabilizing one, as well as a liberating one. Divine messages--the Torah we received at Mt. Sinai, as well as the ongoing, oracular communications of the Breastplate of Judgment in the Temple--contain many possible readings, which must be worked through in order to achieve 'the' reading.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.