Urim and Tummim

This method of Jewish divination is traced back to the priestly garments.

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Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia of Magic, Myth, and Mysticism (Llewellyn Worldwide).

The Urim and Tummim (“Light and Perfection” or “Perfect Lights”) was a method of divination that was worn as part of the priestly garments (Exodus 28; Numbers 27; I Samuel 28). Little is truly known about Urim and Tummim; even the name has been subjected to wildly different translations.

A Conduit for Messages

The Rabbis understood the Urim and Tummim to be part of the breastplate of the High Priest and that its oracular function came from light shining through the 12 gemstones mounted on the breastplate (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 38).

This was achieved by having a plate inscribed with the Tetragrammaton inserted behind the gemstone mounts. Supernal light radiating from the divine name would illuminate different stones. Since each stone was inscribed with the names of the 12 tribes, the Talmud teaches that it functioned as a kind of Ouija board, withm messages being spelled on the Urim and Tummim for the High Priest.

InPirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, it is taught that the stone representing a tribe would glow if the tribe was involved in a transgression, but then the diviner would have to discern the specifics himself (38). Some believe the Urim were the lights, while the Tummim was a device or code that helped in interpreting the message.

Other interpreters suggest that the Urim and Tummim were separate objects that were both kept in a pouch of the breastplate. In the Bible, one individual who made a counterfeit breastplate for his personal cult substituted terafim (small figurines representing gods or ancestors) for the Urim and Tummim (Judges 17-18; Hosea 3:4). This is a tantalizing but frustrating bit of data. Because we also know so little about the terafim, the association of the two objects does not shed much light either, no pun intended.

The best evidence is that the two may have both been made of light-reflecting stone: Mesopotamian sources also mention an elmeshu stone used by the gods for oracular purposes.

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Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, TX. He is also lecturer in Kabbalah and rabbinic literature at the University of North Texas.

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