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, with messages being spelled on the Urim and Tummim for the High Priest.

In Pirkei 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.

Major Uses

The context for its mention in Scripture indicates the Urim and Tummim was only used for questions of grave importance, usually connected to the function of the state, such as whether and when to go to war, though there is one passage in Numbers that hints at the possibility it was used for more mundane questions, such as resolving difficult legal questions. While it is not mentioned by name, Joshua may have determined who violated God's decree of proscription at Jericho by means of the Urim and Tummim (Joshua 6-7).

The answers given by the device that were recorded in the Bible were full sentences, suggesting either that the device was an aid to prophecy, but did not operate apart from prophecy, or that the rabbis were correct in their claim that it spelled out messages from the letters on the breastplate.

Mention of the Urim and Tummim ceases early in the history of Israel, indicating that it was no longer in use at the rise of classical prophecy (eighth century BCE). There is some indication that it was reintroduced briefly during the Persian period, but it again quickly disappears from the records.

Post-biblical sources offer numerous elaborations on the history and operation of the Urim and Tummim, but many of the sources contradict each other, making it difficult to fix on any as a legitimate tradition (Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q376; 4QpIsa; Antiquities 3:8; Yoma 73b; Exodus Rabbah 47; Sifrei Numbers 141; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Exodus 28; Zohar II 234b; Nahmanides on Exodus 28).

The Urim and Tummim have also become part and parcel of Western occult lore; Joseph Smith (founder of the Latter Day Saints movement, or Mormonism), for example, claimed to have used the Urim and Tummim to read "Reformed Egyptian" language of the golden book given him by the angel Moroni. The seal of Yale University also contains a reference to them.

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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Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

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.