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.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
This week, the parashah continues with the details of the Mishkan--the Tabernacle. The focus is on the clothing worn by the priests and the high priest, the inaugural rituals and services which were to be done at the opening of the Tabernacle, and details of some of the vessels and offerings in the Tabernacle.
I would like to focus on a part of the high priest's outfit that has fascinated me since I was a kid--the breastplate, known as the 'Choshen Hamishpat,' the Breastplate of Judgment. On it were twelve precious and semi-precious stones, arranged in four rows of three. The Torah states that "the stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve in their names, engraved, each person with his name on it shall be, for the twelve tribes." Later, at the end of the section, we are told "and Aharon [the high priest] shall carry the names of the children of Israel in the Breastplate of Judgment on his heart when he enters the holy place as a remembrance before God, always."
That's not all. In addition to the breastplate itself, there is a mysterious final touch, which students and alumni of Yale will be familiar with: "And you shall place in the Breastplate of Judgment the Urim and the Tummim, and they shall be on Aharon's heart when he comes before God, and Aharon shall carry the judgment of the children of Israel on his heart before God, always." The words "Urim and Tummim" are often left untranslated, as their meaning is obscure. Urim is connected to the Hebrew word 'ohr' which means light, and Tummim is connected to the word 'tam' which means simple, perfect, or pure.
The symbolism and function of all this is less than clear. The traditional commentaries suggest a variety of possibilities. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, says that the breastplate in some way atones for mistakes in judgment; if the court made an error, and decided a case wrongly, that mistake in judgment is somehow atoned for by the wearing of the Breastplate of Judgment. How that works is not explained.
Another explanation which Rashi, the Rashbam, and others give, is that the Breastplate dispenses judgment to Israel. This is the meaning of the verse in Numbers (27:21) "Before Elazar the priest he [Joshua] will stand, and seek from him the judgment of the Urim." How these two different functions relate to each other is something I will come back to later.
It is this dispensing of judgment by the breastplate which is the really interesting part. Traditionally, it is believed that the Urim and Tummim somehow empower and energize the breastplate to do this. Generally, the understanding is that it works like this: The Jewish people have a question about some communal issue. The question is brought to the high priest who is wearing the Choshen. After some sort of ritual or rite, some of the letters incised into the stones on the breastplate light up, spelling out the answer to the question, rendering the 'judgment'. It is understood that the Urim and Tummim, in some way placed inside the breastplate, are what give it this power.