From the Foster Bible. (Wikimedia)

Multiplicity Of Meanings

The high priest's breastplate reminds us of the numerous ways to understand text and reality.

Commentary on Parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20 - 30:10

This week, the Torah portion 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.

The Breastplate

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 12 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.

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.

The obvious implication, of course, is that the meaning communicated by the reading which we decide upon as normative is only one of many possible meanings, each with its own power and profundity, which are lost to us in the process of arriving at the ‘right’ meaning, but available to us if we choose to leave behind the traditional reading and search for a different one. Is this the particular nature of divine texts, divine communications? Or, is this the nature of all texts? Is the measure of a text’s divinity precisely its ability to not mean one specific thing but, rather, to communicate a multiplicity of meaning?

Having learned this destabilizing lesson from the process of the Urim and the Tummim, we can turn to our earlier question. The Breastplate of Judgment was seen to have, in addition to its oracular function, another function, that of atoning for mistakes in judgment by the courts of law. How did it do that? And, how did the Breastplate do these two apparently different things; atone for poor judgment as well as dispense correct judgment? How did these two roles co-exist?

Might we not suggest that the model presented to us by the Urim and Tummim of a text which, rather than being solid, clear, and immutable, is, in fact, slippery, suggestive, and full of possibilities, is one that is also relevant for any and all attempts to make meaning?

Are not judges, when trying to arrive at the truth in a case, called upon to interpret reality in the same way that a text must be interpreted; knowing all the while that the meaning they arrive at in their reading of reality is only one of myriad possible meanings? Is it not the case that there is no guarantee that their reading is the ‘right’ one?

It is this very knowledge, this understanding of the multiplicity of meaning, implied by the workings of the Urim and Tummim in the Breastplate of Judgment, which serves as an atonement for an incorrect judgment, for a poor reading by the judges of the reality which they were called upon to determine. For the high priest, after all, has the Tummim, with which he can hope to get the inspiration necessary to arrive at a true meaning of the message of the Urim, the lit up letters. We, in our attempts to wrest meaning from a confused and confusing world, have no such built-in assistance.

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.


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