Mishnas Chayim – Tetzaveh: The Sober Reality of the Urim V’Tumim

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Chevra Lomdei Mishna
14 Feb 2008

View pdf – Parashat Tetzaveh 5768

Kindly take a moment to study MISHNAS CHAYIM in the merit of
יעקב משה בן חיים ע”ה
a fellow Jew who passed away with no relatives to arrange Torah study on behalf of his Neshamah.
Among the priestly vestments discussed in this week’s parsha, we find a most unique article known as the urim v’tumim: a fragment of parchment containing Holy Names of Hashem, which was inserted into the priestly breastplate (Ramban on Shemos, 28:30). The urim v’tumim performed a most remarkable function: upon request, it would dispense advice and information concerning future events.

Sounds like a great way to tell the future! Why not take advantage of such an instrument and use it, say, to play the stock market? Well, for starters, restrictions applied. As stated in the Mishnah in Yoma (7:5):

כֹהֵן גָדוֹל מְשַמֵש בִשְמוֹנָה כֵלִים….בְאֵלו נִשְאָלִין בְאורִים וְתֻמִים. וְאֵין נִשְאָלִין אֶלָא לַמֶלֶךְ ולְבֵית דִין ולְמִי שֶהַצִבור צָרִיךְ בוֹ.

“The Kohen Gadol officiates with eight (priestly) garments…..Only while (the Kohen Gadol is) wearing these garments may the urim v’tumim be consulted. Furthermore, a query may be posed to the urim v’tumim only on behalf of the king, the High Court, or someone who performs a necessary function for the community.”

It is apparent from the Mishnah that utilization of the urim v’tumim is no simple matter. Any old yokel who wants to strike it rich can’t just saunter over to the urim v’tumim and use it as his personal financial advisor; rather, all requests must be funneled through the Kohen Gadol. Furthermore, only an extremely important personage or body could enjoin the Kohen Gadol to apply for the urim v’tumim’s prophetic services.

What are the parameters of the Kohen Gadol’s usage of the urim v’tumim? Are there limitations to his access of this remarkable implement, or may he use it even for his personal affairs? R’ Chaim Kanievsky explains (Derech Sichah, Parshas Tetzaveh) that surprisingly, the Kohen Gadol is allowed to benefit from the urim v’tumim’s guidance for his personal queries.

The proof for this fact is illustrated by the Vilna Gaon’s rendering of the well-known incident in Shmuel I (ch.1). The navi depicts how the childless Chanah supplicates before Hashem, petitioning Him to grant her offspring. Upon observing her silent prayer, the Kohen Gadol Eili decides that she must be inebriated. He tells Chanah to become sober and dispose of her beverages. In response to this reprimand, Chanah declares that she is not drunk; she is merely broken-hearted, and her murmuring is her tefillah to Hashem.

Rashi adds a little twist to this dialogue. To Chanah’s statement—“I am a broken-hearted woman”—Rashi adds, “Like Sarah (our matriarch).”

The entire interaction begs explanation. Eili was a great and holy individual; why would he immediately assume that Chanah was intoxicated? Couldn’t he figure out that a forlorn figure crying and mumbling in a sanctuary was probably davening in some way, even if he was unaccustomed to the method of prayer? Furthermore, one would think that Chanah’s behavior would evoke pity and words of appeasement, rather than Eili’s seemingly harsh reprimand.

Rashi’s comment renders Chanah’s response puzzling as well. Why was it necessary to bring Sarah Imeinu into the conversation; what did she have to do with anything?

The Vilna Gaon (Kol Eliyahu se’if 153) provides a most insightful explanation of the entire incident. The Gaon states that in fact, Eili regarded Chanah and her behavior quite positively—at least initially. Chanah was one of the seven prophetesses of Jewish history. As such, when Eili witnessed her acting in such a manner, he immediately assumed that she must be engaging in some type of wondrous, lofty activity, and yearned to know exactly what it was. What did Eili do to unravel this mystery? He consulted with the urim v’tumim, an action that indicates that apparently, the Kohen Gadol is authorized to use the urim v’tumim for personal edification.

However, the urim v’tumim’s method of dispensing answers was not so simple. In describing the process, the Ramban (ibid.) explains that upon the choshen (breastplate which contained the urim v’tumim) were inscribed all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. When the Kohen Gadol would pose a question to the urim v’tumim, the urim v’tumim spelled out the answer by illuminating the letters on the choshen that formed the desired answer. There was a catch, though: the necessary letters were merely illuminated, in no particular order. It was up to the questioner to figure out how to arrange the letters in the proper order, forming the (correct) response.

The Vilna Gaon explains that this is where the complications arose in our story. In response to Eili’s query, the urim v’tumim lit up the following letters: ‘הכשר’.Given these letters, Eili read the message as: ‘שכרה’ ‘shikorah’, which means ‘drunk’. Although he had initially regarded Chanah in a sympathetic, even praiseworthy light, Eili’s demeanor towards her changed when he thought that the urim v’tumim had informed him that Chanah was intoxicated.

Chanah responded that she was perfectly sober, and that his initial instincts regarding her behavior were actually correct; she had been engaged in silent prayer. Yet, how could she explain the indictment of the urim v’tumim? The Vilna Gaon writes that Chanah pointed out the correct alignment of the letters: not ‘שכרה’ ‘shikorah’; but rather, –‘כשרה’ ‘keSarah’, ‘like Sarah (Imeinu)’. Chanah was telling Eili that her predicament was the same as the one shared by our matriarch Sarah, who yearned for offspring despite years of barrenness.

May we be zocheh to behold the rebuilding of the Bais HaMikdash, the reinstating of the Kohen Gadol, and the return of the urim v’tumim and all the priestly garments, speedily in our days.

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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.