A Word of Torah - Parashat Termuah

I imagine that I am like many people who read Terumah and Tetzavah - last week’s and this week’s Torah portions - with a mixture of frustration and intrigue; frustration at being unable to fully follow the details of the design of the Mishkan and its many furnishings, and intrigue because of the materials used: glowing jewels, gleaming metals and rich fabrics.

Yet in reading through this week’s details of the priestly robes, particularly those of the high priest, one detail stuck out to me.  The two most unusual garments, the Ephod and the Hoshen Mishpat (essentially a vest and a breastplate) both were adorned with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The reason given for this adornment is the same for both garments: as a remembrance before the Lord (Exodus 28:12 & 29)

But we might ask, remembrance of what?

I think the answer to that question lies with the contents of the breastplate, the mysterious Urim and Thummim.  The Torah’s reference to these two objects reveals little more than that they are instruments for determining God’s will.  Common speculation is that they possessed a power of illumination by which they would light up letters in the tribal names to spell out the divine will.

But a story in 1 Samuel offers a somewhat more pedestrian explanation.  The story tells of a route of the Philistine armies initiated by a daring attack by Jonathan, son of Israel’s first king, Saul.  Saul attempts to capitalize on Jonathan’s achievement and orders his army to join the battle and not to eat anything until evening when victory is secured.  Jonathan does not hear of his father’s order and tastes of some honey he comes upon in a field. After the victory, when God does not answer Saul’s plea that he be allowed to loot the Philistine camp, he takes this as a sign that someone has violated his prohibition against eating. Intent on determining the guilty party, he sets up a test to determine whether the sin lies in himself or his son on the one hand, or the Israelite army on the other.

The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of what happens next reads as follows: “Saul then said to the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Show Thammim.’  Jonathan and Saul were indicated by lot and the troops were cleared.” (1 Samuel 14:41)  Thammim, the word used in the Hebrew text, is identical to Thummim - only the vocalization differs.  The JPS text then notes the Septuagint translation which reads “If this iniquity was due to my son Jonathan or to me, O Lord, God of Israel, show Urim; and if You say it was due to Your people Israel, show Thummim.”

The implication seems to be that the Urim and Thummim are a kind of lot; one indicating Choice A, the other Choice B.  Were difficult questions placed before God as binary choices, the showing by the priest of one or the other would resolve the matter.  This is far less dramatic (and more limiting) than the idea that they possessed illuminating powers, but for those of us who shun the fantastical, it’s a far more appealing explanation.

But the story has an interesting coda, and one that I think can help answer the question I posed above, namely, as a remembrance of what is Aaron carrying the names of the Israelite tribes into the sanctuary?  Further casting of lots reveals that Jonathan did indeed violate his father’s command by tasting the honey. Saul, conscious of his vow, promises to put his son to death. “But the troops said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, after bringing this great victory to Israel?  Never! As the Lord lives, not a hair of his head shall fall to the ground!” (1 Samuel 14:45)

The message I draw from this uprising of Saul’s troops is that, at times, knowing the truth is not the same as knowing what is just.  The Urim and Thummim, if they were indeed used, may have revealed the sinner, but they did not illuminate the path of justice.  


Perhaps this is why the Hoshen Mishpat must be inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes.  They remind the one who bears them that they are responsible not just for the truth of a particular matter, but also for the justice that truth must embody. Sometimes that justice cannot be embodied in a simple, binary choice.  Indeed sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan and Saul, knowing the truth can obscure the just. Perhaps the inscribed names of the twelve tribes, representing the entire community, can remind the high priest that his responsibility extends beyond knowing the truth to knowing also what is just.  Perhaps it is a reminder that his duty is not only to God, but to God’s people as well.

Bruce Alpert