Last week I went with my granddaughter Mya to the Spain and the Hispanic World Exhibition at the Royal Academy. Mya is interested in fabrics and ancient dyes and so I thought that the portrait paintings with costumes that display brightly coloured yarns, engraved gold and mother of pearl would be just up her street.
Also, a good focus for this week’s Torah portion in which we read in intricate detail of the magnificent clothes made for Aaron in his role as the High Priest. Clothes skilfully woven endowered with precious and semiprecious stones, gold threads and colour galore. There is an ephod – a close fitting coat worn round the body with two shoulder straps – each containing an onyx stone set in gold engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (28:9) ‘to be stones of memorial for the children of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial’ (28:12).
Attached to the ephod is the Breastplate of Judgment (28:15). Again, a reminder of the tribes with twelve precious and semi-precious stones, arranged in four rows of three each one engraved with the name of a tribe. “And Aaron 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” (28:29).
That’s not all. Now we arrive at one of the most obscure subjects connected with the High Priest. The Urim and the Tummim. “And you shall place in the Breastplate of Judgment the Urim and the Tummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he comes before God, and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the children of Israel on his heart before God, always” (28:30).
What are the Urim and the Tummim? Literally ‘lights’ and ‘perfections’ which may mean ‘perfect lights’ but commentators are divided on whether the Urim and the Tummim are identical to the twelve brilliant stones or distinct from it (342, Hertz). Most think that they were some sort of written formula of the name of God 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 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 the Divine names, the High Priest had a vision in which the letters carved in the stones lit up.
And what about the function of the Urim and the Tummim when Aaron is no more? Up to the time of King David, the Urim and Tummin are used for indirect communication with God. As in when God tells Moses that his successor Joshua must consult Him by means of Eleazar, the new High Priest. “Before Eleazar the priest he will stand, and seek from him the judgment of the Urim” (Bemidbar 27:21). And later when Saul is frightened by the encroaching Philistines, he ‘inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets’ (1 Samuel: 38:6).
In Jewish life the holy is inextricably mixed with the mundane. Our clothes, our food, our activities reflect a certain level of holiness occasionally experienced. In contrast, the dress of the High Priest reaches a highpoint in holiness. Perpetual holy guidance for the Priest and a constant reminder of God’s ways for the People.