Into the Breastplate of Judgment you shall place the urim and tumim: The word urim means “lights,” while the word tumim is related to the word for “sincerity” and “devotion” (temimut).1

In terms of our Divine soul, the urim denotes its brilliant awareness of its Divine source and its fiery yearning to dissolve in it. The tumim denotes its wholehearted sincerity and thorough devotion to fulfill the commandments. This devotion counterbalances the urim experience, dragging it down from its rapture to engage the mundane and elevate it to Divinity.

Thus, the urim and tumim thus express the dynamic of “run and return,”2 the ongoing give and take between ecstatic rapture and humble submission that characterizes the spiritual life.3

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The urim and tumim lost their ability to make the Breastplate function as an oracle after the destruction of the First Temple.4 In general, the Second Temple imparted a palpable Divine awareness to those who entered it precisely as the First Temple did. However, unlike the First Temple, the Second Temple was not able to radiate that awareness abroad, to influence the mundane realm. Similarly, the Breastplate remained intact during the Second Temple era, but its ability to render judgment for all mankind through the urim and tumim did not.

In a larger sense, this situation defines the general condition of exile. The Divine consciousness, goodness, and perfection of the messianic era lie dormant, although intact; only the pretentious façade of the supposedly immutable laws of nature is apparent. The two exist within the same reality.

The ineffectuality of the Breastplate is thus a metaphor for the overall condition we know as “exile.” This is alluded to by the fact that the word for “Breastplate” (חשן) shares the same numerical value as the words for “snake” (נחש)5 and “Messiah” (משיח).6 The primordial snake, which brought sin and confusion to the world, and the Messiah, who will bring clarity of purpose, are, of course, diametric opposites. Yet that is the paradox of Exile: the messianic reality is implicit within exile; our job is just to reveal it.

Allegorically, then, our challenge in exile is to restore the urim and tumim to the cosmic Breastplate—to “decode” the implicit messianic perception, goodness, and perfection within the snakeskin of reality—so that it can assume its proper, revealed role.7