The High Priest’s Breastplate

When describing the High Priest’s breastplate, the Torah states:1 “And you shall place the urim vetumim within the breastplate of judgment.” From the construction of the sanctu­ary until the destruction of the First Beis HaMikdash, there was no change in the function of the urim vetumim.

In Hilchos Beis HaBechirah 4:1, the Rambam describes the urim vitumim in the Second Beis HaMikdash:

The urim vetumim 2 and questions were not addressed to them [as indicated by the verse,4] “...until a priest will arise with the urim vetumim.” [In the Second Beis HaMikdash, the urim vetumim] were made only to fulfill [the requirement of having] eight garments for the High Priest, so that the High Priest would not lack [the required] garments.

Rashi’s Conception

What exactly were the urim vetumim? Rashi, in his commentary on the verse cited above, writes:

This is [G‑d’s] Ineffable Name which was embedded within the folds of the breastplate. Through this medium, [the High Priest] enlightens his words and perfects his words.

In the Second [Beis Ha]Mikdash, there was a breastplate [for the High Priest], for the High Priest could not [serve] if lacking the required garments. [G‑d’s Name,] however, was not [embedded] within it.

Because of the inscription [of G‑d’s Name, the breast­plate] was to as “[the breastplate of] judgment,” as it is written,5 “And he will enquire of him the judgment of the urim.”

Rashi’s conception appears to be based on the simple inter­pretation of the verse on which he bases his commentary. That verse concludes the passage which describes the fashioning of the High Priest’s breastplate. The placement of the stones had already been mentioned beforehand. This leads to the conclu­sion that the placement of the urim vetumim mentioned in this verse refers to a different matter, the inscription of G‑d’s Name.

The Rambam’s Conception

From the Rambam’s state­ments cited above, it would appear6 that he interprets the term urim vetumim as referring to the stones of the breastplate themselves.7 For otherwise, as Rashi states, there would be no question of the High Priest being considered as lacking the required garments.

This interpretation is also indicated by the fact that when describing the fashioning of the High Priest’s breastplate,8 the Rambam mentions the placement of the stones, but does not make any mention of making the urim vetumim. Similarly, in his Commentary to the Mishneh, he mentions “the shamir, a snake that burrowed into stone, with which the urim vetumim were inscribed.” The phrase urim vetumim appears to refer to the stones on which the inscription of the names of the tribes was made.9 Moreover, this conception is also borne out by the fact that the Rambam’s son, Rabbeinu Avraham, states10 that the term urim vetumim refers to the stones of the High Priest’s breastplate themselves.

One of the Ramifications of this Difference in Approach

The difference in opinion between Rashi and the Rambam concerning the definition of the urim vetumim leads to a vari­ance in the interpretation of a related Talmudic passage. Our Sages state11 that when enquiry was made of the urim vetumim, the High Priest wearing them “would direct his face to the Divine Presence.” In his commentary, Rashi interprets this as meaning that the High Priest would gaze “at the urim vetumim, [G‑d’s] Ineffable Name which was [embedded] with the breast­plate.”

When, by contrast, the Rambam describes this process of enquiry, he writes12 that the High Priest “would face the ark, and the enquirer would face the priest’s back.” For the Rambam defines “the Divine Presence” as referring to His manifestation in the Holy of Holies.

May we merit the clarification of this dispute in the most explicit manner possible, when “a priest will arise with the urim vetumim,” with the coming of the Redemption and the rebuild­ing of the Beis HaMikdash. And may this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XI, Parshas Tetzaveh; Parshas Tetzaveh, 5748