Project Genesis


Urim and Tumim of the High Priest

Question: What is the Urim & Tumim on the Ephod? How were they used by the priest? And the big question -  what happened to them?

Answer: Inside the Breastplate was placed God’s sacred names. Ramban (Exod. 28:30) states that Moses received these names through divine inspiration, as they are not recorded in the construction parameters written in the Torah, as are the Temple’s vessels and the priests clothing. Ramban explains the purpose of these names. One would inquire of the priest regarding which tribe might go forth to battle first, or what might be the outcome of the battle. The priest would ponder God’s names the Urim and Tumim contained in the Breastplate’s folded pouch and then he would be enabled to receive divine knowledge of the answer. Ramban states the letters engraved in the twelve stone would serve to spell out the answer as they miraculously lit up. But then the priest would have to ponder another name of God to figure out the order of those illuminated letters so as to reorganize them and make a coherent message. He would then communicate that message to the inquirer.

We wonder why these “names” of God were placed in the Breastplate. And why this unique mechanism of knowledge was used only in matters of war, as Rashi says on verse 27:21 in the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar)?

But what connection exists between this Breastplate, and divine knowledge regarding war? Why is it that the divine names were not used, for instance, to learn answers to questions concerning Kosher, Tefillin, and many other mitzvahs? Maybe the answers can be found in the very nature of the questions.

God’s Torah contains all that is necessary to arrive at the accurate understanding of all commands. Referring to the Written and Oral Laws, and the methods of derivation, all is addressed nothing is left out. This knowledge can be contained in the Torah because the commands concern intelligible phenomena. For example, the “object” of a mitzvah or its “performance” have precise and consistent structures. Torah and its laws will never change. Therefore, all can be contained and without no divinely inspired, additional facts.

But morality is quite different. Morality, first and foremost, requires an Authority to define what is and isn’t moral. If we were to leave this question up to man, and for every individual, we will find a great divergent of opinions. And because of such conflict, no single law could emerge from which a society would or could observe. We constantly see man’s moral ignorance today displayed in ongoing debates over stem cell research, abortion, the death sentence, and various other moral issues. There is no means by which man, by himself, can determine rights of life, since man did not create life. Only the Creator of life can determine when life is or isn’t appropriate. Therefore, in battle as Rashi taught, the Urim and Tumim was necessary to arrive at God’s determinations regarding life. Wartime issues are not subject to the court system, where a murderer must be put to death. Such cut and dry cases like that require no prophetic insight. However, engaging in war is not a response to a single person, or to an act of murder…as war might preempt any casualties.

Perhaps God must illuminate men as to the right to take life as wartime actions fall outside typical Torah considerations. In fact, many laws are suspended in the time of war, like eating non-kosher and marrying a non-Jew. Thus, war in and of itself presents one with many new considerations, and the taking of life is among one of them. Therefore, it seems reasonable that this is the reason for the Urim and Tumim…God’s divine names that miraculously enable the priest to acquire insight regarding morality and success in war. We should not, neither should we wish to place our lives in unnecessary danger, so the Urim and Tumim has been given to inquire as to who should engage in battle first. Ibn Ezra states that the use of the Urim and Tumim was to learn the future. (Exod. 28:30)

This also explains why the Breastplate was named the Breastplate of “Judgment”: the matters inquired addressed issues of justice. This may also explain why the Urim and Tumim are inserted in the Breastplate, where man’s names appear since the questions are about mankind, represented by the tribes.

Why is there no description of the Urim and Tumim in the Torah sections outlining the Temple’s vessels and the priestly garb? Ramban seems to have hinted to the answer when he states that Moses had previously received these names through divine inspiration. Next to creation itself, divine inspiration is the primary display of God’s authority – the very concept that decisions concerning morality are based on God’s authority. Therefore, the very method with which Moses received these names was an authoritative method. The theme of morality is further embellished by the placement of the Breastplate next to the “heart” of the priest.

Finally, what insights do we gain through the understanding of God’s answering through the priest’s pondering of God’s “names”? Just maybe this is precisely the correct method He uses to teach of us man’s ignorance concerning morality. For we only know His name, and nothing else about Him. Therefore, God associates the lesson of man’s ignorance concerning His name, with our ever continual searching for moral answers. Just as we are ignorant of God’s true nature and only know His name, so too are we ignorant of determining morality without His direction.

As to your last question, “What happened to them?” Maybe, since they were given by Divine Inspiration, they will once again be revealed in the same way?

Shalom, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Tefillin of the High Priest

Question: How did the High Priest in the Temple wear Tefilin while also wearing a head dress?

Answer: The High Priest was able to wear Tefillin – the Sages explain that the golden “Tzitz” band was on his forehead, the hat was fairly high up on the head (and was held on by a framework of blue strings), and there was room in between for the Tefillin, just above the hairline.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Precious Stones of the Twelve Tribes

Filed under: The Temple

Question: What were the precious stones in the high priest’s garments and how are they related to the twelve tribes?

Answer: The ephod had two stones on its shoulder straps, both of onyx (shoham), with the names of six tribes inscribed on each stone (Ex. 29:9-12;39:6-7). As for the twelve stones in the choshen (Ex. 28:17-21;39:10-14), the Torah doesn’t indicate how they correspond to the twelve tribes; but the correspondence can be found in the commentary of Rabbenu Bachya:
Reuven – odem (ruby) Shimon – pitdah (smaragd) Levi – barekes (carbuncle) Yehudah – nofech (emerald) Yissachar – sapir (sapphire) Zevulun – yahalom (pearl) Dan – leshem (topaz) Naftali – shevo (turquoise) Gad – achlamah (crystal) Asher – tarshish (chrysolite) Yosef – shoham (onyx) Binyamin – yashfeh (jasper). The above translations of the gem names are from Ginsberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol.III pp.169-172. See also the article “Avnei Choshen ve-Ephod” in the Talmudic Encyclopedia.

All the Best, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Washing the Hands

Question: Where does the Torah speak about washing the hands?

Answer: Washing the hands and feet is referred to many times in the Bible. There was a washing basin in the Tabernacle where the priests washed their hands and feet before entering (Ex.30:18-21). Washing the hands is specifically mentioned in Deut.21:6 (see also Lev. 15:11) and in Psalms 26:6 and 73:13.
An entire tractate of the Mishnah (Yadayim) is devoted to impurity of the hands. Washing the hands before eating is discussed in the Mishnah in (for example) Berachos Ch.8. The laws about washing the hands on arising are codified in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim Sec.4; the laws about washing the hands before eating, in Sec.158ff.

Yours, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

Moses in the Tabernacle

Question: Genesis Chapter 40 beginning at verse 17 -  Did Moses set up the tabernacle by himself? Of course G-d would have been advising along the way but no one else including Aaron would have been allowed in at this point.

Answer: In Exodus, Chapter 40, the verse describes Moses as being the sole individual involved in the construction of the Tabernacle. Nachmanides, a classic early commentator on the Torah, points out that although the Tabernacle was set up permanently on the first day of the month of Nissan, there was a week-long ceremony that took place prior to this. For seven days, Moses sanctified the Tabernacle by putting it together and taking it apart each day for the duration of the week. After the first of Nissan, though, the Tabernacle was only taken apart when the Jewish People were to travel.

All the best!

Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Dimensions in the Tabernacle and Temple

Filed under: The Temple

Question: How big were the Tabernacle and the Temple?

Answer: The size of the Tabernacle was 9 by 30 cubits (by 10 cubits high); see Ex.26:15-25. The size of Solomon’s Temple was 20 by 60 cubits (by 30 cubits high); see 1 Kings 6:1-6.

Question: How big was the altar?

Answer: The altar in Moses’ Tabernacle was about 8 by 8 feet (5 by 5 cubits). The altar in Solomon’s Temple was over 30 by 30 feet (20 by 20 cubits).

All the Best,

Rabbi Azriel Schreiber  

The Golden Calf and the Tabernacle

Question: Can you please explain why the story of the sin of the Golden Calf is right in the middle of the description of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)?

Answer: I’ll tell you a few thoughts that I have, and maybe you can add to them. In the Torah Portion of Ki Sisa we read about the sin of the Golden Calf, one of the saddest events in human history. Not so much because of what they did – unfortunately, Israel worshiped idols on quite a number of occasions in their history. What makes it so sad is when it happened: We had just received the Torah on Mt. Sinai; it was a time of the greatest closeness to G-d that we have ever experienced. Think of it as a wedding. We had a bright future to look forward to. G-d loved us and we loved him. And then, the moment Moses wasn’t keeping an eye on us, we turned away from G-d and just ruined everything, like a bride leaving her groom at the wedding for another man (so to speak). Who could handle that? It was a disaster. I might have expected that that would be the end of our relationship: G-d would start over again and try something else with a different nation.

But that’s not what happened. G-d picked up the pieces, so to speak, and found a way to continue. And he said he wanted to be close to us. That’s what the Mishkan, the tabernacle, represented. A Jew (or anyone else too) in those days could leave his tent and walk to a place where holiness was tangible. I can’t describe it, am too handicapped myself to really understand it, but that’s how it was. In our times things are very hidden (we talk about “faith”), but in those days spirituality and holiness was available to anyone who wanted to become closer. This is why we pray daily for the restoration of the Temple: Things aren’t supposed to be dark and murky – that’s just a consequence of our loss of the main source of light in the world.

In the section of the Torah you’re reading, Israel is given a unbelievable opportunity. Not only were they going to have a Mishkan in their midst – any individual “whose heart moved him” was able to contribute his property to make it. Our property is an extension of ourselves. If a person gave a piece of gold, or silver, or cloth, he himself would be a part of the Mishkan, and he would share in a special way in the holiness it represented. If you read a little further, you’ll see how Israel responded with great excitement to the opportunity, until Moses had to tell them to stop – we’ve got more than enough materials already!

Though we had fallen badly with the Golden Calf, we jumped at the chance to bring G-d back closer to us, and the story of the Mishkan is one of the great success stories of the Torah.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Power of Music

Question: What are the potential negative powers of music?

Answer: It’s well known that the Vilna Gaon (a great 18th Century Rabbi) taught that one of the essential wisdoms required for understanding Kaballah in its depths is knowledge of the wisdom of music.

To give full disclosure, I don’t know anything about Kaballah, and my knowledge of music doesn’t extend far past my knowing that I enjoy it. But the Vilna Gaon’s teaching should wake us all up to realizing that there’s more to music than catchy tunes. Let’s investigate some places where music comes up in the Torah and try figuring out what it’s about.

At first glance, the Torah sounds very pro-music.

The Tribe of Levi is commanded to supply singers and musicians for the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash (Tabernacle & Temple), providing moving musical accompaniment while their cousins, the Kohens (the priestly class), bring the communal offerings. (more…)

Jewish View of Graffiti

Question: I would like to speak to a youth group about graffiti in the Jewish religion. Is it a frowned upon form of art in the Jewish religion?

Answer: Thank you for your excellent question. There are many volumes of the Talmud speaking of the laws of torts and damages, mostly referring to the consequences of accidentally damaging another person’s property. Intentionally damaging another person’s property is considered to be theft, and is most certainly forbidden. Even though graffiti is very common in Israel, there is no excuse for doing so if it is not your own property, and anyone who defaces another person’s property must pay for the damages, unless the owner gives them permission. Even if the owner forgives them permission later, and does not demand their right to payment, the act itself is a sin if it is done without permission.

However, there is nothing wrong with the modern-day art form itself if it is done to your own property or with the permission or hiring of the property owner where it is done. I would imagine that there must be some religious graffiti artists who do ask permission, considering how widespread it is in Jerusalem.

To summarize, there is nothing wrong with the art form itself, as long as it is done with permission (or on paper or another medium).

All the best,
Rabbi Kolakowski


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