Tetzaveh: The High Priest’s Hotline to Heaven

When faced with a tough choice affecting the nation, the High Priest could consult a supernatural device that gave infallible answers.


Table for Five: Tetzaveh

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Inside the breast-piece of decision you shall place the Urim and Tumim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the LORD. Thus, Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD at all times. Ex 28:30


Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

The older I get the more I love this verse.

In my youth I worshiped the mind. Intellect was my idol; scholars were my heroes. I thrilled when I first discovered the beautiful insight that in Hebrew hidden in the very first word of the Torah, Bereishit, was the word rosh – the head is the key to everything else that follows.

Later, much later, I learned the Hasidic comment that the Torah concludes with the letter lamed and begins with the letter bet – so that the word lev, the Hebrew for heart, circumscribes all of the Bible’s teachings. I thought the commentary was obviously faulty. It only worked if we changed the order in which the letters appear. Today I understand. It is only after we complete the study of the Torah at least once and reach the lamed that we can start all over with the first letter bet and finally grasp the superiority of the heart. It is over the heart, biblically the source of feeling, compassion and caring, that God tells the high priest Aaron to place the breastplate with “the instrument of decision”. The heart is the key to determining the future. It is empathy, kindness and consideration that best define the biblical hero.

I do not know who said it but it is true: My head says, “Who cares?” But then my heart whispers, “You do, stupid…”


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

Growing up near New Haven, I was tickled to see Hebrew anywhere, including on Yale’s official seal, which included the words Urim v’Tumim. After learning the words’ origin and meaning, I remember being fascinated by the concept of the Torah’s oracle. How perfect to have a Magic 8 Ball whose answers were divine and always correct!

But perfection is elusive, even and especially within the realm of the religious-spiritual. When we are certain we have access to it, or exemplify it, dangerous expressions of religiosity and assertion of power are inevitable.

Rabbinic commentary is cautious about the magical breastplate. The sages may have been mesmerized, like I was as a child, by its potential power. But they saw its downside. In one elaborate and layered commentary there is a read of the story of the barren Hannah and the priest Eli (from the Rosh Hashanah haftarah) that blames the Urim v’Tumim on Eli’s mistakenly interpreting Hannah’s prayers for a child as inappropriate drunkenness. Eli saw Hannah praying an extended, fervent prayer. Confused, he consulted the oracle, which produced four Hebrew letters. Eli puzzled them together as shin-kaf-resh-heh, read as shikorah, identifying Hannah as drunk. But the intended order was kaf-shin-resh-heh, read as k’sarah or “like Sarah,” to suggest that Hannah was worthy, a matriarch, and should be blessed with a child. That’s a huge, and painful, misread of divine intent.

Revelation is murky. We can be grateful that human discernment has replaced sorcery as Judaism’s finest interpretation of God’s will.


Shaindy Jacobson, Director, Rosh Chodesh Society (JLI)

Some say that a Jew might be compared to a letter in a Torah scroll; if a tiny letter is missing or damaged, the entire scroll is void. And if even one Jew is disconnected from the Jewish people, our entire nation is incomplete.

Yet, it is far more accurate to say that a Jew is like the letters inscribed in the tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. A Torah scroll is written in ink and it is, therefore, possible for a letter to be damaged or erased. But the letters in the tablets were engraved in stone. They could never be erased – only obscured if dust or dirt settle in the crevices. We need only to reveal the soul that lies hidden beneath the grime.

Perhaps this is why G-d’s directive is manifest in the Urim v’Tumim being placed directly over Aaron’s heart: for no matter what, a Jew can never be separated from his source – his very identity is engraved within his heart. And by Aaron carrying this instrument of decision for the Jews over his heart before the Lord at all times, he lives and breathes the awareness that each and every Jew is always one with his Creator and one with the Torah. Just as our lifeblood pumps through our hearts supporting our physical existence, so too are we sustained by the life force that is the Torah, engraved within our heart of hearts.

Even G-d Himself answers, decides, and rules from within the hearts of His children.


Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, Chief Innovation Office, American Jewish University

Trivial decisions come easily. Big decisions – not so much. Despite deep research and extensive expert advice, answers are often unclear. That’s often because you cannot imagine vital information – how will you and others react, feel, and even experience transformation as consequences of your decision. Without these details, you do your best to estimate, imagine, or guess. Guessing the M&M count in the dentist’s jar is one thing; guessing about parenthood or revealing a family secret is altogether different.

What if God gave you a magical device that blinked and gave what proved to be correct answers to big questions? Grab it? Wear it? Rely on it? Would you feel relieved? or eventually something else?

The Torah gives Aaron that device. He dons the Urim and Tumim over his heart, at all times in God’s presence. Whenever he has a big decision – military action, allocation of land, or rendering a verdict with insufficient evidence, the Urim and Tumim light up – giving Aaron the answer. Sounds great?

But maybe this was God’s way of saying to Aaron, “You let the people build the golden calf, I don’t trust you with the big decisions.” Maybe this was not to release Aaron, but rather to remind him that he does not have “it.” We cannot know God’s intentions. However, if you had a choice: to have God make decisions on your behalf or for God to trust you implicitly and wholeheartedly, which would you choose? Big decision – not trivial.


Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Prominent inspirational speaker

This week’s Torah Parsha, Tetzaveh, describes the purpose of the Kohen’s clothes – including the breast-piece of decision – for “kavod and tifferet,” meaning honor and glory (Exodus 28:2). Using the Kohen as the pedagogical example, the Torah is teaching us that the purpose of clothes is to show the honor and glory of human beings created in the image of G-d.

The concept of clothing is mentioned in the Torah in the very first parsha. Our Rabbis teach us that before eating from the Tree, Adam and Eve saw each other first as souls. It was clear to them that the soul is the essence of a human being, with the body serving merely as a protective covering. Since Adam and Eve were focused on the spiritual side, they were not self-conscious about their bodies. It was only after eating from the tree that their spiritual level dropped and ‘their eyes opened’ to focus on the body. The body had now become a distraction from the soul and it needed to be covered.

In stark contrast, the Western world usually relates to others as physical beings. We typically describe other people by their physical appearance rather than their unique spiritual attributes.

It is for this reason that the Torah is so strict about dignified dress. It is essential that we deflect attention from superficial appearance, to enable others to see us as the real person that we are – after all, it is the soul not the body that is destined to exist eternally.

With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Shaindy Jacobson, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, and Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon

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