In Shemot 28:1, Hashem lays out the process for inducting Aharon and his sons to the priesthood. Ramban points out that the sons had to be in this ceremony, that Aharon’s investiture did not turn all his living descendants into priests. A baby born to a kohen father is a kohen (barring certain disqualifications), but having a kohen father does not do it.
That distinction mattered only for that first generation, but some living members of that family did not become kohanim (such as Pinchas, for whom the priesthood is part of his reward for his zealotry in the story of Zimri, later in the Torah). Ramban does not offer a reason, so I will not speculate. But it niggles at me, why Hashem chose that way. For another time.
The Mysterious Urim ve-Tumim
In 28:30, Hashem tells Moshe to put the Urim and Tumim into the breastplate worn by the kohen gadol, the high priest. Those Urim ve-Tumim were somehow to be contained in that breastplate, and were to be on the kohen gadol’s heart when he went before Hashem. A verse also tells us the kohen gadol will carry the people’s mishpat, their judgment, on his heart, tamid before Hashem. [Tamid means either all the time or regularly.]
Beyond that, we are not told what these Urim ve-Tumim were, how they worked, the role they played. Ramban agrees with Rashi that the Shem HaMeforash, the most explicit version of Hashem’s Name (Rambam identifies that as the four-letter Name often written in English as YHVH or Yahweh, neither of which is accurate and is why I allow myself to write them), was inserted into the folds of the breastplate. To him, that’s why the Torah never tells us how the craftsmen made them, whereas verses expound at length on the making of other garments, such as the ephod and the choshen.
The Torah also refers to them as the Urim and the Tumim, with an identifying letter hei, where the other parts of the Mishkan are called “an” (e.g. ve-asita Aron, you shall make an Ark). To Ramban, that’s because Moshe made these, based on secret communication from Hashem, or Hashem Himself did it—as was true of ha-keruvim in Bereshit, the angels set at the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Chava were expelled. There, too, the identifying hei shows that this was a special item, specifically made by Hashem.
Light, Then Understanding
Ramban thinks Moshe inserted this writing into the choshen once Aharon was wearing it, which implies it had to be added to an already functioning choshen (it also makes it a separate item from the choshen—were the Urim ve-Tumim to be lost, that significant loss would not take away from the functioning of the choshen itself).
Then Ramban gives us his understanding of their function. Remember that the choshen itself had 12 stones, engraved on which were the names of the 12 tribes plus other words to ensure all the letters of the alphabet were represented. Ramban thinks the kohen who wished to consult with Hashem on behalf of the king or the Jewish people would ask a question, and the power of the Urim would cause letters to light up [hence the name Urim¸ lights].
He gives us an example. The book of Shoftim, Judges, starts with the nation asking Hashem who should lead them into battle against the Canaanites. They asked the kohen the question while he directed his focus to the Names of the Urim [he does not tell us what physically distinguished the Urim from the Tumim, since both were Names of Hashem].
Ramban says the Urim lit up the letters le-einav, to his eyes, meaning this was not a purely physical process; someone other than this kohen would not have seen those letters light up [which complicates the story, since a non-believer could claim it didn’t happen, or the kohen gave the answer he, the kohen, wanted to give].
Another Form of Divine Inspiration
Nor is that the end of the story, since the letters lit up all at once, creating multiple options for how to read them (Ramban gives examples of other possible word combinations of the answer in Shoftim, which was Yehudah ya’aleh, Yehudah should go up. In his introduction to the Torah, Ramban also held that the whole Torah was given without clear distinctions between the words. We were taught the simple way to read the Torah, but there were other ways that also had meaning. This is another example of his focus on the many possibilities within language).
To get to the correct reading, the kohen would turn his focus to the Tumim, whose power made the kohen’s heart whole (Tumim from tamim, whole) in the understanding of the message. He would immediately know in his heart (again, for Ramban this is not a physical matter) what Hashem was saying.
It is, he summarizes, a level of access to the Divine Spirit, lower than prophecy but greater than a bat kol (a Divine Voice), which was the way that Jews of the Second Temple era received communication from Hashem, after prophecy and the Urim ve-Tumim were lost (a reminder that a bat kol was also not a purely physical experience, it was a quasi-prophetic one).
An Anticipatory Chatat
In 29:14, the Torah tells us that any parts of the par (bull) not put on the altar should be burnt outside the camp. This par was offered as a chatat, a sin-offering, on behalf of the new priests; as Rashi noted, this is the only example of a chatat chitzonah, a sin-offering whose blood is not sprinkled inside the Mishkan/Mikash, that is burnt.
The reason Ramban gives for why this was true yields a bit to Rashi, who thought the Mishkan’s origins lay in the need to find a vehicle to atone for the Golden Calf. Ramban had disagreed, as we saw last time. But he concedes that this sacrifice was to atone for the Golden Calf.
That raises interesting questions about free will that Ramban does not pause to address [if Hashem was so sure Aharon would sin such that this sacrifice was already in place, could Aharon have not? What would this sacrifice have meant in the alternative universe where Aharon resisted long enough for Moshe to come down from Sinai before the Calf was worshipped?]. So neither will we.
The Definition of Destruction
Once the chatat responds to the Golden Calf, why would Aharon’s sons need semicha, placing their hands and weight on the sacrifice as symbolic investiture of their persons? The answer starts with Devarim 9:20, which says that in reaction to the Golden Calf, the Divine wrath was kindled against Aharon le-hashmido, enough to destroy him
Ramban defines that destruction as kilui banim, killing his children, so they needed the protection/atonement of this sacrifice as much as their father. [Ramban ignores the other descendants, the ones who were not yet kohanim but should have been implicated in a threat of kilui banim.]
This reminds me of an assumption common to many Jewish sources that our individualistic world often forgets. Ramban here, and many other sources, such as when the verse describes Hashem as visiting the sins of forefathers on generations of descendants who continue those ways, sees the sons as parts of Aharon himself. If the sons died, that would be destruction of Aharon, not just a personal tragedy.
We are all links in a chain, and what happens down the chain matters back to us as well. Cutting off the chain destroys us, even if we live a long time after that.
The priesthood started with five individuals, not a whole clan. Some of those kohanim would access answers from the Urim ve-Tumim, a step below prophecy. For them and for us, our ability to continue our chain of generations is a part of not being destroyed. Some of the lessons of Parshat Tetzaveh for Ramban.
By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.