(15) You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.
(16) It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width.
(17) Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald;
(18) the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst;
(19) the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal;
(20) and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings.
(21) The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.
(22) On the breastpiece make braided chains of corded work in pure gold.
(23) Make two rings of gold on the breastpiece, and fasten the two rings at the two ends of the breastpiece,
(24) attaching the two golden cords to the two rings at the ends of the breastpiece.
(25) Then fasten the two ends of the cords to the two frames, which you shall attach to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, at the front.
(26) Make two rings of gold and attach them to the two ends of the breastpiece, at its inner edge, which faces the ephod.
(27) And make two other rings of gold and fasten them on the front of the ephod, low on the two shoulder-pieces, close to its seam above the decorated band.
(28) The breastpiece shall be held in place by a cord of blue from its rings to the rings of the ephod, so that the breastpiece rests on the decorated band and does not come loose from the ephod.
(29) Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Lord at all times.
(30) Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, 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.
(15) You shall make a breastpiece of decision: The choshen mishpat was a woven, double-folded accessory, measuring one handbreadth square, onto which twelve precious stones were fastened, three stones in each of four rows, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. Each stone reflected the unique features of its tribe.
The High Priest symbolizes the unity of the people. But because unity in no way implies identicality, it is expressed in the ephod not by a single large stone, nor even by twelve stones of the same color and type. The unity of the Jewish nation means uniting a multitude of different people of different tribes into a cohesive whole. This is what the variation in the stones in the breastpiece represents.
On each of the twelve stones the name of one of the tribes of Israel was engraved. In this case, Levi was included as one of the twelve tribes, which meant that Manasseh and Ephraim were subsumed under the rubric of a single stone, “the stone of the tribe of Joseph.” Thus, the number of tribes and the number of stones coincided – twelve tribes and twelve stones.
We read just above: “Then take two lazuli stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel” (v. 9). The names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the two shoulder clasps, six tribes on each of two stones. And twelve more stones were affixed to the breastpiece itself, with the name of a single tribe engraved on each stone. Thus, the name of each tribe appeared twice: in its group of six tribes on one of the two shoulders, and then again, individually on its own stone, on the breastpiece itself.
The lazuli stones on the two shoulders were identical, and thus effectively the same for all the tribes, while each of the twelve precious stones on the breastpiece itself was unique to its tribe. Thus, the idea of a common foundation complemented by the uniqueness of each tribe is emphasized. This is the very idea that the garments of the High Priest are meant to symbolize.
Like all the priests’ garments, the breastpiece served as one of the elements of correction for persons visiting the Temple. The needed correction in this case was for judicial errors – hence the full name of the breastpiece: choshen mishpat, “the breastpiece of decision,” or, more literally, “the breastpiece of judgment” (v. 15).
Such errors of judgment can occur in an official judicial system, where a judge’s decision has clear and obvious legal consequences, but also in everyday situations, when we, as ordinary civilians, judge our fellow humans. In both cases, such errors in judgment are made (most typically) by high-ranking individuals, and it is therefore the task of the High Priest to correct such errors.
To be fair in its decisions, a court must consider the many different values and viewpoints observed across the spectrum of various “tribes,” and this is what the stones on the High Priest’s breastpiece represent. But at the same time, a court’s decisions must also express a single, unified approach to the problems of all the citizens within its jurisdiction. The single judicial breastpiece underscores this point.
The priests’ garments, like all the Temple vessels and utensils, are made from the highest quality and most expensive materials. For metal objects, gold is used whenever possible. For wooden objects, the wood it is taken from trees of the most highly prized species. The stones in the Temple are of superior quality – the most diverse, and the most highly valued. Clearly, the precious stones of the breastpiece and the shoulder clasps on which the names of the tribes were engraved have nothing in common with ordinary pebbles that one finds along the road. Each gem is special, and no two are identical, just as no two of the tribes were identical – each tribe contributes to the Jewish nation its unique set of values and characteristics.
By virtue of its spectacular beauty the breastpiece worn by the High Priest embodied this idea in a very tangible way. This kind of idea cannot be conveyed with paint, but only by something having a palpable essence and made from permanent materials. Gold and precious stones do not wear out, nor does their color fade or their surface crack, nor does the metal rust.
However, it is important to understand, that God Himself needs none of these things. Rather, they are needed so that visitors to the Temple will be influenced emotionally by the experience, and will be inspired there to find correction and improvement in the human sense.
(30) Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim: The Urim and Thummim are mentioned here, but their function is not explained. Tradition says that the Urim and Thummim were used to pose questions to the Almighty. These questions were always limited to matters of national, not individual, interest. The questions posed to the Urim and Thummim always came from a king or a judge – someone in a position of political leadership, not a civilian member of the population.
Nachmanides notes that the Urim and Thummim, although mentioned here for the very first time, are prefixed with the definite article ha (“the”): et ha-urim ve-et ha-tummim, – the Urim and the Thummim. No other component of the Temple is introduced this way, which suggests that there is something unique about the Urim and Thummim that allows the Torah to treat them as already universally recognized, even with no prior mention of them.
Moreover, when subsequent passages describe the construction of the Temple and its vessels and accessories by Bezalel, the Temple’s chief architect (see 31:1 ff.), the Urim and Thummim are not mentioned. We can thus conclude that the Urim and Thummim were not created by Bezalel, but were brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. That is, either Moses received them there from the Almighty in finished form, or Moses himself created them there.
There are various opinions among the sages as to what the Urim and Thummim were exactly, and how they functioned. According to one opinion, they were a parchment strip on which the seventy-two-letter “ineffable” name of the Almighty was inscribed, which was then inserted between two layers of fabric within the breastpiece (and that is why the breastpiece was constructed as two separate layers). Another opinion states that the term “Urim and Thummim” refers to the actual names of the tribes that were engraved on the stones of the breastpiece itself. When the High Priest consulted God about a question posed to him, some of the letters in the twelve engraved names began to glow or flash, and the High Priest then composed the response to the question based on those letters. According to this view, urim ve-tummim translates, roughly, as “fires that give the complete answer” (from ur, “fire,” and tom, “completeness”).
In the period of the Second Temple, the High Priest’s breastpiece no longer possessed this ability to get Divine answers to questions posed via the Urim and Thummim.