The Breastplate & God's Name

Enigmatic Morality

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Our current Torah sections describe the Temple and the priestly garments. Reflecting on those garments, the Breastplate possesses very unique characteristics. It included twelve stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes. With gold chains attached to the two shoulder stones of the Ephod, the Breastplate was suspended and laid firm against the priest's heart. The two shoulder stones were not colorful precious stones, but were black onyx, each stone engraved with six of the twelve tribes. Thus, the tribes’ names were engraved twice: once on the two shoulder stones, and again on each of the twelve Breastplate stones. What purpose was served with these two sets of stones? Why were the colored stones suspended by chains from the two black shoulder stones?

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 to battle first, or what might occur in the future of the battle. The priest would ponder God's names – the Urim and Tumim – contained in the Breastplate's folded pouch  and he would 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. The priest would have to then 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 was this unique mechanism of knowledge used only in matters of war, as Rashi says (Num. 27:21)?  

Ibn Ezra states that there is a deep fundamental to the Ephod (apron) and the Breastplate. (Exod. 28:6): “The key to understanding it are the two braided gold chains that were attached to the shoulder stone settings…” He is quite lengthy in his cryptic allusions, which I do not understand. But I was fortunate enough to have learned Rabbi Israel Chait's words on this matter years ago, and hope I do them justice. If I recall correctly, Rabbi Chait noted the black quality of the shoulder stones, and the colors of the Breastplate stones. He also noted the latter were suspended from the former. He stated that was to teach that the living twelve tribes (colored/vitality stones) are dependent (suspended) by the deceased (black/lifeless) tribes, the actual sons of Jacob. In other words, our merit is derived from those who already passed. Those tribes were perfected individuals, and their recorded lives in the Torah provide a role model for our perfection. We are therefore dependent on them, just as the Breastplate stones are suspended from the two shoulder stones. This is congruous with Ibn Ezra. It is a marvelous thought. 

This also explains the function of the priest's clothing that atone for the Jews, as the Rabbis teach. How does atonement work? The sinner must have remorse for his sin, and also abandon that act. seeking God's pardon in the process and drawing closer to Him. The High Priest is the emissary of the Jewish nation. As he enters the Temple wearing the Breastplate, he thereby presents the aspirations of the Jews' wish to portray the lives of the Tribes, represented via proxy by our “suspension from them.” Although we sin throughout the year, we endorse the High Priest's act of representing our aspiration before God. God "recognizes" our true wish, and pardons us. 

This explains the design of the Breastplate, and its role. But what connection exists between this Breastplate, and divine knowledge regarding war? Why don't we use the divine names to learn answers to questions concerning Kosher, Tefillin, and other mitzvahs? I believe the answer is found in the nature of our questions.

God's Torah knowledge contains all that is necessary to understand the commands. Referring to the Written and Oral Laws, and the methods of derivation, all is addressed. 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 require no divinely inspired, additional facts. 

But morality is different. First, morality requires an Authority to define what is and isn't moral. Leave this question up to man, and for every person we will find a divergent opinion. And with such conflict, no single law can emerge which a society would observe. We see man's moral ignorance today displayed in the debates over stem cell research, abortion, death sentencing, and other moral issues. There is no means by which man can determine rights of life, since man did not create life, nor does he know when it commences. Only the Creator of life can determine when life commences, and also when it 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, as when a murderer must be put to death. Cut and dry cases like that require no prophetic insight. But engaging in war is not a response to a single person, or to an act of murder.

Perhaps God must illuminate us 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. War presents many new considerations, and the taking of life is one of them. Therefore, I suggest this reason for the Urim and Tumim, God's divine names that miraculously enable the priest to receive insight regarding morality and success in war. We also do not wish to place our lives in unnecessary danger, so we ask of the Urim and Tumim who should engage in battle first. Ibn Ezra states that we use the Urim and Tumim 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. We may also explain why the Urim and Tumim are inserted in the Breastplate, where man's names appear: the questions are about mankind, represented by the tribes.

Why is there no description of the Urim and Tumim in the Torah? Perhaps Moshe was privy to these names—undisclosed to the nation in the Torah—as a demonstration of human ignorance of God’s authority on morality.

Finally, why is the means of learning God's answers through the priest's pondering of God's "names"? I believe this is precisely the correct method to teach of man's ignorance concerning morality. For the priest knows only His name, and nothing else about Him. Therefore, God associates the lesson of man's ignorance concerning His name, with our search 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.