One of the main garments that the High Priest of Israel donned was the jewel-bestudded breastplate – choshen – that he wore upon his chest. This breastplate contained twelve precious jewels of different colors and on each of the stones was engraved the name of one of the tribes of Israel.
In addition to these stones there were two large elongated diamond stones that were embedded in the shoulder straps of the apron – eiphod – that the High Priest wore. Engraved on those shoulder strap stones were the names of the Patriarchs of Israel and a reference to all of the tribes of Israel. Thus all of the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet were to be found on these stones in the breastplate and on the shoulder straps.
This allowed these stones and their engraved letters to serve as the urim v’tumim – the means of prophecy by which important national issues could be decided with Divine help and intervention. Though the letters of the answer shone on the stones, the ability to string the letters together correctly and coherently into the necessary words and message depended upon the prophets of Israel who “read” the urim v’tumim accurately.
This was symbolic of the symbiotic relationship, so to speak, of God and the Jewish people in pursuit of the national and spiritual goals of Israel. Only by this interaction of Heaven and humans could the message of the urim v’tumim have any constructive meaning. Heaven alone never completely determines our future. We must also work and strive, interpret and analyze, study and act in order to see our future realized successfully.
In the pocket of the choshen there was inserted a piece of parchment with the ineffable name of the Lord written upon it. This was the engine that powered the miracle of the urim v’tumim. Without its presence the choshen was a lifeless collection of jeweled stones. This significance is part of Jewish tradition.
Beauty and expensive value are only relevant when they are somehow inspired and created for a lofty purpose of spirit and service. King Solomon wisely said that “if the Lord builds not the city then those that have constructed it have toiled in vain.”
In Second Temple times the choshen was present on the breast of the High Priest. But the urim v’tumim was no longer in effective operation. The human element of service and dedication was already lacking. There were no longer prophets present amongst Israel and the choshen therefore was merely an ornament, part of the uniform of the High Priest but no longer a Godly guide to the future and a source of instruction to the people of Israel.
Because of this, the great men and rabbinic leaders of Second Temple times in the Land of Israel recognized early on that this Temple was ultimately doomed to be destroyed. The necessary interplay of Heaven and earth, of God and His creatures were no longer present. In such an environment, no matter how beautiful the structure or how handsome the jewels may have been, the whiff of eternity upon which all Jewish life is based was absent. It is our task to somehow restore the very same urim v’tumim in our personal and national lives.
Rabbi Berel Wein