December 18, 2018

Hebrew Word of the Week: urim ve-tummim

Apparently, two objects used by the High Priest (ha-Kohen ha-Gadol) for casting lots, to know “guilty” or “innocent, “yes” or “no” questions (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Ezra 2:63). But also by individuals, as when “Saul inquired of the Lord … either by dreams or by an oracle (Urim) or by prophets” (1 Samuel 28:6).  

Usually translated “Light and Truth,” “Lights and Perfections,” or “Revelations and Truth.”*

Traditionally, Urim is seen as plural of ur “(fire)light” and tummim as plural of tom “innocence” (as be-tom-lev “in good faith”); compare to tam (as the third child in Passover haggadah) or tamim “innocent.” In Israeli Hebrew, Chanukah is often called Hag ha-urim “Holiday of Lights.”

* The seal of Yale University, one of the oldest in America, uses the Hebrew אורים ותומים and the Latin Lux et Veritas, which also is translated as “light and truth.”

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.