Customs and Rituals

Do Jews practice rituals of divination?

In biblical times one of the roles of the Temple’s High Priest was to serve as a medium for oracles. Part of the priestly paraphernalia was a mysterious pair of objects called the Urim and Thummim, which were a form of lots carried in a pocket called the “breastplate,” which was suspended from the shoulders. The Urim and Thummim, a pair of flat stones, are mentioned a number of times in the Hebrew Bible, suggesting that this form of divination was of some importance, even though others forms were explicitly forbidden. Thummim may derive from a word that meant “perfect,” hence of positive value. Scholars surmise that Urim probably carried a negative meaning. Thus, they may have been read as “yes” or “no,” “guilty” or “innocent,” for example, in determining the answer to a question. Even the word “Torah” apparently comes from a root that means to “cast lots” in order to obtain an oracle. The High Priest would toss the Urim and Thummim, one meaning “yes” and the other “no,” in order to determine God’s will in a given instance. King Saul was so chosen to rule Israel, as were priests in outlying areas selected to work in the Temple. Divination has found no significant place in post-biblical Jewish tradition.


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