Among the Bigdei Kehunah, the unique garments that Moshe was instructed to fashion for Aharon and his children, we find the Choshen: “You shall place into the Choshen HaMishpat the Urim and the Tumim; and they shall be upon the heart of Aharon when he comes before Hashem. And Aharon shall carry the judgment of the Children of Israel upon his heart before Hashem, always” (Shemos 28:30).
While they were in use, the Urim and Tumim revealed Divine guidance. This was not the only spiritual means used in former times as assistance in dispensation of judgment and in rendering decisions. We likewise find use of a bas kol, of nighttime visions in dreams, of the Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) and of revelations of Eliyahu.
Despite the noted phenomena, we know that in general judges and rabbis, as well as lay leaders, are charged with rendering their decisions based on Torah law as derived by human knowledge and understanding. This principle is the force of the famous Talmudic dictum by which The Torah “is not in Heaven.” Based on this statement, which we will discuss at greater length below, even an instruction given from Above—a bas kol heard from the Heavens—may be overruled by human decision.
In the present article we will survey the spiritual aids that functioned over the generations. How were these used? What limitations exist concerning reliance on such extra-natural means of revealing the truth? How does reliance on such means square with the principle of “it is not in Heaven”? We will address these questions, among others, below.
The Urim and Tumim
According to the Gemara (Archin 16a) the High Priest’s wearing of the breastplate—the Choshen—atoned for the Court’s mistakes in judgment. The Urim and the Tumim, however, which rested inside the breastplate, dispensed a kind of judgment of their own.
Rashi explains that when the Jewish People needed to know something of great import, the Urim and Tumim could be consulted to reveal the Divine will (see Bamidbar 27:21). The words Urim and Tumim, according to Rashi, refer to a special name of Hashem that was written and placed in the fold of the breastplate. The breastplate could be lit up, communicating its message. The Gemara writes that the word Urim relates to the word ohr (light) and the word Tumim to the word tam (perfect).
The Ramban describes the phenomenon in greater detail, explaining that the Urim involved the writing of “holy Names, by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastplate lit up to the eyes of the priest who was asking for judgment. For example, when they asked, ‘Who should lead the way for us to fight against the Canaanites?’ the priest would concentrate on the Divine names which are the Urim, and the letters of the answer would light up to his eyes.”
The letters revealed by the Urim were not ordered properly, and for this purpose the Tumim was required: “There were also other holy Names called Tumim, by whose power the heart of the priest was made perfect in the knowledge of the meaning of the letters which lit up to his eyes. For when he concentrated on the Urim and the letters lit up, he then immediately meditated on the names which are the Tumim.” By this means, the Priest would receive the Divine answer to the question at hand.
The Urim and Tumim were often consulted in the early Biblical times. (In later times, after the construction of the Mikdash, we do not find explicit consultation thereof, though it is possible that their use continued depending on the level of the kohein godol; see Meshech Chochmah 27:11.) Some noted examples are the conquest of the Land of Israel from the Canaanites (which tribe should lead the way in battle), the war against Binyamin on account of that tribe’s evil deeds (Shoftim 20), Shmuel’s selecting Shaul as king (I Shmuel 10), and David’s war against the Philistines (ibid. 23; see also Berachos 3b).
Scope of Rulings Based on the Urim and Tumim
The Mishnah (Yoma 7:5) teaches that not just anybody could present a question and receive a response from the Urim and Tumim. According to the Mishnah, this privilege was reserved for a King of Israel, the Av Beit Din (the judge presiding over the Sanhedrin), and for somebody representing the general community in an important communal matter.
Moreover, the Urim and Tumim were rarely used, and only for decisions with national significance, such as the purposes noted above. The Mechilta (Mishpatim, Nezikin 15) rules explicitly that the Urim and Tumim cannot be used for deciding a case between two litigants or to adjudicate a criminal case. Chazal cite the verse “he whom the judges find guilty” (Shemos 22:8) as indicating that judges alone may find a person guilty.
Likewise, we do not find any indication that the Urim and Tumim were used for halachic decisions. This stands to reason in view of the general principle whereby “it is not in Heaven”—halachic rulings may not be derived from spiritual or metaphysical sources, but only through human decision.
Thus, although the Urim and Tumim could be used as a means of procuring Divine guidance for important national decisions, they were not used for conflict resolution and in the area of Jewish Law in general.
The Divine Spirit
While we do not find the Urim and Tumim rendering halachic decisions, we do find supernatural means that were occasionally used, it seems, for halachic guidance.
One apparent instance of this is found in an unusual expression of the Raavad, who mentions that “the Divine Spirit appeared in our study hall” to reveal the halacha. The statement appears concerning a ruling of the Rambam (Lulav 8:5), whereby a hadas whose top has been cut off remains kosher for the Four Species. Commenting on this ruling, the Raavad writes that, “the Divine Spirit already appeared in our study hall several years ago, and we ruled that it is disqualified.”
This appears to raise a difficulty: How can a purely halachic decision be given based on revelations of Divine Spirit?
Addressing this problem, the Chasam Sofer (1:208) explains that the intention is not that the halachic ruling was revealed by the Divine Spirit as a kind of prophesy, but rather that the Divine Spirit rested upon those who toil in Torah study, assisting them in reaching the correct halachic conclusion. The Divine Spirit strengthened the mental powers of the Torah scholars and gave them an extra edge in reaching the true verdict.
Revelations of Eliyahu
The Rambam (Introduction to Commentary on the Mishnah) stresses that a prophet has no advantage over a sage in matters of halachic decision: “If a thousand prophets, all like Eliyahu and Elisha, interpret [the law] according to a certain interpretation, and a thousand and one sages offer an opposing interpretation – one must follow the majority. The law is in accordance with the words of the thousand and one sages, not the thousand great prophets.”
The Gemara goes a step further and writes that even if Eliyahu the prophet should reveal a halachic decision—the relevant discussion refers to using a particular type of shoe for the chalitza procedure – the decision will not be acceptable. The custom (to use the type of shoe) is binding and defers even Eliyahu’s decision.
This seems to raise a question concerning an expression, mentioned in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 3:4; it is also used in several other instances) whereby an issue is left open “until Eliyahu comes.” This expression is used in circumstances where there is a factual dispute between parties, and there is no human way of reaching a verdict (in the case of the Mishnah, the reference is to a person who cannot recall to which of two claimants a deposit belongs). How can Eliyahu decide these seemingly halachic matters?
Several approaches to this question are suggested. According to the Maharatz Chajes (Toras HaNeviim, Chap. 2), Eliyahu will not issue a decision based on his special status as a prophet but will rather give the decision in his capacity as a sage (see Rambam in his introduction to Mishneh Torah, where Eliyahu is presented as a link in the chain of Torah tradition). Because there will be nothing supernatural about the decision, it will qualify as a regular halachic ruling.
Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt”l suggests a different approach, whereby all parties will be so ashamed to practice fraud in the face of Eliyahu, that his very presence will lead to the resolution of doubts and conflicts (Kuntress Shiurim, Bava Basra no. 640). A third approach is that the expression “until Eliyahu comes” should not be understood literally, and it rather means that the matter will remain unresolved indefinitely, or until one of the two claimants admits the falsity of his claim (see Rambam, Laws of Loans and Deposits 5:4).
Dreams in Halacha
Can a revelation made in a dream be the basis for a halachic ruling?
In this context it is important to mention that an entire sefer—Shut Min HaShamayim, written by one of the Ba’alei HaTosafos in France (Rabbi Yaakov of Merosh)—records halachic rulings based on dreams. In this book the author published a great number of responses to questions that were revealed to him from Heaven by means of dreams.
Some authorities relied on the rulings of Shut Min HaShamayim. The Chida, for instance, relied on one of the published teshuvos to permit women to recite a blessing on taking the lulav and esrog (Yosef Ometz 82). Moreover, he writes that if the Shulchan Aruch would have seen the teshuvah, he would not have ruled that women may not recite a berachah.
As to the claim that the Torah cannot descend from Heaven, the Chida writes that where there is a dispute in the matter, a revelation may decide.
This reasoning does not appear to concur with that which we have seen above. Namely, we noted that supernatural revelations cannot decide halachic rulings, even in cases of disputes. It is possible that dreams have a different status from other revelations, because they draw not only from a Divine source, but even from the intellect of the dreamer. Yet, several authorities (such as the Shibolei HaLeket no. 157) write that one cannot rely on such rulings (see at length Yecheveh Daas, Vol. 1, no. 68).
In this spirit the Noda Biyhuda (Tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 30) stresses that even the dream of a great person cannot be relied upon, even for purposes of stringency, and the more so for leniency. The Shach (Choshen Mishpat 333:25 and 336:2) likewise rules out reliance on dreams for matters of halachah. However, it should be noted that in so doing he disagrees with the weighty authority of Maharam of Rottenberg.
At the same time, we find some halachic practices that are based entirely on the revelation of a dream. A notable example of this is holding the Esrog together with the other species (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 651:9, based on a dream of the Rekanati). Thus, although as a general rule it can be said that dreams are not reliable halachic sources, this rule has exceptions.
For more details on the matter of halachic reliance on dreams, please refer to two of our previously published articles on the subject.
A Heavenly Voice
The famous Talmudic passage stating the principles whereby halachic ruling is “not in Heaven” (Bava Metzia 59b) relates to a decision that came to the world by means of a bas kol—a heavenly voice.
In the case mentioned by the Gemara, the voice decided the halachah in a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. Although the Divine voice came out in support of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua proclaimed that this could not form the basis for a halachic decision, because the Torah is no longer in Heaven. Once given to flesh and blood, it is up to man to decide halachic rulings, based on his human knowledge and understanding alone.
Another instance in which a Heavenly voice intervened in halachic matters was the decision to follow Beis Hillel in disputes with Beis Shammai (Eruvin 13b). A Heavenly Voice proclaimed: “These and these are words of the Living G-d—but the halacha follows Beis Hillel.”
Tosafos (Berachos 52a) explain that this was only possible because the decision to rule according to Beis Hillel followed earthly halachic guidelines: Beis Hillel was in the majority, and therefore the halachah should follow their opinion. However, a doubt crept into the hearts of the sages, on account of the superior intellectual sharpness of Beis Shammai. The Heavenly voice only came to dispel this doubt, and not to issue a ruling.
One fantastic passage of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86a) describes a dispute between Hashem and the Divine academy, and the need for human decision:
There was an argument in the heavenly academy: If the baheres precedes the white hair, the person is impure. If the white hair precedes the baheres, the person is pure. What happens in a case of doubt? The Holy One, blessed be He, says, “Pure,” and the heavenly academy says, “Impure.” They said: “Who is present? Rabba bar Nachmani is present for he said: ‘I have unique knowledge in negaim. I have unique knowledge in ohalos.’” They sent a messenger after him. The Angel of Death could not approach him because his mouth never stopped learning Torah. In the meanwhile, a wind blew and the reeds rustled. Rabba thought that troops of horsemen were after him. He said: “Let that fellow [himself] perish and not be handed over to the authorities.” When he was passing away, he said: “Pure, pure.” A heavenly voice proclaimed: “Fortunate Is Rabba bar Nachmani whose body is pure and who left the world in purity.”
Remarkably, the Rambam (Tumas Tzaraas 2:9) rules against both Rabba and Hashem (the Ran explains that this was the majority verdict). Once the Torah was given to man, it is his to interpret. Even the Giver of the Torah does not intervene in this process. His position, as it were, is not definitive.
This example demonstrates forcefully that although the relationship between Hashem and His people is expressed in several supernatural phenomena by which Hashem reveals His will and guidance to sages and leaders, this intervention generally remains outside the sphere of halacha. When it comes to matters of Torah law, rulings must be issued by human decision, based on Torah interpretation. This places a great responsibility upon us: to carefully study the Torah and to be careful in rendering decisions.