According to tradition, the stones of the urim v’tumim would be used as a prophetic device to determine G-d’s will in a situation where the desired verdict was of an individual nature, or if a prophet was not available. The Bible relates a few instances in which they were used, but the bulk of the accounts of the urim v’tumim being consulted come from secondary sources. The folk value of such a divination tool is certainly exciting, and the image of asking a question of the Kohen, and then having the stones light up with the answer is incredibly dramatic. There are a few problems with the biblical equivalent of the Magic 8-Ball (remember those?). First of all, the Torah never says explicitly that the urim v’tumim should be used to determine Divine will. The closest we get is that the choshen is referred to as the choshen mishpat, the “breastplate of justice;” a nebulous description, at best. Furthermore, we know that the Torah is particularly sensitive to fortune-telling devices and individuals. It would be out of character for one to be created and endorsed here. As a result, the urim v’tumim receive a lukewarm reception in the rabbinic literature. They are credited with sometimes giving correct answers, such as determining that the tribe of Judah should be the first to lead the conquering of Canaan after crossing the Jordan (after Rambam). The Vilna Gaon, however, relates that the interpretation is only as good as the practitioner. In the book of I Samuel, he faults the Kohen Eli with misreading the lit stones, concluding that the despondent Hannah is shikora, drunk, instead of k’shera, worthy. Indeed, as the Bible proceeds, the role of this potentially powerful, but inherently problematic icon slowly fades. The account of its actual construction later in Shemot is limited only to its construction; the insertion of the Name or the urim v’tumim are neither mentioned nor suggested. By the time of the late First Temple, according to tradition, the urim v’tumim were hidden along with the Ark of the Covenant, never to be seen or used, for better or worse, again.
To be honest, I think the fate of the urim v’tumim is apt. It’s presented by the Torah in almost a halting, non-committal fashion, and that’s what it deserves. It’s far too easy to want to look at one magical device or source to receive the answer to your question. Chances are that if you only look one way, you will choose to look in the direction where you are most likely to receive the answer you desire. It’s a far better choice to take inspiration from G-d, using the insight and wisdom which comes from an intimate relationship with the Divine, to determine truth. Sure. It would be great if some oracle could always tell me what to do. But I’d rather ramp up my relationship with G-d so that I can learn how to make that determination myself, in His holy image.Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen