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Q&A

Did the urim v'tummim require binary questions?

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The g'mara on Yoma 73a gives the following examples of questions asked of the urim v'tummim (Exodus 28:30) and their answers:

  • "Shall I pursue after this troop?" (I Samuel 30:8). Answer: "Thus says God: Go up and succeed."

  • "Will Saul come down?" Answer: "He will come down." (I Samuel 23:11)

  • "Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul?" Answer: "They will deliver you." (I Samuel 23:12)

  • "Shall I pursue after this troop? Will I overtake them?" Answer: "Pursue, for you will surely overtake them, and will surely rescue." (I Samuel 30:8)

  • "Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease?" Answer: "Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver him into your hand." (Judges 20:28)

All of these are yes/no questions, and I have read that it's supposed to be a binary question. The last example it the only one that could not be literally answered "yes" or "no", because it raises both options.

Yet we have answers that say more than "yes" or "no", and the g'mara describes how the letters on the breastplate either lit up or were raised so that the high priest would know what to say. That wouldn't be needed if the asker only needed to know "yes" or "no".

Was the asker required to ask a yes/no question, and anything further in the way of an answer is divine generosity? Or could the asker ask a question that was more open-ended, like "which direction should we march?", and get an answer? Was one allowed to ask anything, but the likelihood of an answer increased if the question was more focused? What were the rules for asking questions of the urim v'tummim?

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a couple of websites which seem to hint to the questions as being more than binary (at least I make t... (2 comments)

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It is not that binary questions were required but that the answers could very easily be misunderstood. For example, the question that Eli asked about Chana (Shmuels mother) is a example. The answer consisted of the letters הכרש which he read as שִׁכֹּרָה (drunk) when it actually was כְּשָׂרָה (like Sara Imeinu) or כְּשֵׁרָה (Kosher). This inverted the meaning entirely. The question needed to be asked very carefuly in order to make sure that the answer was understood properly.

Indeed in the case of Pilegesh Begiv'ah, the initial question was asked in the wrong way and Judah lost the first battle.

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2 comment threads

why did Chana's behavior rise to such a level that it justified asking ANYTHING of the Urim V'Tumim? ... (3 comments)
all letters at once? (1 comment)

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