Ask any Yalie what the words Urim v’Thummim mean, and you’ll get a blank look. Ask the same Yalie what the Hebrew words on Yale’s shield means, and with relief the student will give you the wrong answer: “Why of course, it means ‘Light and Truth!’”

The mistake is understandable: Yale’s own website says the same thing, and the shield, which features the Hebrew words written on an open book—presumably a Bible—also has written below the book the familiar Latin for light and truth, “Lux et Veritas.” Part of the problem is that Urim v’Thummim (Leviticus 8:8) have about as much literal meaning as today’s brand names “Accenture” and “Levitra” in the sense that they are etymologically suggestive yet have no exact definition. The best one can do is “lights and perfections.” However, many authoritative Bible translations simply leave them as Urim v’Thummim.

The only thing that can be said with certainty about the Urim v’Thummim is that they refer to some sort of oracular device used by the High Priest or the kings of Israel to divine God’s will, and they were used in conjunction with the special breastplate worn by the High Priest, described in Exodus 28:15–30. The “breastpiece of decision” featured rows of 12 precious stones, each representing one of the tribes of Israel. Not all the gemstones have been identified, although a generally accepted arrangement is shown in the diagram. The Urim v’Thummim were apparently two stones contained within a pouch kept inside the breastplate that gave a “yes” or “no” answer to questions put to them.

Yale’s shield was adopted sometime in the early 18th century. The earliest evidence of its use points to 1736, and the still-extant master’s diploma of Ezra Stiles, dated 1749, bears a version very similar to the present one. The oracle’s place on the shield has to do with Puritan theology, which emphasized the Old Testament, encouraged Hebrew study and was often philosemitic, meaning that it encouraged tolerance of and dialogue with Jews (the better to convert them and hasten the messianic era). Johannes Wellebius’ The Abridgement of Christian Divinitie was obligatory reading for Yale students in the early years of the 18th century. In it students learned that Urim v’Thummim “did signify Christ the Word and Interpreter of the Father, our light and perfection.” In other words, the Urim represented the oracular will of God, which was, in turn, represented by Jesus. The term may also reflect a theological battle between “New Lights” and “Old Lights”; the “New Lights” questioned the value of any knowledge outside of strictly theological faith, whereas the “Old Lights” argued that religious education was necessary but not sufficient for a proper education. Yale pointedly embraced the “Old Lights” position.—M.S.

The stones are inscribed as follows

Bareket (beryl)

Piteda (topaz)
Odem (ruby)

Yahalom (diamond)

Sapir (saphire)
Nofech (turquoise)

Achlama (jasper)

Shevo (agate)
Leshem (jacinth)

Yashphe (jade)

Shoham (onyx)
Tarshish (emerald)