As we’ve seen in our last several editions of S.A.L.T., the process of consulting the Urim Ve-tumim resulted (at least according to one view in the Gemara) in the formation of words from the letters on the kohen gadol’s breastplate, and the question thus arises as to whether this was permissible on Shabbat. Among the writers who discussed this question was Rav Aharon Levine, the “Reisha Rav,” who devotes a section to this subject in his famous work Ha-derash Ve-ha’iyun (Parashat Pinchas, 59).
Among the considerations that Rav Levine raises is the fact that the “writing” performed through the kohen gadol’s query was only temporary, for soon after the kohen saw the response, the letters returned to their original places. As Rav Levine cites from the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 340:5), impermanent writing does not constitute a forbidden act of writing on Shabbat, and thus, seemingly, consulting the Urim Ve-tumim should be permissible on Shabbat.
However, Rav Levine draws our attention to two sources which establish that even temporary results are formally considered permanent when they are brought about by the word of God. The Talmud Yerushalmi (12:1) comments that the Torah prohibition of boneh (constructing) is modeled after the placement of the wooden planks of the Mishkan in their sockets when the Mishkan was constructed. Although this construction was only temporary, as the Mishkan was dismantled each time Benei Yisrael needed to travel, the prohibition of boneh applies only to building permanent structures. The reason, the Yerushalmi explains, is because Benei Yisrael’s journeys and encampments were all determined by the divine command, and, as such, they were halakhically considered “permanent.” The Gemara in Masekhet Eiruvin (55b) makes a similar point concerning the prohibition of techum Shabbat, which forbids walking beyond two thousand amot outside the boundary of one’s city on Shabbat. Halakha permits walking within the city limits, even vast distances, but only if the city is permanent, and not a temporary encampment. Nevertheless, Benei Yisrael were permitted to walk on Shabbat throughout their temporary camp in the wilderness, and the Gemara explains that since they journeyed based upon the divine command, their encampments were considered permanent.
Rav Levine thus raises the question of whether we might perhaps consider the “writing” of the Urim Ve-tumim permanent, by virtue of the fact that it was done by the word of God. The basis for this contention, Rav Levine notes, is Rashi’s comments in explaining the aforementioned passage in Masekhet Eiruvin. Rashi explains that since Benei Yisrael encamped by the word of God, their encampment was considered “important” enough to have the status of a permanent encampment. Possibly, Rav Levine writes, we can consider even temporary writing halakhically “permanent” if it has unique importance. If so, then it is conceivable that the writing produced by the kohen gadol’s question posed to the Urim Ve-tumim can be considered permanent with respect to the Shabbat prohibition of writing, and thus be forbidden.
Rav Levine notes, however, that the commentaries to the Talmud Yerushalmi offer a different explanation for why Benei Yisrael’s encampment was considered permanent. Namely, when Benei Yisrael encamped, they did not know whether they would be remaining in that location for only a brief period, or for several years. Their encampment was “permanent” in the sense that they anticipated the likelihood that God would have them remain encamped for an extended period. If so, then in the case of the Urim Ve-tumim, which responded to the kohen gadol’s query by forming words that immediately then disappeared, this would not be considered permanent writing that would be forbidden on Shabbat.