There’s something incredibly powerful about the ner tamid, usually translated as the “eternal light.” Most often, it hangs elegantly in a synagogue just before the ark, right at the front of the sanctuary. (As an interesting aside, the ner tamid was historically placed on the western wall of the synagogue as a reminder that the Holy of Holies was to its west.1) The constancy of the ner tamid was a source of great interest to me as a child. I don’t think I am unique in remembering sitting through services, gazing at the lamp, and wondering whether it really burned all the time, when was it lit for the first time, and who made sure it didn’t go out.
The ephemeral power of the ner tamid was obvious even to a young girl. The synagogue where I grew up, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX, had an oil ner tamid and a group who maintained it, alluringly named the Keepers of the Light, which only added to the mystery. The Keepers of the Light protected the sacred flame for the whole community. It was clear to me that the ner tamid was something meaningful and potent — even though I didn’t know much about its place in Jewish tradition or any teachings about it. Indeed, the ner tamid has long been a source of fascination for Jews throughout history.
We find the initial reference to the ner tamid in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat T’tzaveh. The parashah opens with the instructions for creating and maintaining the ner tamid. “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of the Pact], [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages” (Exodus 27:20-21).
In this statement, the Torah suggests that the ner tamid should not be considered a light for practical use but rather something that represents devotion to God. This is not the only place that Jewish tradition draws a distinction between lights kindled for sacramental purposes and regular lights used, say, to illuminate a room. For example, the Talmud teaches that the chanukiyah’s light is ceremonial, not meant to light a room (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b). The classification of the chanukiyah and the ner tamid as sacred lights elevates them and also raises questions about how to understand holy light.
Torah commentator Abarbanel (1437-1508) wondered why there is so much attention given to something as specific as the Tabernacle’s lamps before the Tabernacle is even built (Abarbanel on Exodus 27:20). Abarbanel notes that the ner tamid must be something special if it is described with such reverence, an essential component for a Tabernacle yet to exist. It’s like choosing light fixtures for a new kitchen without even having blueprints for the home.
One way to understand the placement of the instructions for the ner tamid is as a form of emphasis: it highlights the centrality of the ner tamid in the synagogue and in Jewish life. Even today, one of the central acts in dedicating a new sanctuary is to light the ner tamid; Reform congregations have created beautiful ceremonies for this purpose.
Generations of Jewish commentators have understood these verses about the creation of and care for the ner tamid as more than just another set of details about Tabernacle architecture (of which there are many). Instead they view the ner tamid metaphorically, as an eternal light of connection to God and to Judaism’s primary tenets.
A beautiful midrash in Sh’mot Rabbah commenting on these verses reads, “Why does Proverbs 6:23 say: ‘For the mitzvah is a light’? Because just as a light is not diminished when a flame is kindled from it, so he who does a mitzvah is not thereby diminished in his possessions” (36:3). The Rabbis who wrote this midrash used the concept of the ner tamid to symbolize the limitlessness and constancy of light, and suggest that the ner tamid is a metaphor for the light within us all — not just the light of godliness, so often referenced in Jewish tradition, but also light that is infinite, shareable, and the source of goodness, for us to bring forth into the world.
The idea that we Jews are custodians of a personal ner tamid is also reflected in a teaching from Itturei Torah: “Every Jew must light the ner tamid in his own heart.”2 The ner tamid can thus be a link for us — from the biblical Tabernacle to the modern-day synagogue to our own internal worlds. It reminds us that each of us has our own ner tamid, an ever-present flame for us to access when we need it most, waiting for us to bring mitzvot into the world, limitless in its capacity for kindling and sharing. So many children intuitively see something powerful in the ner tamid — I definitely did — and it’s reassuring and compelling to see those initial impulses represented in a well of deeper thought and meaning, connecting our inner worlds to our Jewish communities, Jewish history, and God.
- W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (NY:URJ Press, 2005), p. 573
- Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah, vol. 3, Heb. Ed. (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1995), p. 229
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, NC with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director, and director of year-round programs, at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past 8 years.