The Bible Says What? ‘Always keep a light burning’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Always keep a light burning’

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild takes a controversial topic from the torah and applies a Reform Jewish response

Ner Tamid - everlasting light in a synagogue. (Wikipedia /Bachrach44 )
Ner Tamid - everlasting light in a synagogue. (Wikipedia /Bachrach44 )

 This first mitzvah of the tabernacle is interesting for several reasons. It echoes the first words of God at creation, yhi or, “let there be light”, and in a narrative dedicated to the clothing and behaviour of the priests, the command here is communal – the responsibility for an eternal light belongs to the people, not the priesthood.

The lamp sits facing the ark curtain, prepared and lit by the priests each evening to burn through till the morning.

In the parallel passage in Leviticus 24:2-4, the ner tamid clearly has several flames, and far from hanging over the ark as a modern ner tamid does, it is part of the seven-branched menorah on the opposite wall to the ark.

Indeed, during the temple period its other name was the ner maaravi, the western light. It is thought that while all the lights burned through the night, only one was kept burning continually. Why does the Torah ask us to keep a small light burning continually, since clearly the function of lighting the sacred space is done by the other lights?

And why must we repeatedly light more lights? We often say the ner tamid is a reminder of God’s continuing presence in our world, a small beacon of hope that stays with us as the pillar of fire guided us in the desert. Yet this is not enough. The echo of yhi or reminds us that we too must play our role in the creation of our world.

Every day we must tend to this work. The people must bring the prepared oil – this is our job and no one else’s.

  •  Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years
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