I have a special affinity for the ner tamid (eternal light) suspended above the aron kodesh (holy ark) in synagogues throughout the world. My ner tamid bond dates from 1979 and traces its roots to a rookie rabbi error.
A friend and I were invited to spend Shabbat in a Jewish community in upstate New York during our second year of rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The small Conservative congregation was rabbi-less and asked the seminary’s Leaders Training Fellowship to send in reinforcements from the mother lode of their movement.
So it was that two rabbis-in-training and a handful of high school students from United Synagogue Youth were dispatched on a mission to bring Yiddishkayt to the Jews of Auburn, N.Y. There we found a beautiful synagogue and a community of devoted volunteers who did everything for their beloved shul. Our host embodied the ideals of dedication and commitment, acting alternately as rabbi, cantor, gabbai, custodian, president and czar of the congregation.
Everyone gathered in the synagogue Friday night for the Kabbalat Shabbat service, at which I delivered the sermon. The weekly Torah portion included a reference to kindling lamps, which afforded me the opportunity to comment on the ner tamid in the small sanctuary. In the climatic moment of my sermon, I proclaimed with youthful exuberance: “Just as the ner tamid shines brightly in this synagogue, so too may the light of Judaism continue to shine brightly in your community!”
I expected nods of approval and mumbles of “Amen” from the assemblage. Instead, I heard gasps of astonishment and beheld horrified looks on the faces of the congregants. I turned around to face the ark and instantly recognized the cause of their communal dismay. The light bulb in the ner tamid had burned out, and no one had noticed this before the service.
Our flustered host jumped up from his seat and apologized profusely for the holy oversight. He was embarrassed in the presence of his guests and community. I felt terrible for the distress I unwittingly brought to our host and his congregation.
Thirty years later, I still vividly recall this sacred equipment malfunction. While I never returned to Auburn, I am confident that the congregation did not endure a repeat of their Shabbat ner tamid burnout. For my part, I learned a valuable lesson for my nascent rabbinic career: Always check your props before you begin a service or speech.
When I visit synagogues around Los Angeles, I do check out the props, especially the eternal lamp above the ark. Historicallly, the ner tamid was not always suspended in this honored spot. After the Second Temple’s destruction, Jews began to kindle perpetual lights in their synagogues in accordance with the biblical command to keep fire glowing continuously. The ner tamid was originally placed on the western wall opposite the ark containing the Torah scrolls. Later it was moved into a niche near the aron kodesh and eventually to its current place of honor above the ark.
Today, as in the past, the ner tamid symbolizes the perpetual Divine presence in our houses of prayer, learning and assembly. Most eternal lamps are electric bulbs encased in artistic creations of precious metal, fine glass or other materials. Some communities have restored the traditional practice of oil-burning lamps, with members of the congregation taking turns to replenish the oil much as the Kohanim (priests) did in the Temple. A “Misheberach” prayer recited at the Shabbat morning Torah service makes special mention of those who are honored with the maintenance and upkeep of the oil-burning ner tamid.
Of late, a growing number of rabbis and congregational leaders have installed solar-powered eternal lamps in their synagogues. One of the first to do so in Los Angeles was Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, whose vibrant ner tamid adorns a modern, aesthetically appealing sacred space. Lighting a ner tamid by solar power is a visible symbol of a synagogue’s commitment to environmental awareness and can stimulate further “green” initiatives in the congregation and throughout the community.
Earlier this year, the Board of Rabbis partnered with the South Coast Air Quality Management District in a solar ner tamid campaign. Nearly a dozen area congregations shared a $10,000 grant to defray the costs of converting the ner tamid in their sanctuaries from electric to solar power. Several synagogues unveiled their solar eternal lights at ceremonies celebrating Birkat HaHammah, the “Blessing the Sun” ritual held once every 28 years on the Jewish calendar. It was a unique way to celebrate the power of the sun by harnessing its energy to light this ancient Jewish symbol.
I have seen nearly every shape, size and style of eternal lamps — traditional and contemporary; oil, electric, and solar; metallic, glass, ceramic and Plexiglas. My personal ner tamid preferences are eclectic. I don’t like perpetual lights that are ostentatious and clash with the ark, amud (lectern) and other synagogue appurtenances. I do appreciate more modest eternal lights that are in harmony with the bimah and call attention to the ark, the centerpiece of the sanctuary.
Like its forebearer the menorah, the ner tamid symbolizes a holy fire that has burned for millennia in the midst of the people of Israel. It reminds us that synagogues are small sanctuaries built upon the ancient foundation of the Holy Temple. The sacred flame of the ner tamid summons us to brighten our lives and our world with the light of Torah.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California.