“The Perpetual Fire”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Last week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, introduced the five main sacrificial offerings: the Ohlah עֹלָה: the burnt-offering, the Mincha מִנְחָה: the meal-offering, the Shelamim שְׁלָמִים: the peace-offering, the Chatat חַטָּאת: the sin-offering and the Ahsham אָשָׁם: the guilt-offering.

In parashat Vayikra, the Torah addresses the donors who brought these offerings. In the first two chapters of this week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, the Torah speaks to the Kohanim, the preists, Aaron and his sons, to teach several additional laws that pertain to these sacrifices.

Parashat Tzav opens with a charge to the Kohanim, to clean the ashes from the Altar, daily, and to dispose of the ashes outside the camp.

This is immediately followed by a directive concerning the fire on the Altar. Leviticus 6:5 reads, וְהָאֵשׁ עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ תּוּקַד בּוֹ לֹא תִכְבֶּה, וּבִעֵר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן עֵצִים בַּבֹּקֶר בַּבֹּקֶר, the fire on the Altar shall be kept burning on it, it shall not be extinguished; and the Priest shall kindle wood upon it every morning. The following verse, Leviticus 6:6, reiterates the command: אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה, a permanent fire shall remain aflame on the Altar; it shall not be extinguished.

Many are familiar with the “eternal light,” usually affixed above the Ark in traditional synagogues, that remains constantly lit. That light, reminiscent of the light of the Menorah, recalls the western-most candle of the Candelabra, which burned 24/7 in the ancient Tabernacle and Temples. Rashi cites the Talmud Yoma 45b and notes that since the Torah states regarding the light of the Candelabra (Exodus 27:20) לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר  תָּמִיד, that the lamp must burn continually, the rabbis conclude that the flame of the Candelabra is to be taken from the perpetual fire of the Altar.

Again citing the Talmud in Yoma 45b, Rashi concludes that the numerous references to “fire” in these verses indicate that there were at least three fires on the Altar. The Torah, in Leviticus 6:2, mentions the word fire twice: עַל מוֹקְדָהon the flame, and וְאֵשׁ הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, תּוּקַד בּוֹ –and the fire of the Altar shall be kept aflame on it. These two references, together with the previously noted reference to fire in verse 5, indicates that there were at least three fires burning on the Altar.

The three fires even have formal names: מערכה גדולה, the large fire upon which the offerings were burned, קטורת  של ומערכה שנייה, a second fire of incense, from which burning coals were taken and brought into the sanctuary for the morning and afternoon incense service, and האש לקיום מערכה, the pyre for the perpetuation of the fire, from which burning wood was added to the large flame whenever necessary.

The rabbis of the Midrash contend that the very first fire on the Altar came forth from G-d’s presence. It was reputedly endowed with special powers, and many miracles were subsequently associated with the fire.

The Torah, in parashat Shemini, Leviticus 9:24, describes the appearance of the first fire.

After the Tabernacle was erected for the first time on the first day of Nissan, the priestly service began. Moses and Aaron came to the Tent of Meeting to bless the people, and G-d’s presence was seen by all. The Torah states, וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי השם, וַתֹּאכַל עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת הָעֹלָה וְאֶת הַחֲלָבִים, a fire went forth from before G-d and consumed upon the Altar the elevation offerings and the fats, and the people saw and sang glad song, and fell upon their faces.

The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 7:5 notes that the Altar of the original Tabernacle that Moses built was used for about 116 years. 39 years in the wilderness, 14 in Gilgal, 13 in Nob and 50 in Gibeon. During all those years, the Altar fire burned continuously, yet the Altar’s thin copper layer never melted, and its wooden structure never caught fire. The Talmud, in Yoma 21b, depicts the appearance of the fire on the Altar as a flame that crouched in the shape of a lion, and blazed as brilliantly as the sun.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that the rabbis of the Talmud (Yoma 45b) learn from the Torah’s focus on the perpetual fire on the Altar that every fire in the Tabernacle, the fire for the incense Altar, as well as the permanent flame of the Menorah, and even the glowing coals that were taken on Yom Kippur into the Holy of Holies with the incense, were all ignited from the fire of the sacrificial Altar in the courtyard.

Rabbi Hirsch offers a particularly meaningful explanation that helps elucidate the ritual of the Eternal Flame:

There is only one place for the fire of Torah, and from there one must kindle all the other fires in the Sanctuary…. In order for the spiritual to permeate life, actions must be consecrated to the Torah. Without the fire of the offerings on the outside Altar there can be no life on the Golden Altar, on the Menorah or in front of the Cherubim in the Sanctuary. Without sacrifice on the Altar of Duty there can be no elevation of the soul, no illumination of spirit, no soaring to the ideal of the Torah, which rests beneath the wings of the Cherubim.

Unfortunately, we no longer have the Temple today, and are sadly bereft of the perpetual flame that served as a powerful source of inspiration for our people. It, therefore, behooves us to ignite the perpetual flame that is within our hearts, to ensure that our commitment to Judaism and Jewish life never wavers, and remains perpetually passionate and burning brightly at all times.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Purim is observed this year on Saturday night, and Sunday, March 15-16, 2014. Since the Fast of Esther cannot be observed on Shabbat, it will be observed on the previous Thursday, March 13, from dawn to nightfall.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive Biblical commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information, click here.