Volume 47, Issue 2 :: By Jack A. Bialosky, Jr., AIA
The Ner Tamid as the Second Source of Light in Jewish Sacred Space
The imagery surrounding Chanukah, the Jewish feast of rededication and the festival of lights, is quite well known: the miraculous story of a single day’s worth of oil burning for eight days and nights in the temple. But beyond this story lies the lesser known origin of the second source of light in Jewish sacred spaces, the Ner Tamid, or everlasting light.
As one of the earliest symbols of Judaism, predating even the ubiquitous Star of David, the iconic candelabra became known as the menorah, holding the Hebrew word for light (or) within it. With special direction for its construction, God conveyed this idea of the menorah to Moses, and appointed Aaron the priestly representative to keep it alight as an offering to Him. Derived from a tree form, the candelabra gracefully stands as a single vertical element with three parallel horizontal branch extensions, each to receive a small oil reservoir and wick, thus totaling seven sources of light, equating to the seven days of the week. The nine-branched menorah adds two lights, one to represent the miraculous eighth day of light from the single day’s worth of oil during the rededication of the temple (Chanukah), and one more to serve as a lighter (shamos) to balance the symmetrical composition. Existing within an aniconic religion, which prohibits worshipping graven images, the menorah as a symbol of the torah and the Tree of Life has not only thrived as a singular phenomenon, but is echoed in many ritual objects and has even influenced the form of synagogue architecture. This complex duality lived even at the core of the religion, where the abstract concept of a God, who cannot be seen, forbids worship of figural images. It is this duality of tension and contrast that comes alive in designs and motifs, often from nature, but eventually realized in figural imagery that elevates the experience of God.
Today, the menorah permeates beyond the sanctuary in homes and for everyday use, but the Ner Tamid is found only in the sanctuary, closely related to the ark, as a signal of God’s eternal presence. While the menorah has a clear description as a golden seven-lamped stand with six branches adorned with almond blossom knobs and cups (Exodus 25:31 Terumah), the Ner Tamid’s description is, on the other hand, quite vague in the halachic (interpretative) literature. Actually, the vagueness of its details is embraced, providing immense freedom to endow the Ner Tamid with extraordinary artistic expression. Over time, it has been manifested in various imaginative forms, but however rendered, the Ner Tamid consistently represents the abiding presence of God and the spirit of the Jewish people. The Hebrew term is translated as “Everlasting Light,” where the word Ner in Hebrew is a collective term. In fact, Ner (singular) and Nerot (plural) are used interchangeably, possibly causing some confusion between these two sources of light. The historical record and rabbinical writings report a tradition in the sanctuary of both the multiple branched candelabra as well as a single fire “that burns perpetually on the altar and is never extinguished.”1 It is from this very fire that the menorah was kindled each evening, fueling the burnt offerings of sacrifice.
This fascinating dichotomy, the worship by means of tangible objects versus the abstract idea of God, folded into the formalization of the religion. During the Exodus from Egypt in the 13th century BCE, the Jewish religion began its transformation into a monotheistic system. The experience of the golden calf, an idol worshipped by the Hebrews in the prolonged absence of Moses, causes God to realize there is a need in primitive culture for a tangible outlet for worshipful expression. To fulfill this need, God then reveals to Moses at Mount Sinai detailed instructions for the design and construction of the Mishkan (the tabernacle), which translates to “dwelling place.” The surrounding enclosure, the Aron Kodesh (the ark to contain the Torah), the Ner Tamid, and even the very vestments of the priests, were specified as components of what would become the singular, portable dwelling place for “His Presence.” As the resting place for the tabernacle of a previously nomadic people, the Temple in Jerusalem was the only place where sacrifice was offered. When the temple was destroyed and the community dispersed, eventually all physical forms of offering were replaced by the offering of the oil, and the powerful light it brought forth for the eternal flame.
As seen with the construction of the tabernacle, the Jewish religion was founded very much of a place. As the Jewish nation was dispersed by the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Jews sought to recreate places of worship around the globe that put them in mind of the original Temple sanctuary. Through 5,000 years of reconciling a dispersed once-compact community and also the independent branching-off of the religion, the Ner Tamid has triumphed as the powerful constant in all denominations of the faith: a perpetually illuminated lamp, hanging above the ark of the Torah (Aron Kodesh). Symbolizing God’s eternal presence, the Ner Tamid reminds us of both the original menorah, and the altar fire.
Ner Tamid as a Sacred Designed Object
Like Joseph’s coat of many colors, contemporary Judaism is a quilt of many cultural and design traditions. Congregations within the faith, whether consciously or unconsciously, have sought to reflect their specific cultural identities in the design execution of their sacred spaces. As different traditions have evolved–religious, cultural, and artistic–the nature of these spaces and artifacts has also evolved to reflect the influence of new surroundings, new technology, and new ideas about art and design while maintaining the memory of a rich historical tradition. The original oil-fueled lamps have now evolved to adopt modern energy sources, such as gas and electricity. Still evolving to this day, the Ner Tamid is beginning to capture and display solar power, reminding us of our own connection to God’s creation and his everlasting presence. As a specialized sacred object, the everlasting light immensely affects both the design and experience of the Temple that holds it. Each Ner Tamid is a carefully crafted piece that tells a unique story, as no two pieces have an identical journey. Such stories follow, as contemporary worship spaces set the stage for incorporating the traditional idea of Everlasting Light.
Suburban Temple Kol Ami in Beachwood, Ohio, was founded in 1948 as a classic reform congregation. Designed in the International Style by my father, Jack A. Bialosky, Sr., AIA, the 1954 facility was built with special attention to the flexibility of the interior gathering and worship spaces. The sanctuary and social hall oppose each other across an intervening foyer separated by rolling partitions that allow either space to expand or to combine as one large formal room. Tall and dramatic, the space is filled with daylight that enters through patterned glass block. The spatial focus is on the bimah (the raised platform), the ark, and the suspended everlasting light. Serving as a special backdrop to the Ner Tamid, the ark tapestry and doors were created by Luba Slodov, an artist, temple congregant, and holocaust survivor. She survived the camps by collecting bits of copper wire and learning to crochet them into merchandise to sell; she used this same method to construct the ark’s meticulously crafted tapestry. The everlasting light itself was made in Pittsburgh from the architect’s original design, in consultation with the rabbi Myron Silverman. Drawing inspiration from a common pine cone, the Ner Tamid was fabricated of folded copper sheets, giving unique illumination patterning and glow. The form intends to embody both the tree of life and the candelabra which it inspired. Just as worship practice has evolved over time, the sanctuary space itself has also transformed to align with contemporary practice. But throughout the decades, the original Everlasting Light has remained a constant reminder of the congregation’s foundation and its connection to the Jewish idea.
North Shore Hebrew Academy in Kings Point, Long Island, New York, asked architect Alexander Gorlin, FAIA, to design a beautiful small sanctuary in 2001 that lies within a tightly constrained site. The small space belies the profound spiritual feeling evoked by the mystical nature of the space’s play of color and light from stained glass above. The central feature of the room is an installation of ark and skylight and everlasting light. The design is based on a cube form, a smaller version of the proportions of the sacred Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem. The skylight, ark, and everlasting light are all woven together by a geometric design based on Sephirot, the 10 attributes or emanations through which God, The Infinite One, reveals himself in the tradition of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah, and specifically the Kabbalistic creation myth of an initial shattered universe. Inside this assembly of elements suspended as a crystalline form within a geometric matrix of transforming triangles, the floating everlasting light evokes order coming out of chaos, a very powerful meditation.
Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, unfolds a different journey of the Everlasting Light for the sanctuary in its new facility. By designing a room with flexible seating with views out to nature and by providing a low bimah, architect William Rawn, FAIA, successfully achieved the goals of the congregation by creating a sanctuary focused on building community. Adorned with a new ark, created by artist Peter Diepenbrock, designed elements within the space, like the building, were decidedly contemporary. The Ner Tamid became the last outstanding piece to complete this contemporary sanctuary. The building committee determined that the Ner Tamid from the previous facility would be better suited in a smaller study chapel and therefore began the hunt for a larger antique artifact as a source of meditation, inspiration, and prayer. According to inscriptions, the piece ultimately found had been created by Moroccan silversmiths in 1933 as a commission by a French Jew to honor his departed wife and daughter. Based on its size and scale, the artifact must have been intended for a large space in a substantial synagogue. How the artifact survived the war intact (perhaps hidden, or stolen and retrieved) is unknown. Imported to Holland in 1953, the artifact eventually made its way to New York as a prized addition to the private collection of two Hungarian holocaust survivors. A 20-year collection was sold through auction, dispersing the objects, making this Ner Tamid available for acquisition. The journey of this Ner Tamid resonates with many artifacts throughout the Jewish diaspora. This particular story of remembrance and providence was written up by congregant and building committee member Marni Grossman, and shared with me by Rawn. It was written as a history, but also as a D’var Torah (literally “word of Torah,” but also a lesson or interpretation). The two guiding concepts for seeking the “new” everlasting light were: “remembering” and “peoplehood.” Grossman explains “…the act of remembering is indeed transformative, leading to the realization that individual stories are the threads of any sacred community, and therefore a profound embrace of and deepened connection with one’s community. Peoplehood is the concept that we are bound by a common history, despite different geographic pasts, and that this concept is critical to the perpetuation of the Jewish people across time.”
Today, the Everlasting Light still stands as a wonderful expression of God’s eternal presence and mysterious nature. In whatever form, whether contemporary or primitive, the act of kindling this ancient flame, tending it, and ensuring that it never goes out is a mitzvah (a good deed, but also a commandment), fortifying each day that God’s presence flickers in us.
- Nahum M. Sarna, ed. and commentary, The JPS Torah Commentary Exodus, (Philadelphia, New York, Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), p. 176.