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Sacred Light

Have you have ever found your eyes glaze over at a seemingly tedious passage of ritual instruction in the Old Testament? This week's Torah reflection invites you to revisit a small portion of the text with fresh eyes, through the lens of Jewish interpreters.

In the Book of Exodus, as the Tabernacle is constructed and furnished, we find a long list of ritual instructions: for the lighting of Temple lamps (Ch. 27), the making of priestly vestments (Ch. 28), the ordination of priests (Ch. 29) and construction of the incense altar (Ch. 30).

As we enter this week's Torah journey, read as much as you can of these chapters, then let’s focus upon the first two verses: 27:20-21.

'You shall further command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites' (Exodus 27:20-21).

Read these verses slowly, prayerfully and try to imagine the scene and its significance.

Do we have the picture? Just outside the innermost section of the shrine containing the stone tablets inscribed with the Decalogue (‘ten commandments’), stands a lamp which is lit by the priests every evening. It is lit using high quality fuel (‘clear oil of beaten olives’) and it burns throughout the night until morning.

This ritual lighting takes on a significance that will be transmitted through generations. Much later in Jewish history, synagogues came to feature an ever-burning lamp (ner tamid: an 'everlasting light', 'eternal flame') suspended in front of the ark which contains the sacred Torah scrolls. (In a similar manner, Catholic churches have a sanctuary lamp near the tabernacle.)

Some commentators express surprise at the placing of this verse in Exodus 27. Why here? Why not later in the narrative when the priests have been ordained, vested and the sanctuary is ready to be used for worship. Wouldn’t that be the time to think about lighting the lamp?

How would you enter this conversation? Test your own explanation with that of a friend, in havrutah-style discussion, before reading on.

Some commentators express surprise at the placing of this verse. Why here?

Would it help to recall that one of the most compelling images in the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition is that which describes the Torah as spiritual illumination?

“But those who study the Torah give forth light wherever they may be. It is like one standing in the dark with a lamp in his hand, as it says, ‘Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path’ (Ps. 94, 105)” [Numbers Rabbah 11, 6].

Perhaps, say Jewish interpreters, we can see a deeper reason as to why the lamp lighting instructions take priority, even before the ordination of priests. More than a practical ritual detail, it signifies the whole purpose for the tabernacle: that by a life faithful to the Lord’s teachings, the people of Israel may dwell always in the Lord’s light. Thus says the Lord, according to a midrashic text:

“If My light will be in your hand, your light will be in My hand” (Exodus Rabbah 36, 3].

Reflect on the quotations above. In your life, is your engagement with Scripture a priority? Think about how God's word lights your way, and draws you more deeply into your community of faith. How do these Jewish insights into Torah enrich your own biblical understanding as a Christian?

Bibliography: Eskenazi and Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Schorsch, Canon Without Closure (New York, 2007). Scripture: NRSV.

© Teresa Pirola, 2013.

Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of the Light of Torah website.


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 - 30:10), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom!

Download your free Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

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