Monday, August 19, 2019

The Western Light

Tens of thousands of tourists stream annually to countries such as Canada, Iceland, Norway and even the U.S. state of Alaska, to behold the exquisite Northern Lights, aurora borealis, caused by the disturbances in the magnetosphere by solar wind. In ancient times, those who wanted to see” lights” could visit the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to behold the “western light.”

In the menorah, or the Temple candelabra, the western light (ner ma’aravi), the candle closest to the tapestry that served as the entrance to the Holy of Holies (according to the opinion of Rabbi Judah the Prince in the Talmud, Menachot 98b), remained constantly burning, and from it, the other wicks of the menorah were lit. While the other six candles burned out by morning, the ner ma’aravi remained burning throughout the day (Midrash Torat Kohanim, Emor, 13:7). Some sources claim that only when the Jewish people merited such a miracle, did the wick remain burning miraculously. According to another Talmudic source (Yoma 39a), during the 40 years when Shimon the Righteous officiated as High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, during the Second Temple period, the western light was never extinguished.

On the 18th of Av, during the reign of King Achaz, the ner ma’aravi was extinguished. Achaz was described as the most pernicious king to reign over Judea (Chronicles II chapter 28). Achaz was a king of Judea during the First Commonwealth. His righteous son, King Hezekiah, succeeded him. Commemorating the extinguishing of the flame, the date of the 18th of Av was established as a national fast day as recorded in Megillat Ta’anit, an ancient listing of important dates on the Jewish calendar. (It is no longer observed as a fast day). It was widely seen as an omen for the future. Indeed, the destruction of the First Temple occurred 13 or 14 decades later.

Since synagogues are meant to serve as mini replicas of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, a custom was established to maintain a permanent light in the sanctuary of all synagogues. The lamp, referred to as the ner tamid, is not placed on the western side, but rather, is usually affixed near the Holy Ark, and it is illuminated during times of prayer.

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