Lighting Instructions

Bamidbar    Naso    Behalotcha    Shelach    Korach
Chukat    Balak    Pinchas    Matot    Massei


Lighting Instructions
How to turn a lamp into a flame
The Long Pole
More lighting instructions, or how to bear a light loftier than your own

INSIGHTS: A Humbling Thought
One more lighting instruction, or whose light is it anyway?

Lighting Instructions

Our sages tell us that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem-and its forerunner, the Sanctuary built by Moses in the Sinai Desert-was a physical, three-dimensional model of the spiritual architecture of the soul. The Temple consisted of numerous domains, chambers and "vessels"; each of these corresponding to another element of the inner life of man and illustrating that element's function and purpose.[1]

The menorah, the seven-branched golden candelabra which was kindled each afternoon in the Holy Temple, represents man's potential to "kindle lamps": to generate sources of illumination within his own self, in his fellow man, and in the material resources at his disposal.

The Torah devotes a number of detailed chapters to describing the menorah's construction and the various laws governing its lighting. Each of these details has its corresponding "law" and lesson in the menorah's spiritual significance. By way of example, let us examine a phrase in one of the commentaries on one of these chapters:

The eighth chapter of Numbers opens with G-d's instruction to Aaron: "When you raise the lamps, they should shed their light towards the face of the menorah." In his commentary on this verse, Rashi[2] dwells on the Torah's use of the phrase behaalotecha, "when you raise." Why does the Torah employ this obscure synonym for "kindle"? Rashi explains that the Torah wishes to refer to the flame's nature to gravitate upward and rise, and also to instruct the kohen (priest) who lights the menorah's lamps to hold the fire to the wick until "the flame rises on its own.''

These three words-shalhevet olah me'eileha ("the flame rises on its own")-contain some of the basic lessons to be derived from the menorah.

"The Flame..."

The menorah's lights are usually referred to as its neirot, "lamps." Here, Rashi uses the word shalhevet, "flame." While the term neirot can apply to both lit and unlit lamps, shalhevet means a "live," light-producing flame. Indeed, for many hours of each day, the menorah's lamps were without flames.[3] Each morning, the lamps were cleaned, filled with the purest olive oil, and given new wicks. In this state they stood most of the day, awaiting the flame-bearing kohen who came to kindle them in mid-afternoon.

In those interim hours, the lamp was in its most complete and perfect state: its gold pristine, its wick fresh, and filled to capacity with the finest oil. Nothing of substance was lacking. Indeed, lighting it only sullied its luster, charred its wick and used up its fuel. But in its unlit state, the lamp was dark, its luminary potential locked within. It might have been perfect in itself, but it was of no benefit to that which lay outside of itself.

Man, too, can be a ner without a shalhevet, a lamp without a flame. He might achieve a personal perfection - an ornate vessel, fine-tuned talents and abundant potentials. But the purpose of life is to be a blazing lamp - to ignite one's talents and potentials so that they illuminate one's surroundings.

This is the first lesson of the menorah: that the goal of personal perfection alone will never suffice to satisfy the striving of our soul. Intrinsic to our nature is the quest to be a "flame"-an illumination to our surroundings.


"The spirit of man gravitates upward."[4] While the space we inhabit possesses three dimensions and six directions, our deepest strivings tend upward. When children compete over who is "bigger," it is their vertical height which they compare. When men and women of all ages speak of their desire for self-betterment, they do so in terms of "climbing the ladder," "reaching upward," and "raising" themselves to "new heights."

Thus King Solomon describes the human soul as a "lamp of G-d."[5] Of the Four Elements (fire, water, air and earth), only fire gravitates upward. Like a flame forever straining at its tether, the human soul is forever pulling upwards, straining at the wick (i.e., the physical body) which binds it aground.[6]

What is the deeper significance of this "vertical" striving? Certain achievements can be described in terms of growth "length" and "breadth." We might expend much effort and toil to extending and broadening our accomplishments - but all on the same plane, all along the lines which define our present reality. The spirit of man, however, thirsts for more. The "lamp of G-d" within us does not allow us to reconcile ourselves to our present reality, whether it is a reality bounded by habit and convention, or even by the most basic dictates of our nature. Intrinsic to the human condition is the quest for transcendence, the striving to "break the mold" in which we are formed and remake ourselves as something more-something "higher" than what we are.

This is the second lesson of the menorah: that life is not only a "flame" but also a flame that "rises."  That no matter how extensive our gains in the space we have carved for ourselves in this world may be, we must constantly search for new areas of achievement. Personal perfection is not enough; nor is leadership as a "luminary" in any defined field. Our inner essence as a "lamp of G-d" demands that we perpetually reinvent ourselves, that we constantly strive to break free of our present plane of existence to reach for something "higher."

"On Its Own"

A lamp cannot ignite itself: it requires a fire, an external source of energy to set it aglow. But the objective is that its flame should "rise on its own"-that it be transformed into an independent source of light.

This is the third lesson of the menorah: that when we act as "lamplighters" - whether in the endeavor to ignite our own potentials, to ignite the "lamp" in our fellow man, or to create luminaries out of the materials of our environment-the objective must be to generate a flame which "rises on its own."

In terms of our effort toward self-improvement, this means not to suffice with "resolutions" and behavior changes which must be constantly imposed by force of will.  Rather, one should strive for a transformation of one's nature and character, so that the new behavior becomes the natural, instinctive way to act.

In teaching and influencing one's fellow, the objective should be to establish him or her as a self-sufficient luminary in his own right: to assist in developing his talents and abilities so that his lamp independently glows and, in turn, kindles the potential in others.

The same is true concerning our effect on the physical world. When we utilize the materials and resources of our world toward good and G-dly ends, we  imbue them with sanctity and G-dliness.[7] Here, too, a physical object can be made not only into a passive vessel of light, but into a "lamp" that is an independent source of illumination.

For example, instead of just talking to our children about charity or involving them in our own charitable activities, we can help them fashion a pushkah (charity box) and install it in their room. Each time the child places a coin in the box, it is assisting him and training him in an act of charity. A piece of wood or plastic has thus been formed into a "luminary."

Furthermore, even when it is not actually being used to perform a charitable deed, the charity box continues to act as a "lamp" which illuminates its surroundings. As a permanent fixture in his room, it acts as a constant reminder to the child of his responsibility towards others. A physical object has become "a flame which rises on its own," an independent source of guidance and enlightenment.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Behaalotecha 5751 (June 1, 1991)[8]

The Long Pole

And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to Aaron and say to him: 'When you raise the lamps...' "

Numbers 8:1-2

Be of the disciples of Aaron: A lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves his fellow human beings and brings them close to Torah

Ethics of the Fathers 1:11

The appearance of Moses' older brother, Aaron, in both these citations is not coincidental: the fact that Aaron is cited as the prototype for man's responsibility for the spiritual elevation of his fellows is a reflection and outgrowth of his role as the kindler of the menorah in the Holy Temple.

Many of the Torah's commandments are specific to certain locations and to certain periods in our history; the lighting of the menorah, for example, can be performed only in the Holy Temple. But every mitzvah also has a "spiritual" dimension-a timeless and universal application within our internal self. One of the spiritual applications of the mitzvah to kindle the menorah's lamps is the imperative to kindle "The lamp of G-d, the soul of man"[9]- to ignite a fellow human being's potential to radiate light and warmth to his or her surroundings.

A Legal Paradox

Each of the many laws governing the menorah's physical lighting in the Holy Temple has its counterpart in the spiritual significance of the menorah. In fact, there are laws that can be truly understood only in light of their inner-personal import. A case in point are the following three rules:

a) Although the commandment to light the menorah was directed to Aaron, the most exalted and holiest of the kohanim, every Jew, including one who is not a kohen, is qualified to perform this mitzvah.[10]

b) On the other hand, the task of preparing the lamps (cleaning them, filling them with oil, and inserting their wicks) is entrusted solely to those whom G-d elected to serve Him in the Temple: only a kohen is qualified to ready the lamps for lighting.[11]

c) From its outermost courtyard to its innermost chamber, the Holy Temple consisted of eight domains, each imbued with a greater degree of sanctity. The designated place of the menorah was the heichal, which was second only in this hierarchy of holiness to the Temple's innermost chamber, the "Holy of Holies." Only kohanim were allowed to enter the heichal.[12]

Laws (a) and (c) result in a legal paradox: Since a non-kohen could not enter the heichal, the only way for an ordinary Israelite to light the menorah was if he did so with the aid of long pole, or if the menorah was carried out to him by a kohen and then replaced in the heichal. This raises an obvious question: if the Torah intended that every Jew should be able to perform the mitzvah of lighting the menorah, why didn't it place the menorah in a part of the Temple to which every Jew has access? And if, on the other hand, the holiness of the menorah is such that it requires the more sacred environment of the heichal, why did the Torah permit someone who cannot obtain this standard of holiness to light it?

Law (b) is likewise puzzling: should not the standard for lighting the menorah be equal to, if not greater than, that of its preparation? If any Jew can light the menorah, why is only a kohen qualified to prepare it for lighting?


"The kohanim of the tribe of Levi," G-d instructed Moses, "and the entire tribe of Levi,[13] shall have no share and lot [in the Land] with the people of Israel.... G-d is their lot."[14] Excluded from all earthly cares, responsibilities and privileges, the kohen's life is utterly devoted to "serve G-d, and teach His law to the community."[15]

But there is also a broader definition to the status of kohen. "Not only the tribe of Levi," writes Maimonides, "but any man of all the inhabitants of earth whose spirit has moved him ... to stand before G-d, to serve Him, to worship Him, to know G-d and walk justly ... and he cast from his neck the yoke of the many calculations that men seek-such an individual becomes sanctified, a holy of holies, and G-d shall be his portion and his lot."[16]

Therein lies the deeper significance of the law that the menorah can be lit also by an "ordinary" Israelite. One might think that the role of igniting souls had best be left to the "spiritual leader," to one whose entire life is devoted to G-dly pursuits. What can the ordinary person, himself burdened by the mundanities of life, offer the spiritually wanting soul?

Says the Torah: Every soul is a "lamp of G-d," regardless of the degree of spirituality in his life. Every individual has the capacity to generate light and to ignite a fellow lamp. And if G-d has given you license and ability for the task, it is your sacred duty to do so. Never mind that the bulk of your life is taken up with the demands of a material existence; you too can, and must, serve as a teacher and lamplighter to your fellows.

However, one might take this to the other extreme and argue: If G-d instructs that I, too, am qualified to light the menorah, then I am free to do so on my terms-to interpret the Torah as I understand it and to spread its light in the manner that I see fit. Says the Torah: only the kohanim, those chosen by G-d as the nation's spiritual leaders, are qualified to prepare a menorah for lighting. Only they can decide the content of the message and the means of its dissemination. In all matters of Torah law and teaching, "You shall come to the kohanim, the Levites, to the judge that shall be in those times ... and you shall do as they instruct you."[17]

The place of the menorah is in the heichal; and while your natural place might be a less sacred environment, your license to light the menorah it is not a license to compromise its holiness. In the above-cited words of Hillel, a disciple of Aaron is one who "brings his fellow human beings close to the Torah"-not, G-d forbid, the other way around; one's fellow must be brought close to the Torah, but the Torah must never be brought down to the level of those one seeks to uplift.

On the other hand, the fact that the menorah's standards are loftier than your own does not absolve you from your duty as a lamplighter. Your light must be employed to illuminate others, even if it means reaching into the heichal with a "long pole" - extending your reach to areas that your ordinary self cannot aspire to. Even if it means that the menorah must be "carried out" to you by a kohen to enable you to realize your potential as a luminary and an illuminator.

In other words, you must grapple with the distance between the lowliness of your own spiritual state and the loftiness of the ideals you are duty bound to teach. You must do so not by compromising their loftiness, nor by escaping your duty, but by finding ways to bridge that distance and become a bearer of light even if it is a light that is loftier than your own.

Based on the Rebbe's talks on Shavuot 5717 (1957) and on other occasions[18]

A Humbling Thought

When the kohen entered the chamber where the menorah stood in the Holy Temple to kindle its lamps each afternoon, he found them fully prepared for lighting: earlier in the day, the lamps had been cleaned and filled with oil, and fresh wicks had been inserted. All he had to do was bring near the flame he carried, so that by its mere proximity to the waiting lamp it would ignite the latent energy and luminary potential which the lamp already held.

Therein lies an important lesson to the spiritual "lamplighter": do not think that you are achieving anything that your fellow could not, in truth, achieve on his own; do not think that you are giving him something he does not already possess. The soul of your fellow is a ready lamp, filled with the purest oil and equipped with all that is required to convert its fuel into a blazing flame. It only lacks the proximity of another lamp to ignite it. If your own soul is alight, its contact with another's soul will awaken its luminous potential, so that it may illuminate its surroundings and ignite other souls, in turn.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1] See BeChayei on Exodus 25:9; Shaloh, Parshat Terumah (p. 324b); Torat HaOlah by Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the Rama).

[2] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, whose work is universally accepted as the most fundamental of all Torah commentaries.

[3] With the exception of the Ner HaMaaravi ("Western Lamp") which burned round the clock.

[4] Ecclesiastes 3:21.

[5] Proverbs 20:27.

[6] See The Lamp, WIR vol. X, no. 13.

[7] See The First Creation , WIR vol. X, no. 34.

[8] Sefer HaSichot 5751, vol. II, p. 600 ff.

[9] Proverbs 20:27.

[10] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Entering the Holy Temple, 9:7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Talmud, Keilim 1:8-9.

[13] The entire tribe of Levi was elected to serve G-d in the Holy Temple. Among the Levites themselves, the kohanim were entrusted with the most sacred aspects of the Temple service, while the other Levites serve as the kohanim's assistants.

[14] Deuteronomy 18:1-2.

[15] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shemittah and Yovel 13:12. Cf. Deuteronomy 33:10.

[16] Mishneh Torah, ibid., 13:13.

[17] Deuteronomy 17:9-10.

[18] Likkutei Sichot, vol. II, pp. 314-318; Sefer HaSichot 5750, pp. 508-509, et al.

Lamps and Lives
Lighting Instructions
Lighting Instructions 2013
Menorah Meditations
Servant and Minister
The Lamplighter's Credo

Visitor Comments
 Be the first to add comments to this page.