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The Eternal Flame

Rav David Silverberg


     Parashat Tzav consists of two easily discernible sections.  The first, chapters 6-7, continues last week's discussion of the different types of sacrifices.  Parashat Vayikra, which is addressed to the entire nation (see Vayikra 1:2), lays out before the people the different types of sacrifices they may or must bring under various circumstances.  Parashat Tzav is directed specifically to Aharon and his sons (see 6:2), and emphasizes the respective properties of the different sacrifices particularly relevant to the kohanim.  In particular, this parasha delineates which parts of the given sacrifice - if any - the kohen may eat, and under what circumstances.  The second section of the parasha, which we will not discuss here, tells of the formal consecration of Aharon and his sons (the execution of the laws presented in the second half of Parashat Tetzaveh).


"Zot Torat ha-Ola"??


     While the basic structure we briefly outlined is generally accurate, it appears to be violated right at the outset of the parasha.  In Parashat Tzav, the Torah introduces each sacrifice with, "Zot Torat ha- ," or, "This is the procedure/law for the [burnt offering/meal offering/sin offering/guilt offering/peace offering" (see 6:2,7,18; 7:1,11).  After this preface, the Torah describes the guidelines relevant to the given category of sacrifice.  The one possible exception, however, is the very first offering discussed: the "ola," or burnt offering.  The Torah's treatment of this sacrifice begins as follows:


"This is the procedure of the burnt offering: it is the burnt offering that remains burned upon the altar all night until morning, and the fire on the altar is kept going on it." (6:2)


     The verse here describes the ola as the sacrifice that is burnt throughout the night on the altar.  This definition requires some explanation.  Over the course of the day in the Temple (no sacrifices were offered at night), a wide array of sacrifices are or may be brought, all of which have parts placed upon  the altar.  As we know from Parshiyot Vayikra and Tzav, the following parts of the sacrifices are offered on the altar:


1)   burnt offering (ola): the entire animal (e.g. 1:9)

2)   meal offering: a handful (6:8)

3)   the kohen's daily meal offering: the entire offering (6:16)

4)   other sacrifices: the fats and kidneys (e.g. 3:3-5; 4:8-10)


Thus, throughout the night, although no sacrifices were slaughtered, the parts of the various sacrifices placed upon the altar continue burning on it.  Yet, the Torah appears to specify the ola as the sacrifice that burns through the night.


     The simplest answer might be that only the ola is entirely burnt on the altar.  Unlike with regard to other offerings, neither the kohanim nor the individual bringing the sacrifice partakes of the sacrificial meat of the ola.  As the entirety of this offering feeds the flame of the altar, the Torah chose to describe how it burns on the altar throughout the night.  The small portions of the other offerings are consumed fairly quickly by the fire; only the ola continues burning throughout the night.


     Should this be true, however, then we must explain the significance of this phenomenon that renders it worthy of emphasis.  Perhaps more to the point, why does this quality of the ola, that it continues burning well into the night, constitute "torat ha-ola" - "the procedure for the ola"?  Does this particular feature reflect the dominant - or even a dominant - aspect of the ola, that the Torah should describe it as "torat ha-ola"?


     The ensuing verses compound this anomaly:


"The kohen shall dress in linen raiment… and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.  He shall then… carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place." (6:3-4)


These verses introduce the ritual of "terumat ha-deshen," the very first responsibility of the ministering kohanim when the Temple service begins each morning.  The kohen is to sweep the ashes that had collected overnight and bring them outside the camp.  Now these verses somehow continue the discussion of "torat ha-ola," the procedure for offering the ola sacrifice.  How does this ritual of terumat ha-deshen relate to "torat ha-ola"?  Once the ola has been reduced to ashes on the altar, the obligations pertaining thereto are presumably completed.  Why, then, does the Torah include the ash-sweeping ritual under the title of "torat ha-ola"?


The Altar's Firewood


     The Chizkuni, based on earlier, Midrashic sources, claims, convincingly, that this section speaks about one specific burnt offering: the "tamid shel bein ha-arbayim," the daily afternoon offering.  Earlier, in the Book of Shemot (29:38-39), we read of the "tamid," or daily, sacrifice, consisting of one lamb in the morning and another late in the afternoon.  In Parashat Tzav, the Torah describes the afternoon "tamid" and specifies its role: to remain "burned upon the altar all night until morning."  As no sacrifices are offered throughout the night, the Torah requires that a burnt offering be brought towards the end of the day to feed the altar's flame overnight.  "This is the procedure of the burnt offering: it is the burnt offering that remains burned upon the altar all night until morning, AND THE FIRE ON THE ALTAR IS KEPT GOING ON IT."  The ola is what ensures the constancy of the fire on the altar.  This may also explain the significance of the terumat ha-deshen ritual.  The primary purpose of this ola is to be reduced to ashes; once this has been accomplished, and as the kohen prepares for a new day of sacrifices in the Temple, the ashes are removed from the altar.


     Verse 5 of this "torat ha-ola" section verifies this "firewood" quality of the ola: "The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out; every morning, the kohen shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and offer on it the fats of the peace offerings."  As he begins the Temple service in the morning, the kohen loads firewood onto the altar, upon which he lays "the burnt offering" - the morning "tamid" sacrifice (Rashi; Masekhet Pesachim 58b).  Then, he offers "on it" - on the burnt offering (Rashi, Pesachim 58b) - the fats of the peace offerings brought over the course of the day.  In other words, the ola is placed on the firewood, and subsequent offerings are placed on the ola - which thus becomes the "firewood" for all sacrifices offered during the day.  Just as the evening tamid serves to sustain the fire through the night, so does the morning tamid provide wood for the fire by day, upon which other sacrifices are brought.


     But why does the Torah introduce only one of the different ola offerings?  In fact, the ola is the very first sacrifice described in the Book of Vayikra (1:3), as a voluntary, individual offering.  Why does the section of "torat ha-ola" deal specifically with the mandatory, daily afternoon offering?  We might add that later, when the Torah discusses "torat ha-shelamim" (the "procedure" for the peace offering), it divides its treatment into two sections: the mandatory "thanksgiving" shelamim ("korban toda"), which one brings upon being saved from captivity and the like (see Rashi, 7:12), and the voluntary shelamim offerings (see 7:16).  With regard to the ola, however, the Torah appears to focus its attention exclusively on the daily "tamid" offering.  Why?


     Evidently, this specific ola reflects the fundamental nature of all ola sacrifices.  No human being partakes of the sacrificial meat of the ola because its basic purpose is to feed the altar's fire.  The "torat ha-ola" is exemplified by the evening "tamid" offering, which sustains the fire through a long night of inactivity in the Temple, but applies equally to all types of ola offerings.  The Torah's discussion of the ola thus concludes, "An eternal fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out" (6:6) - an appropriate closing for the section of "torat ha-ola." (Note as well the terminological parallel between the "tamid" offering and the "eish tamid" - eternal flame.)


     This conclusion, though, requires an explanation.  Wherein lies the significance of the fire that the institution to the ola offering is devoted to it?  What does the "eish tamid" - the eternal flame - represent, on account of which the Torah  makes a point of ensuring its uninterrupted maintenance?


"I Will Reside Among the Israelites"


     We begin by looking back at the Torah's initial presentation of the daily tamid offering, in Parashat Tetzaveh (Shemot 29:38-46).  If in our parasha the tamid is presented as the primary or quintessential ola, in Parashat Tetzaveh it emerges as the primary or quintessential sacrifice in general: "This is what you shall offer upon the altar: two yearling lambs each day, regularly.  You shall offer the one lamb in the morning, and you shall offer the other lamb at twilight" (Shemot 29:38-39).  The verses describe the tamid lambs as the exclusive offerings on the altar.  Indeed, it is the daily offering that ensures the continuity of the Temple service; these two offerings represent the "bread and butter," if you will, of the system of Temple sacrifices.  Quite understandably, the Sages instituted the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz partly to commemorate the cessation of the daily tamid offering (see Mishna, Ta'anit 4:6).


     However, we may detect an additional dimension to the significance of the tamid sacrifice, from the verses concluding this section in Parashat Tetzaveh: "I will meet with you there, and there I will speak with you… I will reside among the Israelites, and I will be their God… " (Shemot 29:42, 45).  On one level, these verses form the conclusion of the entire Tabernacle unit, which began in Shemot 25:1, as they parallel this unit's introduction, in which God formulates the objective of the Mishkan: "They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall reside in their midst" (25:8).  One cannot overlook, however, the direct relevance of this theme - God's residence among the Israelites ("hashra'at Shekhina") - to the specific context of the daily tamid offering.  That the Torah juxtaposes the tamid with the concept of the  Shekhina's residence, and that the concluding verses do not earn a separate paragraph in the Torah scroll, would suggest a direct association between these two topics.  Thus, the daily tamid offering directly impacts upon - if not itself causes - the descent of God's Presence onto the Mishkan.


     Returning to our previous discussion, then, we have arrived at a basic association between the "eish tamid," the eternal flame fed by the ola offerings, exemplified by the daily tamid offering, and the Shekhina's Presence.  The burnt offering, which serves to sustain the fire on the altar, facilitates, on one level or another, God's Presence among Benei Yisrael.  In other words, the eternal flame represents the Divine Presence!  (This concept was discussed at length by Rav Avraham Walfish in a VBM shiur in 1997 - see as well as .)


     This theory is confirmed in the parasha following ours, Parashat Shemini, which describes the revelation of God's Presence before Benei Yisrael at the conclusion of the Mishkan's inauguration: "Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar" (Vayikra 9:24).  The initial offerings on the altar were consumed by a heavenly fire, signifying divine revelation; the fire sustained on the altar henceforth thus perpetuates God's Presence.


     This, of course, leads us to our final question: why fire?  Why does fire serve as an appropriate symbol of God's Presence in the Mishkan, thus becoming a focal point within the entire structure and system of the Tabernacle?


"Behold, There Was a Bush Aflame, Yet the Bush Was Not Consumed"


     Numerous times throughout Tanakh, Scriptural verse employs the imagery of fire to depict divine wrath and the destruction brought in its wake.  In narrative, too, we find fire as the instrument with which God exacts judgment.  We cite here several examples:


"The Lord rained upon Sedom and Amora sulfurous fire from the Lord out of the Heaven." (Bereishit 19:24)


"Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan… And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord." (Vayikra 10:1-2)


"The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord.  The Lord heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp." (Bemidbar 11:1)


"And a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense." (Bemidbar 16:35)


"Take care, then, not to forget the covenant… and not to make for yourselves a sculptured image… For the Lord your God is a consuming fire…. "  (Devarim 4:23-24)


"They incensed Me with no-gods, vexed Me with their futilities… For a fire has flared in My wrath and burned to the bottom of Sheol, has consumed the earth and its increase." (Devarim 32:21-22)


"Fire is His vanguard, burning His foes on every side." (Tehillim 97:3)


     When God appears for purposes of exacting punishment, He assumes, as it were, the quality of a raging fire, destroying all that comes in its way.


     When, however, God appears to those deserving of His Presence, the fire of revelation is of an entirely different nature.  At the site destined to host Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), God appears to Moshe for his inaugural prophecy in the form of a fire that does not consume: "Behold, there was a bush aflame, but the bush was not consumed" (Shemot 3:2).  Later, when the entire nation stood at the foot of that very mountain, the fire descended once again: "Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord has come down upon it in fire" (Shemot 19:18).  Naturally, the people feared the consequences of divine revelation: "Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us… For what mortal ever heard the voice of the living God speak out of the fire, as we did, and lived?" (Devarim 5:22-23).  As revelation normally involves judgment, the masses were frightened by the fire of Sinai.  Only this fire, as opposed to that of Sedom, for example, was a revelation of love, rather than anger; of compassion, rather than fury; of affection, rather than rage.


     It was the fire of Sinai that descended upon the altar outside the Tabernacle:


"Moshe said to the Almighty: Master of the world, You told me to make an altar from acacia wood and plate it with copper; and You told me, 'An eternal fire shall be kept burning on the altar' - will not the fire remove that plating and consume the wood?  The Almighty said to Moshe: Moshe, these qualities apply to you; perhaps they apply to Me?  Look at the angels, who are a raging fire, and yet I have many treasuries of snow and ice… Learn from yourself: when you entered the precincts of fire [atop Mount Sinai]… you should have been burnt.  Moreover, you came to Me, as it says, 'And Moshe approached the thick cloud where God was'…"  (Midrash Tanchuma, Teruma 11)


     Fire, the symbol of reckless and unrestrained destruction, serves as well, for this very reason, as the most accurate symbol of divine revelation.  When the Almighty appears to those who obey His commands and earn His Presence, the fire that normally characterizes revelation suddenly no longer consumes or destroys.  By faithfully abiding by God's laws, Benei Yisrael, through the offering of the sacrifices, sustain the miraculous fire of the altar, the fire that burns but does not consume, the fire of Divine Presence.  When Nadav and Avihu disregard the strict regulations and violate the Tabernacle creed, that same fire from the altar consumes them (see Sifrei Zuta, Beha'alotekha 31).  When Benei Yisrael no longer deserve God's Presence, the fire of divine revelation transforms into the fire of divine rage and burns the Temple.  But when they serve God obediently, Benei Yisrael continue to feed the eternal flame and maintain the Presence of God within the nation.


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