An Inextinguishable Flame By Rabbi David Nachbar


The Mishnah in Masechet Avot (5:5) lists among the ten miracles that occurred regularly in the Beit Ha’Mikdash, the inability of rain to extinguish the fire atop the Mizbei’ach (see Yoma 21a regarding this miracle’s inclusion in the actual text of the Mishnah). The miraculous nature of this occurrence was due to the placement of the outer Mizbei’ach in the courtyard of the Beit Ha’Mikdash, a location that was wide open and exposed to the elements (Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayot Avot 5:5). Despite the fire’s exposure and vulnerability, it burned unremittingly without ever being extinguished.   

The importance of a continuous fire atop the Mizbei’ach is underscored at the beginning of Parashat Tzav when the Torah commands - “VeHa’Eish Al HaMmizbei’ach Tukad Bo Lo Tichbeh”, “And the fire upon the altar shall burn thereupon, it shall not be extinguished” (Vayikra 6:5). Remarkably, the Torah seems to reiterate the very same point in the following Pasuk when it repeats, “Eish Tamid Tukad Al HaMizbei’ach Lo Tichbeh”, “A continual flame shall be kept burning upon the altar, it shall not be extinguished” (Vayikra 6:6).  In the reiteration, however, the Torah adds the characterization of the fire as an “Eish Tamid,” a continual one (Ibn Ezra 6:6, s.v. Eish).  Rashi (6:6 s.v. Lo) interprets the Torah’s reiteration as adding an additional negative commandment; rather than violate one commandment alone, an individual who extinguishes the fire would violate two negative commandments.  

Ramban (6:2 s.v. Ve’eish), in contrast, believes that the Torah’s repetition seeks to address different audiences. The first Pasuk addresses every member of the Jewish people and issues a command to refrain from extinguishing even a single coal from the fire upon the Mizbei’ach. The second Pasuk, which describes the fire as an “Eish Tamid,” addresses the Kohanim specifically and enjoins them to diligently arrange abundant firewood atop the Mizbei’ach to ensure that the fire has the capacity to burn perpetually throughout the day and night. The Kohanim’s laziness or negligence in this regard would result in their violation of both a positive and negative commandment.  

The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 132) renders the definition of “Tamid,” in this context, as consistent, and it obligates the kohanim to replenish the wood supply every morning and every afternoon. The Minchat Chinuch (Mitzvah 132:1) infers from the Sefer HaChinuch that the Kohanim would bear no responsibility to rekindle the flame should it go out in the middle of the day or evening. His understanding of the Rambam (Hilkhot Temidin 2:1), though, interprets the word “Tamid” as constant, and, consequently, obligates the Kohanim to ensure that not even a single moment would pass without a fire kindled atop the Mizbei’ach.

Against this backdrop, the miraculous protection of the Mizbei’ach’s fire against torrential rains is curious. It is unclear what degree of responsibility the Kohanim would even bear toward the extinguished flame, certainly if it occurred due to extenuating circumstances and natural conditions rather than to any act of negligence on their part. Rav Chaim of Volozhyn (Ruach Chaim, Commentary on Avot) as well as Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook (Olat Reiya”h, Commentary on Avot) both interpret the miracle in symbolic terms and identify a religious imperative embedded within it.

Geshem is a symbol for Gashmiyut, the physical bounty of this world and the abundant produce of the land that is nourished by rain.  “Eish,” on the other hand, is a symbol for spirituality, the religious spirit of man, and the specific enterprise of Talmud Torah (see Devarim 33:2). The miracle's religious and moral instruction to the Jewish people is to safeguard the spiritual aspirations of the Jewish soul, to nurture religious growth throughout life, and to continuously supply additional firewood of Torah study and insight to perpetuate the inner flame from being extinguished as one progresses throughout life, assumes additional responsibilities, and pursues “Gishmei Berachah.”Consciousness of mind, careful carving out of time and space, as well as a good measure of divine assistance are all vitally important to maintain an “Eish Tamid, Lo Tichbeh” in our spiritual lives.

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