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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
November 7, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Most of us are familiar with this word from its appearance in the name of a ritual object Ner Tamid, usually translated as "eternal light." But the word "tamid" does not mean "eternal." That word will come up relatively soon in this particular prayer. Tamid actually carries the meaning of "fixed," "permanent" or "perpetual."

For example, there is a tractate in the Talmud named "Tamid" that discusses the fixed sacrifices mentioned in the Torah, each of which is called "tamid." The sacrifices are expected at fixed times each day and are to be brought in a particularly prescribed way.

Similarly, in the supervision of kashrut, the person charged with overseeing the integrity of the food production is the mashgiach. If the mashgiach comes and goes from the facility, he is described one way. But if he is present permanently, whenever the facility is in use, a form of the word tamid is used to describe him.

And that brings us to the ner tamid. In the Torah, it is not clear that a lamp was kept burning at all times in the Tabernacle, but it is clear that it burned all night and whenever the inner sanctum was in use. Aaron and his sons are commanded to maintain it perpetually so that it is always at the ready.

What each of these examples has in common and what distinguishes them all from the notion of "eternal" is that they require constant attention. "Tamid" does not presume the unending nature of the thing or the action itself. Someone must act regularly (if not continually) in order for the tamid to be maintained.

The same is true of the Ner Tamid in any synagogue sanctuary. Some artists will design only a Ner Tamid that remains lit if it is refilled with a fuel of some kind they believe that the set-it-and-forget-it nature of electrical lighting is inconsistent with the Torah's meaning. But even a low-wattage and high-efficiency light bulb must be watched and occasionally replaced. The essence of anything "tamid" is the engagement of the people who benefit from it.

And that's consistent with the usage in this particular prayer. Though often translated as "always," the better translation is "perpetually," making us not just of consistent intentions, but responsible always to be perpetrators.

Next time, we will see how the past dozen weeks fit together.

(Please note there will be no column next week.)

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