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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]

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.


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