Ner Tamid and Tish’a B’Av

As I was setting up the chapel for this evening’s Tish’a B’Av service and Eichah reading at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, dimming the lights, lighting the five shiva candles that sit on the Amud (Reader’s Table) during the service, it occurred to me that the symbolism of the Ner Tamid shining in the shadows is starker than ever on Tish’a B’Av.

The Ner Tamid, the “Eternal Light”, a symbolic light that is hung above the ark in synagogue sanctuaries around the world, is said to remind us both of the Menorah, the oil lamp, and the continuously burning fire on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.

It occurred to me also that while we light the Shiva candles in memoriam for the Beit HaMikdash that was destroyed for the first time in 586 BCE and then the second in 70 CE, my kindling feels a bit like a victory. A reclaiming of the fire, if you will. While I know it is a custom to light these candles, and that they are, in most places, for ambiance more than anything else, it felt like I was remembering the fire that burned our Temple, that burned our People, throughout the ages. It felt like I was connected to that raging fire, and had tamed it.

As I look at these small flames, contained in glass, against the great Ner Tamid that glows a strong blue in the chapel at Temple Emanu-El, I remember how our Temple was destroyed. Our People consumed in raging flames not once, but many times throughout the last three thousand years. I remember how not only was our greatest structure consumed those two fateful days in Jewish history; I remember how many must have died that day in terror. How many families must have been torn apart. I remember the Ten Martyrs who we recall on Yom Kippur, including the great sage Rabbi Akiva. I remember the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were burned at the stake. I remember the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. The flaming bricks thrown through windows. I remember the over six million Jews and over five million other who perished in our own century. I remember the news reports of the suicide bombings in Israel during the first and second Intifada.

Tish’a B’Av is a day to reclaim our national fire. It is a day of mourning for all those who were senselessly and brutally murdered from within our own People. As we inhale, we sense just a bit of smoke entering our olfactory consciousness. We remember those who ascended tragically in flames. On Tish’a B’Av, we remember them.

And as our Ner Tamid sits proudly above the ark, where we keep the most sacred objects in our tradition, we remember that we live in a world where senseless hatred had not been eliminated. It has not left us. And as the sun sets now on Tish’a B’Av, we — no, I — resolve to be reminded daily, always, no longer to stare blindly at the Ner Tamid. To let it serve as a reminder of my vulnerability to anger and to hatred, and to not let it overcome me in my own lifetime. I pray that we each do the same.

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What’s a Minyan?

You receive e-mails from the synagogue asking you to come and participate in the morning or evening minyan. If your first inclination is to ask, “What’s a minyan?,” know that you are not alone in your puzzlement. (I cannot stress enough – if you have questions, please feel free to ask me! As they say, there are no stupid questions…)

A MINYAN (as defined by the Conservative movement) is a quorum of ten people above the age of bar or bat mitzvah, i.e. men aged thirteen or older and women aged twelve or older, who join together in prayer. While it is permissible to pray on one’s own, it is preferable to pray with a minyan because there are pieces of the service that can only be performed within this framework, such as kaddish and kedushah.

The concept of ten people unified as a minyan comes from the Talmud, one of the earliest Rabbinic law texts, composed roughly between the second and fifth centuries C.E. In Tractate Megillah, page 23b, the Rabbis explain that these “holy” parts of the service, like kaddish and kedushah, cannot be recited with fewer than ten qualified individuals. Why? Because in the book of Bemidbar, when Moses sends twelve spies into the land of Canaan, ten of the spies come back unified in their negativity against the Children of Israel entering the land. According to the Rabbis, Numbers 14:27, in which the reference to this “wicked congregation” appears, is talking about a congregation. Therefore, according to the Rabbis, it is ten individuals unified who constitute a “congregation,” and thus in order to pray in a congregation, a group must have ten individuals. Another suggestion comes from Tractate Berachot, which tells a story in which God shows up to a service in the shul and discovers that there are fewer than ten. God is immediately angry – it is as if no one has shown up!

At Temple Emanu-El, we generally hold minyanim (the plural of minyan) on weekday mornings at 7:00 A.M. and on Sundays at 8:00 AM for Shaharit, the morning service. We also hold minyanim at 5:45 every weekday evening for Minha, the afternoon service, and Ma’ariv, the evening service. If the schedule is changed, it will be marked in your Temple calendar. It is important that we have at least ten people present at each minyan so that our fellow congregants can say kaddish for their loved ones who have passed on. Please join us when you can – once a week, once a month, twice a month – to ensure that we have a minyan for those who need one.

More “Shul 101: Ask the Ritual Director” columns will be coming out to our congregational family on a weekly basis by e-mail. If you have questions that you’d like to be addressed, please send them along to Hinda Eisen, heisen@teprov.org.