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Home » B'Ha'alotcha

B’Ha'alotcha: Absorbing the Abstract

Submitted by on May 24, 2010 – 5:13 pmNo Comment | 2,981 views

Lighting The Candle

Every year, shortly after the holiday of Shavuot, we chant the Biblical injunction to kindle the candelabra in the Bet Hamikdash. King Solomon used the metaphor of light to describe the Torah for the Torah radiates light. It thus stands to reason that much can be inferred about the way Torah should be studied and internalized from the method by which the candelabra was kindled.

Three Questions

  1. According to at least one prominent Halachic authority (1) the lights were kindled every evening and morning. The evening kindling is understandable; the night is an appropriate time to light a candle, but what was the purpose of kindling lights in the morning?
  2. Before kindling, the candelabra had to be cleaned of debris from the previous night. Here we encounter a curious rule; the kindling could be performed by an Israelite, but the cleaning could only be performed by a kohen. (2) Why was the cleaning more important than the kindling?
  3. Our sages made a special point of telling us that the torch was held to the wick till the wick could burn on its own. (3) Is this not obvious? Why did it require special mention?

Purpose of Study

We don’t study Torah only to accumulate knowledge, though this too is an important goal. We study Torah to absorb the word of G-d. The Key to successful Torah study is to first reflect on the Divine nature of the Torah and then proceed to internalize its thoughts and ideas. It is not sufficient to know the ideas; they must be integrated into our thought process; the torah must meld with our very minds.

When the Shulchan Aurch (code of Jewish Law) was written its authors encountered stiff opposition from many prominent rabbis. These rabbis were concerned that students would no longer apply themselves to the study of Talmud with an eye toward formulating Halachic ruling. A book that delineates Halachic responses to any given situation encourages students to take the easy path.

It is not sufficient to know the answer; it is important to formulate the answer for ourselves. Even when we are taught the answer it is not sufficient to carry this information in our minds; it is important to explore and review the matter till we understand why it is the only possible solution. We must take ownership of the information by making it ours so that when we are asked for guidance on a particular matter we are be able to offer our own conclusions, rather than parrot what we were taught by others. (4)learn for yourself - innerstream

We are taught the ethic of attributing a teaching to its proper source. Indeed, when studying the Talmud, one often encounters a chain of transmission on a particular teaching. Yet not all teachings are presented with their chain of transmission; teachings are often offered in the name of their author with no mention of their origin. Why are those teachings not properly attributed?

The answer is often that those particular teachings, though handed down to their accredited authors, are attributed to the authors because they had researched its underpinnings, explored it many branches of thought and internalized its conclusions. It became their teaching; as they taught it they were personally convinced of its truth, not merely parroting what they had heard or read.

Till It Is Self Sufficient

This is the inner meaning of kindling the wick till it burns on its own. It is not sufficient to have a flame that is fueled by the torch; the wick must be capable of radiating its own light. In the same vein, it is not sufficient to carry around information that others have taught us or that we learned in a book; we must think for ourselves and learn to defend our conclusions. In other words, learning from others is not sufficient. After receiving the teaching you must learn it again, but this time you learn for yourself. (5)

The Morning Kindling

We might suggest that the meaning behind the morning kindling follows a similar vein. The only way to take ownership of an idea that comes from outside is to review it repeatedly till it melds with our inner rhythms of thought. This requires repeated efforts that continue long after one understands the subject material. It is specifically when one has grasped the material and is no longer in need of further review, furthermore, when one is utterly tired of reviewing the material that the information begins to settle in. It is at this point that it goes from being received information to self evident conclusions.

The evening is a logical time to light a candle; the world is then in need of light. The morning, when the world is awash in light, is a time when the candle is no longer needed. Yet at this time the candles were kindled again, to remind us that even when the mind is clear and the teaching has been understood we must engaged in the study once again to ensure that it becomes our own.

The Cleaning Process

In the same vein we might explain why the kindling could be performed by anyone, but only a Kohen was permitted to clean the candelabra. The kindling is a metaphor for teaching whereas the cleaning is a metaphor for answering questions and resolving doubts.

When information is taught to us we might accept it despite the questions and doubts we might harbor. But such acceptance is superficial; we could not say at this point that we are fully convinced of the truth of this teaching. No one can truly help us absorb it; no one can remove the doubts for us. To fully receive, let alone absorb, the teaching we must reflect on it and review it ourselves.

The kindling could be done by another just like the teaching can be offered by anyone. But the cleaning of the candelabra was only performed by the Kohen just like the resolution of doubt and the answering of questions can only be accomplished by the student. The teacher cannot force the student to accept the teaching; only the student can do that.

Two Elements

It is critical that we incorporate both elements into our Torah study and observance. We must be willing to receive teaching from others as the chain of tradition cannot continue without such teaching. On the other hand we should never be satisfied with the received teaching. We must advance our learning to the next level by taking ownership and making it our own. Only in this way will it be possible for each of us to truly buy into the tenets of our faith and become, in turn, teachers for the next generation. (6)


  1. Maimonidies, Hilchos Temidin Umusafin, 3:12.
  2. Maimonidies, Hilchos Bias Hamikdosh 9:7.
  3. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 21a.
  4. See Zuto Shel Yam, Tzavoas Reb Eliezer
  5. While independence of thought is encouraged; it is
    done so with a limit. We are independent of thought, but not of
    conclusion; we must be careful not to allow independent thinking to
    overshadow fidelity to our tradition. The objective is to engage our
    minds to grasp the intricacies and underpinnings of the law; not to
    countermand it. For this purpose it is important to remember that where
    our conclusions differ with those of the Torah, the fault lies in our
    cognitive limitations, rather than the veracity of Torah. Where logical
    progression fails to lead us to the Torah’s conclusions we must be
    willing to start the process anew and seek out the divergent points that
    have led us to our faulty conclusions.
  6. This essay is based on Toras Menachem v. 12 p. 41
    and v. 23 p. 57.