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I have once heard that there was a miraculous eternally burning flame present in the Temple. I have never found the source for this midrash or its hebrew name (I thought the Ner Tamid referred to something that was repeatedly lighted so as to keep it burning forever by natural means). I could only find a reference to it in the commentary of Rabbi Wein on parashat Tzav on www.torah.org.

The origin of the ner tamid is found in this week’s parsha of Tzav. Here the Jewish people are commanded by God to have an eternal flame constantly burning on the altar of the Mishkan and later in the temple in Jerusalem. The Midrash teaches us that the flame on the altar resembles a crouching lion and was miraculous in the fact that even when the altar was covered with its protective cloth, while being transported in the desert, the flame was not extinguished nor did it burn the cloth.

What is the source of this midrash? If this miracle was already observed daily, why was the miracle of the menorah lights that we celebrate on channukah regarded as such a unique and great miracle at all?

EDIT: regadering the eternally burning flame in the Temple: I've heard that the miracle of this particular light was that it was perpetually burning. Suggesting that it was something other than the Ner Tamid?

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The menorah was relit each evening and lasted until the morning. The westernmost cup remained lit all day as one of the miracles of the first temple. Note that Aharon (in Bha'aloscha) is commanded to relight it each evening. Tamid can also mean regularly or consistently as we also see with the korbon tamid.

The miracle of the chanukah lights was that there was no (pure) oil available to refill the cups at the end of the first day. Thus the fact that the menorah stayed lit for the eight days required for the production of pure oil was the miracle (as was the fact that they even found a jar of certified pure oil).

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Answer to the first part of the question only:

The source is given by Rav D Silverberg of Yeshivah Har Etzion here ; it is Midrash Tanchuma, Teruma 11:

"Moshe said to the Almighty: Master of the world, You told me to make an altar from acacia wood and plate it with copper; and You told me, 'An eternal fire shall be kept burning on the altar' - will not the fire remove that plating and consume the wood? The Almighty said to Moshe: Moshe, these qualities apply to you; perhaps they apply to Me? Look at the angels, who are a raging fire, and yet I have many treasuries of snow and ice… Learn from yourself: when you entered the precincts of fire [atop Mount Sinai]… you should have been burnt. Moreover, you came to Me, as it says, 'And Moshe approached the thick cloud where God was'…"

That this was miraculous is attested to by Rabbi Berel Wein of Torah.org who says:

The Midrash teaches us that the flame on the altar resembles a crouching lion and was miraculous in the fact that even when the altar was covered with its protective cloth, while being transported in the desert, the flame was not extinguished nor did it burn the cloth.

  • Thx for the answer about the midrash. It helps me understand that the ner tamid is something different than the light I've heard about. I'll add it to the question via an edit – RonP Dec 10 '15 at 13:13
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    You're quoting the same thing the question did regarding the miraculous constancy of the flame; it sought a source for that. The early source you quote doesn't mention that: the only miracle it mentions is that the altar's surface wasn't marred. – msh210 Dec 10 '15 at 14:32

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