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Ner Tamid

In Historic Preservation, Jewish Life on June 7, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Ner Tamid. Cast Bronze. Eldridge Street Synagogue.


About

The ner tamid is the light that traditionally hangs above the ark within synagogues. Hebrew, for “eternal light,” the ner tamid remains lit continuously, even when other lighting is switched off. The concept of an eternal light connects to the menorah, or ritual candelabra, that burned historically in the Temple in Jerusalem. Additionally, the light is a reminder of the ever-presence of God in the Synagogue.

The upper portion of the ner tamid in the Eldridge Street Synagogue consists of a griffin head with  golden wings, which connects the fixture to the Ark.  From the griffin head’s mouth extends a chain from which hangs a delicately carved basket containing the ever-burning light. Although the original ner tamid is no longer extant, the contemporary ner tamid created by artisans at Aurora Lampworks during the synagogue’s restoration hangs as a modern recreation of the 19th century piece. The fixture is cast in bronze and ornamented through chasing and repoussé, two inverse processes that shape malleable metal by sinking or raising the material’s surface with chisels and hammers. These techniques allow for great ornamentation and detail, which is particularly evident in the “crown and basket”  at the bottom of the fixture.

Ner Tamid, detail. Cast Bronze. Eldridge Street Synagogue.

The griffin head was inspired by several old photographs of the synagogue’s interior.  A mythical creature, griffins have the body of a lion and the head of an eagle. This enigmatic form invites several possible interpretations.  Within the Jewish tradition, a lion has historical associations with the tribe of Judah and the modern city of Jerusalem.  The eagle head motif might reference the following passage:

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)

In this interpretation, the eagle might symbolize the strength needed for the Jewish immigrants to create a new life in America. Another common association of the eagle is with American democracy.  The eagle might therefore be a patriotic expression of the immigrant founders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Certainly, there are additional interpretations of the griffin head motif, as well as the likelihood that its significance is no singular association, but rather a compilation of many. What we do know is that once considered the guardian of treasure and the divine in antiquity, the griffin of the ner tamid at Eldridge Street stands watch both day and night.

Discussion Questions

  • Brainstorm associations of light. Where else, or in what other traditions, is light symbolically used? Why?
  • Consider the three architectural elements that are fundamental to a synagogue—the ark, the reader’s platform and the eternal light. What do these elements have in common? What are the core architectural elements of other places of worship you have visited?
  • We do not have any information regarding the original intent for the design of the ner tamid. What do you think the griffin represents?

Classroom Extensions

  • Conduct research on use of light in other religious spaces.  Compare your findings with the use of light within the the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
  • Explore the techniques of chasing and repoussé that  Aurora Lampworks used in recreating the ner tamid. Use a toothpick to create a design in heavy duty foil.
  • Learn more about Aurora Lampworks and their work at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on their website where a case study of the project is featured.
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