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Vayikra/Leviticus 6:2(9) ... this is the burnt offering on the hearth, on the altar, all the night until the morning ...
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We move here from the instructions given for the realm of the public - during the day - to those given to the realm of the priests - during the night. At night, new offerings may not be brought, but the fire on the altar is kept burning: "A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out" (Vayikra 6:6(13), JPS). The temple was closed to the public, but the priests continue to tend the fire and ensure that all the unburned parts of the offerings brought during the day are fully consumed on the altar. This raking together of all the remnants was the origin of the last of the three daily prayer services: Ma'ariv, which takes place in the evening. Unlike the first two services - Shacharit, Dawn and Mincha, Gift - which were deemed to be the non-Temple replacement for the twice-daily burnt offerings commanded in Shemot 29:38-46, when theAmidah is recited twice, during Ma'ariv it is only recited once. Abravanel comments that "from here we learn that the evening prayer may be said at any time during the night."
The root - to burn - is the source of the word in the text and the verb - she shall be burnt - later in this verse and in the following verses. The prefix normally signifies the place where a verb function takes place, hence the translation 'hearth' above, but can also be used for the tools to perform the function, so that some translations use 'firewood'. The JPS translation combines the preposition to make the phrase "where it is burned" as if were a passive participle. The phrase - literally: fire from the burning mass - is used for "burning coals" (Isaiah 30:14, JPS). TheRashbam comments that even though there are no new offerings, "the fire is to burn by night just as by day", while the Ramban concludes that this forms an "instruction to the priests to put enough wood on at close of day to keep burning through the night".
Drazin and Wagner point out thatTargum Jonathan and the Midrash comment that "Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai said: 'Generally speaking, a burnt offering is due only [as an atonement] for sinful meditation of the heart'" (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). This means that while the offerings are only brought during the day, it is appropriate that their remains should continue burning all night, for man is prone to inappropriate thoughts at all times of the day and night, perhaps even more so at night. The Bechor Schor held that the left-over limbs and fat must continue to burn through the night as it would be disrespectful to leave the altar empty.
Hirsch sees a very marked distinction between day and night. He says that "the Halacha teaches that it is lucid, clear, fully awake Man with his wakeful, clear thinking and free-willed mind, who is to come near G-d with the expression of dedicating himself to carrying out His Laws." Night, on the other hand is "the time when things are 'confusedly mixed up' - the time when Man, too, sinks back into the realm of things bound by physical forces; Night is the time that brings the heathen mind nearer to his gods." The fire on the altar in the Temple burns on during the night to maintain that spark of G-d breathed holiness that lifts man above the physical level and enables him to "stand upright, in His likeness ... in His service for His purposes." Hirsch stresses the importance of the commandment to keep the fire burning throughout the night, "to complete the offerings of the day as fuel to keep godliness on earth alive until day dawned." Isaac Rosenberg1, considered one of the outstanding war poets, who was himself killed during the First World War in April 1918, wrote about the pressures of his day invading the night in the poem "The Immortals" which starts:
I killed them, but they would not die.
Yea! all the day and all the night,
For them I could not rest or sleep,
Nor guard from them nor hide in flight.
The Psalmist reminds us that G-d Himself is always awake: "See, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!" (Psalm 121:4, JPS), while Solomon describes how he saw people behaving in daily life: "I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labour on earth -- his eyes not seeing sleep day or night" (Ecclesiastes 8:16, NIV). Throughout history, while most people have been awake during the day and sleeping at night, there have always been those who stayed up and worked at night. The famous painting, Coalbrookedale by Night, painted in 1801 by Philip James de Loutherbourg, shows the light of the Madeley Wood (or Bedlam) iron blast furnaces lighting up the countryside at night, as they ran continuously day and night for many years during the Industrial Revolution. Many must have made the twin connections between the furnaces and the fire on the altar, or between the furnaces and the unquenchable fires of hell (Mark 9:43). Today, our modern society knows hardly any bounds with many people working shifts around the clock in hospitals, industry - even call centres handling banking enquiries and transactions 24 hours of the day, 365 days in the year, from around the world.
Study and worship are no strangers to the night watches. Rabbi Phinehas, citing the psalms - "At midnight I rise to praise You, because of Your righteous rules" (Psalm 119:62, ESV) - taught that David would arise at midnight in order to play the psaltery and harp and to study Torah (Pesikta de Rab Kahana, Piska 7). One night, in a prison in Philippi, "About midnight Sha'ul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to G-d, and the prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:25, ESV). The days were so busy and filled with people and work that it was only at night that people could find the time, peace and quiet in order to study and pray, free from noise and interruptions. The same often seems true today: it can be difficult to set apart time in a busy working day for a meaningful dialogue with the L-rd and more than a perfunctory skim through a few verses of the Bible coupled with a quick "bless me today" prayer.
The prophets spoke about how G-d nevertheless calls people to invest in serious times of intercession and spiritual vigilance on a regular basis: "Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen, who shall never be silent by day or by night. O you, the L-RD's remembrancers, take no rest and give no rest to Him, until He establish Jerusalem and make her renowned on earth" (Isaiah 62:6-7, JPS). Just as in Bible times, when watchmen would keep watch over the city and its environs day and night, keeping constantly alert to warn the city of any possible attack from without or danger from within, so G-d has established spiritual watchmen over not just the physical walls of Jerusalem but over many cities and towns, churches, countries, businesses and organisations. In Jerusalem, Succat Hallel (Tabernacle of Praise) operates a 24-hour prayer and praise ministry from their base on the Hebron Road looking up towards the Jaffa Gate and the Old City of Jerusalem. In regular shifts, musicians, singers and prayers come together to cover the complete day in praise and worship to G-d and to intercede for the peace and salvation of Jerusalem. In England, the first 24x7 prayer room, now known as a "Boiler Room2" opened in Reading in September 2001. 24x7 Boiler Rooms now operate throughout the UK in many other countries, with teams of dedicated intercessors coming to petition G-d on a non-stop basis over critical issues for themselves, their communities and the wider Body of Messiah.
All these ministries and people know the value and importance of "keeping the fire burning" throughout the night. They are committed to following the ancient pattern of bringing a burnt offering - that is wholly committed to G-d with nothing left over - and burning it steadily, around the clock, to provide atonement for sin and a way of approach into G-d's presence. It finds favour with G-d because although physical blood sacrifices are no longer offered, people make their lives a consistent sacrifice of time and effort at all hours of the day and night.
1. - 1890-1918, a British Jew, born in Bristol to Lithuanian refugees, studied at the Slade School, author of "Poems from the Trenches"; commemorated as one of 16 Great War poets on a slate stone in Poets's Corner, Westminster Abbey.
2. - So called after Charles Haddon Spurgeon who took a group of visitors to the Metropolitan Tabernacle into a basement room where several hundred people were silently praying before the morning service and told them, "This is the boiler-room of our church."
Further Study: Vayikra 6:5-6(12-13); Ezekiel 3:17-21; Psalm 134:1-2
Application: Is G-d calling you to greater efforts in your life before Him? Are you keeping the fire burning "all the night"? Now is the time to get involved - find a venue near you and start today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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