Cassuto* says that tamid is “intrinsically capable of two interpretations: it can mean ‘continuously, without interruption’ — that is the lamps would never be extinguished, either by day or by night; or it can signify ‘regularly’ — that is, the lamps would burn every night; on no night would its light be wanting — as in the expression [olat tamid, ‘continual burnt offering’].” He concludes that the “second sense is more probable” from context.
You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly [ner tamid]. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain which is over the Pact, from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.
[Note:] Kindling lamps regularly. The lights were to be kindled on the lampstand previously described. The translation of [ner tamid] as “perpetual light” or “eternal light” is grammatically inaccurate and is also contradicted by verse 21. (The so-called ner tamid of the synagogue is of much later origin.) — Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21, JPS/Plaut* and commentary
In addition, Cassuto says that “ner [‘lamp’] is used here in a collective sense: ‘lamps’ or ‘candelabrum.’For more on the ancient lamp(s), see, e.g., Wikipedia’s article.
Here’s a quick reference on the later, synagogue “ner tamid.” To the right is an example of a new photovoltaic “ner tamid,” designed to save energy; this one was installed at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL.
*Please see Source Materials for complete commentary and Torah/translation citations.
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