In the recent book The Grammar of God, author Aviyah Kushner demonstrates how the remarkable attentiveness the rabbis gave to the words of the text and their usage yielded nuggets of wisdom that untrained readers could never mine. While what follows does not appear in the book, it is, nonetheless, an illustration of the concept.
English speakers often confuse two related but quite different words: continuous and continual. Continuous denotes action that is ongoing. Continual denotes action that is regular. Thus, a river flows continuously but the ferry crosses the river continually, that is, unless the ferry crossings never stop. In such a case the ferry’s crossing would be continuous. An ill-behaved student, to any teacher’s dismay, continually interrupts the lesson. His or her disruptive behavior would not be continuous unless it persisted through the entirety of the class.
For Hebrew readers of the Torah, confusion goes deeper in that the same Hebrew word may mean continuous or continual. For instance, in Exodus 25:30 God commands that the twelve loves of ceremonial bread be arranged on the table “tamid.” Here, the implication of the word tamid, as RaShI notes, is always. The display of the loaves must be continuous. There is no time when the loaves would not be on display. In contrast, the burnt-offering (Numbers 28:6), also called tamid, is brought twice daily which makes it a continual offering but not a continuous one. And similarly, the meal-offering, brought twice daily (Leviticus 6:13), was called tamid, meaning continual. It was brought at regular times and not all the time.
The remaining question is what to make of the candelabrum which must be lit tamid (Exodus 27:20). Should it be lit perpetually or should it be lit regularly? RaShI states that the candelabrum should be lit continually since it must be re-lit each night. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra agrees. However, Josephus reports (Against Apion 1:22) that already at the time of the Second Temple a light on the candelabrum was never extinguished and that it served as the basis of the practice in later Jewish history of placing an Eternal Light in front of the Ark in every synagogue.
If the eternal light is intended to serve as a reminder of God’s presence, the dual nature of the word tamid is apposite. Sometimes it appears that God is always in the midst of the Jewish people. His presence is felt perpetually. Yet sometimes it may seem that while the Jewish people may rely on the continual love and protection of God there may be moments when God’s presence is absent. In those moments it is comforting to know that we can always rely on God to once again be part of our lives.