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The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light


“A man’s wisdom lights up his face” (Ecclesiastes 8:1). The light on a man’s face is the closest we know of God, followed closely by the light of Jerusalem.”—The Lamp of God, page 449

‘Master of the World, how can You ask us to give light to You. You surely are the Light of the World and Brightness abides with You... To which the Holy One, Blessed be He, replies: "It is not because I require your service, but in order that you may give Me light, even as I give you light."’ (Bam R 15:5)

The Midrash suggests that though God certainly does not need anything that man can do, He looks for certain forms of reciprocal behavior “in order that you may give Me light as I give you light.” And strengthening this connection is the function, not only of the Menorah (Lamp), but also of all other commandments and religious acts.

‘Bar Kappra began: “When you light My Lamp, I shall illumine your darkness (Ps. 18:28). Said the Holy One to man, ‘Your lamp is in My Hand and My Lamp is in yours.’ That ‘your lamp is in My Hand’ (means your life) is proved by the text, The soul of man is the Lamp of God (Provs. 20:27). And how do we know that ‘My Lamp is in your hand’? – “to raise up an eternal light (Lev. 24:2). Said the Holy One, ’If you have kindled My Lamp, (fulfilled My commandment to kindle) I will light yours.’ (Vayikra Rab. 31:4 ), —268

‘Said the Holy One to the man: “My Lamp is in your hand and your lamp is in My Hand.” “My Lamp is in your hand” —that is the Torah. ‘And your lamp is in My hand’—that is the soul. If you keep My Lamp, I shall keep yours. If you extinguish mine, I shall put our yours.” —(Deuteronomy Rab). 4:4

“So that you should have a desire for the work of Your hands” (Job, 14-15). God desires partnership with His own creatures. He gives light to the world, yet He commands Israel “that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light—meaning, “You have a desire for the work of Your hands.”

‘”The spirit of man is the Lamp of the Lord.” God said: “Let My lamp be in thy hand and thy lamp in My hand.”(Provs 20:27). What is the lamp of God?’ —261.

‘The Midrash says that God was “constrained to dwell with mortals in a Lamp” (Bamidbar Rabba 15:9) This is a way of imagining a possible meeting ground between God and the world. “The spirit of man is God’s lamp.’ (Proverbs 27:20), —Lamp, Preface, xv.


“I like this book, especially the chapter about light in darkness ….”

—Elie Wiesel in a letter to the Author, 1989

“Cannot help but kindle its readers with its life-giving insights... One of the surprising things in the text is its wit... It reveals a radiant intelligence, at once original and magical.”
—Nancy Milford, author of Zelda, the definitive biography of Zelda Fitzgerald

“Of deep interest to all who want to know more about the extraordinary achievements of those who, through so many ages, have given their poetic and imaginative power to the enrichment of an ancient tradition. A dedicated performance and an admirable book.”
—Frank Kermode, Fellow of the British Academy, professor emeritus of English literature at Cambridge University

“Both a very conservative work, in love with roots [and] nuances, and an entirely radical, freethinking one, that gives one a sense of understanding stories in the Bible, mitzvoth, in a way that they have never been understood before... The kind of book that had to be written, that comes from the deep sources of both the author and the Jewish tradition, and whose brilliance blazes off its rough edges. Begins with the somewhat sexist duality of light as masculine giver, lamp as feminine receiver, and ends with the inversion of these roles, the female initiative, which is also the transformation of God in the human heart.”
—Francis Landy, professor of religious studies, University of Alberta, Midstream, October 1991

“Freema Gottlieb views the tradition as a point of departure for spiritual contemplation. Her book is one of the most sustained meditations on the Shekhinah [female dimension of the Divine Presence] in recent Jewish scholarship.”
—Michael Wyschogrod, professor and chairman, Department of Philosophy, Baruch College, CUNY

“The beauty of this book is that it speaks to everyone who is open to universal mystery.”
—Carol Barko, literary translator of Helene Cixous’s Inside

“Freema Gottlieb’s literary voice seduces by its blend of the scholarly and the mystical, the traditional and the revelatory, the abstract and the highly imagistic. Coming from a secular Jewish background, I had no idea that Judaism hid such treasures. I can only assume there are thousands like myself….”
—Magda Bogin, writer-in-Residence CUNY; member, PEN Translation Committee; NYSCA literary panel

“Some passages appear to have been written in a meditative consciousness and might serve as the objects of spiritual contemplation.”
—Nehemia Polen, associate assistant professor of Jewish thought, Boston Hebrew College


Light is as precious and necessary as life itself. Every living thing, from the rhinoceros to the amoeba, from the sunflower to the infant —has a visceral and spontaneous response to light.

Even more than bread and water, light is both one of those staples of physical existence that leads to a celebration of life as it is and an invitation to life as it might become.

Thus light provides an imaginative contact between visible and invisible realities, a bridge between the physical and beyond. This can be graphically demonstrated by the part light plays in photosynthesis, in which light energy combines with the starch in plant life to provide the impetus for an ascent from lower to high forms of life, the energy in plants becoming vitality of the body and the energy in brain cells that lends itself to ideas. Here, in the most literal sense, light becomes life, vitality, knowledge, and the capacity to ascend from lower to higher forms of knowledge.

It is this metaphorical quality of light to bridge gaps between physical and mental realms that has made it a universal symbol for spiritual growth and self-transformation. Through light and allied imagery we can begin to glimpse the workings not only of visible but also of spiritual realities. For example, the property of light to spread is an image of education and the propagation of ideas, winning a type of immortality for its original source.

In all cultures light represents the forces of the Good and the True, wisdom and enlightenment, spirituality, love and life itself. In many languages, such as Greek, German, and Yiddish, fairness and light have become synonymous for beauty. As a portrayal of supreme value, light has been taken as a description of God Himself.

—Preface, xiii