Parashat Beha`alotekha 17 June 2006 – 21 Sivan 5766
“How many Jewish leaders does it take to screw-in a light bulb?”
This line is the authentic, original, earliest known form of the “how many X does it take to
screw-in a light bulb” formula. Like much of popular culture, which people mistakenly
assume is modern, this paradigmatic line was invented by Jews long ago.
Jews invented much of what is so good and useful, or at least amusing, in our modern
world. Examples are all around. Take a look at … my tallit, for example:
See the … bar codes? This is the code for “Chinese
noodles.” While we’re at it, you have the origin of the
idea of “fringe benefits.” So you see, much of what is
thought to be the product of the modern world was
actually invented by Jews long ago. As King Solomon
said, “Been there, done that” (Qohelet 1:9).
In a few minutes, I will demonstrate that the line “How many Jewish leaders does it take to
screw-in a light bulb” was already known in the time of Rashi, who lived during the First
Crusade in Europe 900 years ago. In fact, it was so widely-known by that time, Rashi
assumes his readers are already familiar with it. We can actually trace it back all the way
to the Talmud. We’ll come to that presently.
First, a little background.
We read in parashat BeHaalotekha:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you
mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”
Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had
commanded Moses.—Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered
work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord
had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made. (Lev. 8:1-4, NJPS)
So, how many Jewish leaders does it take to screw-in a light bulb? Lighting oil lamps was
a common task in ancient times. It was a normal household function as banal as flipping
a light switch, if only slightly more toilsome.
Why then did this common task require Divine step-by-step instructions?
I was once traveling in Africa and saw a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in a grocery store.
Those Golden Flakes of Corn™ were manufactured in South Africa. On the back of the
box I found not the latest promotion with some cartoon or sports figure, but rather 3
instructions for use: In verb and image, a step-by-step guide to eating Corn Flakes.
How to open the box, how to pour them, and how much milk to add.
For Africans, who live in a primitive society where they eat home-grown fresh fruits and
vegetables with freshly-ground meal for breakfast, unaccustomed to eating dry processed
cereals laden with sugar, salt and preservatives out of a box, as is done in advanced
civilizations, it was deemed necessary to provide instructions.
How about Moshe and Aharon?
Moshe grew up as a “Prince of Egypt.” Perhaps he never had to perform menial tasks
such as turning on the lights. Do you think Prince Charles pumps his own gas?
And perhaps Aharon, his slave brother, was too impoverished to have a personal supply
of oil for the luxury of artificial lighting. To this day, a quarter of the world’s population
does not have artificial lighting. When the sun goes down, it gets dark.
On the other hand, maybe lighting a lamp was such a common act that everyone knew
how to do it. Even if Prince Charles never flips a light switch or ties his own shoe laces,
he probably knows how to do it. It is a simple, and common, act.
Why, then, does the Almighty have to show Moshe just what Aharon is supposed to do?
This is one among many references in the written Torah to the transmission of a non-written, multi-media teaching that accompanied the written text, called the oral Torah by our sages. This implies that it is not enough to read the words on the page; to understand the Torah of Moshe, we have to learn the accompanying teaching
transmitted by our sages, some of which is recorded in works like the Mishna and Talmud.
But why does something so simple and mundane need to be transmitted by PowerPoint™
Presentation? Why does it require any explanation at all?
Even a “mundane” act such as turning on a light may have “spiritual,” “symbolic” or
material importance that is not immediately apparent. An oft-cited illustration of this
principle is the realm of Jewish eating. While there are many contemporary books on
Jewish cooking, the fundamental concern of our ancestors was on eating. Eating can be
a common, animalistic, physical act, as done by a dog or cow. Or, it can be elevated into
a sacred activity, such as when it is accompanied by berakhot (blessings) and words of
Torah, or when it is Kosher Chinese.
Our values and system of symbols, our system of mitzvot (religious imperatives, or “Divine
Commandments” if you will), oblige us to do things a particular way. That way is called
halakha, literally, “The Way.” There is a Jewish way to eat. There is a Jewish way to tie
shoelaces. And there is a Jewish way to screw-in a light bulb.
In our day, there are specific halakhic considerations, or requirements, certain values, that
demand that we conduct ourselves according specific guidelines, even in the realm of
lighting lamps or turning on lights.
The specifics are not based on a demonstration at Sinai, but rather derive from a set of
more general mitzvot. These mitzvot include the prohibition against endangering
ourselves or others; the prohibition against causing economic harm to others, even by
polluting their environs. Most centrally, the specifics revolve around the mitzva of bal
tashhit, the prohibition against wasteful environmental degradation.
On another occasion, I intend to speak at length on the origins and development of bal
tashhit. Today, however, I wish to focus your attention on one area of application for this
We are facing somewhat of an energy crisis, and few places worse in this country than
Connecticut. The demands placed on our electric grid sometimes exceed its capacity,
causing power blackouts. The construction of newer, higher-voltage power lines entails
great expense and environmental disruption, and may pose a risk to public health. The
vast amounts of fossil fuels consumed give us city air that is among the dirtiest and worst
in this country. A significant portion of that comes from electric generation.
The political cost of our reliance on imported fossil fuels is enormous. Whatever your
political orientation, you might agree that the foreign and military policy of the United
States would be “better,” and the position of Israel in the world would be “better,” if the
United States (and Europe) were not so reliant on imported oil.
If that is not bad enough, we now know that burning fossil fuels contributes to global
warming, possibly posing a massive threat to our civilization, such as it is. True, the rising
sea levels may mean that in seventy years BEKI might be located on valuable ocean-front
property, but overall it is not a good future.
So how we turn the lights on makes a difference.
You may be aware of Tsvi’s project to install a photovoltaic array on BEKI’s roof. That will
provide about 10% of our electric need. We expect to install the system at the beginning
of August. It means that much less drawn from the grid. During the next couple years, I
expect that at least one or two BEKI households will install smaller rooftop systems at
home. This solar electricity is functionally equivalent to the oil in the Temple lamps.
Photovoltaic energy is the purest form of oil.
You may also have heard that BEKI has received a grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund
to promote the use of solar panels, energy conservation, and the mitzva of bal tashhit
more broadly, through family education models that link the synagogue and the home.
This is a wonderful and exciting boost to our congregation. This is something we wanted
to do, and now we have the resources to begin. The Legacy Heritage Fund is giving us
wonderful money and expert guidance. We also believe that the process of implementing
this project can itself lead to lasting improvements in the way we work as a synagogue. I
hope everyone will be as excited as we are as this project develops.
At BEKI, we spend over $20,000 a year on electricity. That’ a lot of juice! The power
company is talking about raising our rates over 25% beginning next January. Same
amount of juice, a lot more dough. Were we to more closely comply with the mitzva of bal
tashhit, we could cut that in half. We are not even suggesting turning off the air
conditioner or the lights; we are just considering using more efficient appliances and
How much does electricity cost us? Electric rates are rather complex. To simplify, we can
say that operating a 100 watt bulb all year costs about $130/yr.
You may notice something different in the sanctuary today. The formerly green exit signs
are now red. We replaced the bulbs – two 7.5-watt bulbs – in a dozen exit signs with two
2.7-watt LED bulbs, for a savings of $150 a year in electricity. That is more than the cost
of the bulbs. The labor costs will be even greater, as we no longer have to pay our staff to
continually replace the old bulbs as they burn out – the new ones will last ten times longer.
It’s what is called a “no-brainer.”
Most of us use “old style” incandescent light bulbs in our homes. About 80% of the
electricity used by those bulbs comes out as heat; about 20% as visible light. New
compact florescent (CF) bulbs – those little curly or tube-shaped bulbs – have the inverse
proportion, which means that for the same amount of light output, they use ¼ the
electricity. In the summer time, for every 100 watts of “old style” lights you have one, you
are using an additional 80 watts using your air conditioner to remove the waste heat they
generate, or else you are suffering from their excessive heat.
If you tried the CF bulbs a few years ago and didn’t like the color or the buzz or the slow
start-up, then try again. The new ones are much better. They are smaller in size, deliver
more light, and come in a range of “colors” – warm yellowish, sun-bright white, whatever 7
you want – they last ten times as long as the “old style” bulbs, they produce less waste
heat, and they are much cheaper to operate. There is no good reason to use the “old
style” light bulbs anymore, except for specialized uses such as a fish tank heater.
Photovoltaic cells are one part of the energy picture. Lighting is a big part. Refrigeration
and heating and cooling are also big parts. We will review each of these areas in the
So, How many Jewish leaders does it take to screw-in a light bulb?
Our sages noted the unusual wording in our text from the parasha. God tells Moshe to tell
haron, “When you mount the lamps.” There are several verbs that could have been used to indicate just what is to be done; “mount” or “set up” is somewhat of an unusual choice. As it turns out, Aharon is not actually supposed to light the lamps; he is just supposed to set them up, or “mount” them.
Rashi comments (s.v.):
And our sages explained: From this we learn that there was a platform before the
lamp on which the Kohen stood and set up [the lights].
Commentators² have noted that Rashi was precise in his language, saying “set up” the
lights, instead of “lighted” the lights, because it was well-known that any Jewish person³
could light the lamps. Already by the time of the Talmud, it was stated that any Jewish
person can light the menora in the Beit Miqdash.
So, as Rashi knew well, “How many Kohanim [or, Jewish leaders] does it take to screw-in
a light bulb?” None! Anyone can do it! Anyone can do it!
For your own home, or your own synagogue, you don’t need an electrician to put in
special fixtures or bulbs. Anyone can screw-in a compact florescent bulb. Anyone can
comply with the rule of bal tashhit, anyone can use lighting in accordance with Jewish law
What of the leader? The leader’s job is to do the “set-up,” so that others can comply with
the law. Of course, at BEKI, as in the rest of the Jewish world, everyone is a leader.
“Would that all My people were Kohanim.” By virtue of hearing these words of Torah
today, you are a leader of the people, and you can help others – at your home, school,
workplace, or synagogue – use lighting compliant with halakha.
How many Jewish leaders does it take to screw-in a light bulb? None. Anyone can do it.
¹Bracketed phrase appears in Rashi’s first edition.
²E.g. Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai of Gur, s.v
³Male Jewish person, at least. Or any male Kohen or Levi. That was the equivalent, in that day, of saying “anyone.”