Light in the Darkness of the Flood
What are the important features on a survival ark?
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, God informs Noach of His plan to destroy the world because of the chamas (violent robbery, at least according to some explanations) that has filled the world. Noach alone has been selected for survival (along with his wife and children and a careful sampling of the animal kingdom), and God instructs him to build an ark. The instructions for this ark are quite detailed: God tells him what wood to use, how to waterproof it, the specific dimensions, and more. Among these details is the specification that Noach should make a tzohar for the ark (6:16).
What is a tzohar and what was its purpose in the ark?
Many commentaries relate the word to either tzaharayim, meaning afternoon (when the sun is bright; see Sanhedrin 108b) or zahir, meaning shining or radiant – either way, it is understood that the tzohar was some sort of light source. Rashi famously offers two possibilities, from midrash: “some say a window, and some say a precious stone that provided light for them.”
Brandon Sanderson fans might wonder if this is an indication that pre-flood earth resembled Roshar, a fantasy world where gemstones provide illumination and in fact are recharged by severe rainstorms; if this midrash wasn’t Sanderson’s inspiration, it certainly could have been. Alternatively, the Ben Ish Chai (in his commentary Ben Yehoyada on Sanhedrin 108b) offers an understanding of how gems could provide illumination that is more in line with what we know of our world: perhaps the gems didn’t actually provide light, but reflected and thus magnified the light provided by candles.
Other commentaries seem less sure whether candles were part of the plan; for instance, Gur Aryeh (the Maharal’s commentary on Rashi) notes that the use of candles was up to Noach’s personal discretion, while the tzohar itself was a matter of divine command. But why was the tzohar so important? Was it simply as a practical matter, or did God make it a command for some deeper reason?
The importance of light
According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 1:1), the tzohar wasn’t intended simply to provide illumination, but to somehow indicate when it was daytime and when it was nighttime – which was important for the sake of knowing when to feed various nocturnal and diurnal animals. Interestingly, the Yerushalmi seems to ignore the possibility that keeping track of day and night would be important for the humans; perhaps this is because of a sense that animals, driven by instinct, have a greater need to follow their regular routines, while the humans on board would understand the situation and have a greater ability to adapt without physical distress.
The Ben Ish Chai, in his comments on the Bavli, suggests a symbolic purpose to his understanding of the radiance the tzohar provided: he notes that light represents the deeds of the righteous, while darkness represents the deeds of the wicked (seen Bereishit Rabbah 3:8) – and since the ark’s inhabitants (human and otherwise) were all righteous, God wanted abundant light to represent that, both day and night.
Returning to the Gur Aryeh, his own explanation for God’s command of the tzohar is that it was part of His overall desire to make the ark emulate the world itself: following his kabbalistic inclinations, he suggests that the three levels of the ark imitated the three “worlds”, and that illuminating gemstones were necessary to take the place of the sun, moon, and stars. Though he doesn’t elaborate on the reason these parallels were important, perhaps we might suggest that God was indeed also looking out for the comfort of the humans on the ark, using the force of a command to design the ark as a microcosm of the world they were accustomed to.