The Jewish Menorah – A History
The menorah is a seven branched candelabra which has come to represent the Jewish People and Israel. Its origins directly derive from the Torah and its symbolism has proven to be long lasting.
Early coins and pottery containing images of the menorah and dating back to biblical times have been recovered from archaeological sites.
The first menorah was originally made for the tabernacle and later placed in the first and second temples. The Torah records how the great artist, Bezalel, fashioned the menorah in accordance to detailed Divine instructions. These instructions are recorded in Exodus 25:31-40, see excerpt below:
“31 And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knops, and its flowers, shall be of one piece with it. 32 And there shall be six branches going out of the sides thereof: three branches of the candlestick out of the one side thereof, and three branches of the candle-stick out of the other side thereof…”
Listed below are some of the facets of the menorah:
– (as stated above) it was hewn out of a single block of pure gold
– it weighed approximately 150 pounds and just under 5 ft in height
– it had seven branches; a middle branch and three branches extending from each side
– according to Maimonides and Rashi, the side-branches extended from the middle branch in a diagonal line, not in a semi-circular arc as most drawings depict
– extra pure olive oil was used in the cups – gently pressed, not crushed and just the first emerging drops were considered pure enough
– it was positioned beside the southern wall of the temple, opposite the ‘shulchan’, the table which held the twelve show-breads.
The daily maintenance and lighting of the menorah was a task allocated to the Kohanim (priests). Interestingly, although only the Kohanim were permitted to prepare the menorah, there were no restrictions as to who could light it.
It is written that one branch of the menorah miraculously stayed alight continuously. Synagogues today have a ‘ner tamid’ (everlasting light) situated opposite the ark, which contains the Torah scrolls. This reminds us of the significance of the menorah during temple times. In addition many synagogues also display a menorah, or an artistic impression of one, in painted decorations or on stained glass windows.
After the fall of the Second Temple, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recorded that the menorah was taken to Rome and carried along during the triumphant homecoming parade. A depiction of this event is preserved on the Arch of Titus that still stands today in Rome.
During the Jewish festival of Chanukah a menorah is lit on each of the eight nights. This menorah differs from the temple’s menorah in that it has nine branches instead of seven.
The location of the original menorah is unknown today but the symbolism lives on; the national emblem of the State of Israel is a menorah, flanked by two olive branches.