7 facts about menorahs, the most enduring symbol of the Jewish people
Yeshiva University Professor Steven Fine’s new book illuminates the candelabra’s 3,000-year history — from tabernacle to Titus to today
We all have our favorite hanukiah. Whether it’s of ornate silver, passed down through generations, or the “menurky” (the menorah-turkey hybrid popular during Thanksgivukkah), no matter which hanukiah we light before gobbling our latkes and sufganiyot, we should pause to remember that all menorahs are inspired by the menorah.
Becoming not only Judaism’s oldest symbol, but also the Western world’s oldest continuously used religious symbol, the menorah once stood in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. The seven-branched candelabrum (nine-branched for Hanukkah) has been a source of fascination and illumination for Jews, Samaritans, Christians and also Freemasons for three millennia.
Steven Fine, a cultural historian specializing in the Greco-Roman period, has a new book out that tells us everything we ever wanted to know about the menorah. Published by Harvard University Press, “The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel” traces the menorah from the lost artifacts of Moses and the two Israelite Temples to its best known images from antiquity and the Middle Ages, and on through its powerful use as a national symbol today.
The Dr. Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History and director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, Fine has recently been immersed in the study of the image of the menorah on the Arch of Titus. The arch was originally dedicated after the Emperor Titus’ death in 81 CE and celebrates his victory in the Jewish War of 66-74 CE, which climaxed with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in the summer of 70 CE.
One of the two bas reliefs on the arch depicting the triumphal procession held in Rome in 71 CE shows Roman soldiers carrying the spoils of war through the city, including the famous menorah and other treasures of the destroyed Temple. These were put on display in Rome in the Temple of Peace not far from the arch, and have been lost to history.
In 2012 Fine led an international team of scholars that made high-resolution three-dimensional scans of the menorah and other reliefs on the arch. UV-VIS spectrometry was employed to detect color on the marble reliefs. Traces of yellow ocher were found on the arms and base of the menorah, a discovery consistent with biblical, early Christian, and Talmudic writings and particularly eye-witness descriptions of the golden menorah by the first century historian Josephus.
The Times of Israel discussed with Fine various subjects covered in his book, asking seven questions — one for each branch of the menorah.
What compelled you to become so engrossed in the study of the menorah?
At different stages I have looked at the menorah differently. But it keeps coming back. It is text and it’s artifact. It’s a laser beam through Jewish history that lets me deal with things that really matter over the long term that still change on a contemporary basis.
So whether I am studying biblical materials, or Roman materials, or find myself in the early modern period, or find myself in modern Zionism, it’s always different but it’s always connected. This allows me a complexity to cross periods, to write a narrative. This provides a tool for going to the origins of the Jewish experience and for going to yesterday in the Jewish experience, and seeing how Jews over 3,000 years have cut through times to deal with a similar issue.
That’s the academic answer. The personal answer is that I love menorahs and I love light and I love objects and I love text, and they all have to go together to get me really excited. And when they do, its really almost a moment of revelation.
Three dimensional menorahs are ubiquitous in the modern era, but they were prohibited by halachic tradition for centuries after the destruction of the Temple. Why?
Starting with the book of Deuteronomy, the Torah and everything that comes after it is committed to one Temple to the one God. The place that God will choose — that’s the only place. To create a temple outside of that is illicit. So the question after the destruction of the Temple was how to maintain Temple identity without a temple… It took a long time for rabbis to work out the idea that you could apply Temple motifs to a meeting place and still not violate the prohibition against multiple temples developing.
In the 3rd to 5th centuries CE we saw movement toward the synagogue as a Temple stand-in and the return of seven-branched menorahs. But then this stopped in the Islamic period because of a prohibition in the Babylonian Talmud (which overwhelmed the Palestinian Talmudic tradition) that became part of the fabric of Jewish life. The menorah did not return until the early modern period, first to Italy.
In the meantime, there was one Muslim adoption of the menorah and many Christian adoptions of it. Was this a matter of supersession?
Supersession is how we look at it. Christians see continuity from the Tabernacle to the Temples to the Church. For them it’s a continuity theme that brings the Temple of God into every Church altar. The rhetoric is: Here’s God’s lamp and we’re lighting it with the light of Christ. That started in the early Middle Ages. We don’t have images of this, but we have lots of texts. It continued, but became ambivalent in the late 19th century when the Jews picked up on it and started using menorahs again.
Why did the menorah of the Arch of Titus become the touchstone for the menorahs of Jews of the modern period, including the official symbol for the State of Israel?
Jews knew about Titus, but few had seen the Arch of Titus before the early modern period when it appeared in books. It was virtually unknown in Eastern Europe until the 1880s. Then it appeared in [the Eastern European Hebrew newspaper] HaTzfira. From that moment it ran like wildfire. It was one of the most important Roman artifacts and a major European monument and the Jews could claim ownership of it.
For emancipated Jews, it showed they had been there all along and were Europeans. Zionists saw Jews carrying the menorah [many still mistakenly believe the relief depicts Jewish exiles instead of Roman soldiers carrying the Temple vessels] as a symbol of their own impending return to the Land of Israel. All those Jewish identities could look through this object and see it, but for those who were deeply committed to rabbinic tradition this object was deeply troubling, because they were troubled by the secularization of it. German Jews were displaying seven-branched menorahs in their homes in the same way that Christians would display crosses in theirs. It was a way of showing they were are German as they were Jewish. Jews had menorahs on the brain in the modern period. It was their ultimate branding object.
How did the seven-branched menorah morph into the nine-branched Hanukkah menorah, or hanukiah?
Traditionally there were no branches on Hanukkah lamps. There were eight lamps and another one on the side. The confusion comes from the linguistic relationship between menorat hamikdash and menorat hanukkah. They were both called “menorah.” That was an intentional midrashic connection between the lights of Hanukkah and the lights of the Temple. That was intrinsic to the literature. That was smart. But it doesn’t mean they looked like each other. It meant that they were related. It was a deep connectedness. Once secular Jews started making seven branched menorahs in the modern period, religious Jews decided to jump on the bandwagon, so to speak, and use the same form for nine-branched Hanukkah menorahs.
How did you approach researching and writing about the various myths and legends about the possible existence of the original Temple menorah, including claims that it is being hidden at the Vatican?
I hope it comes through how much I love these people that I am studying, even if I think they are wrong sometimes. The legends are so deep and so alive that the ability to listen to someone who is a true believer talk about them is just “wow.” I developed such affection for these people as human beings and storytellers. I wanted that to come through in the book. The last thing I wanted was for these people to come across as simpletons. They are not. They are good Jews trying.
You conclude the book on a very serious, even foreboding note with a chapter titled, “Illuminating the Path to Armageddon” about the use of the menorah as a potent symbol by the Israeli messianic right.
Zionism has always had embedded in it this messianic potential for self destruction. Everyone who founded the system knew that they were playing with fire and bringing in messianic stuff. It’s not surprising that the Six Day War opened up a Pandora’s Box that created an avenue for human-instigated redemption.
There is no symbol more potent than the menorah in Jewish culture, so it makes sense that an object with that much messianic potential would be too good to pass up… My menorah is good and holy and the process that I have developed from the Bible until yesterday is a happy process almost all the way. And what should come through, I hope, is how much I love all of it. [Messianism] is a project that is quite intentionally trying to enter into the mainstream of Israeli culture with a considerable amount of financial and other support from government.
I am asking that we look closely at what we are doing. I deeply feel that our culture deeply needs protection and we have to ask questions… Is support for the various Temple parties the best thing that we could do for the future of klal yisrael [the entire Jewish people]?
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
- Support our independent journalism;
- Enjoy an ad-free experience on the ToI site, apps and emails; and
- Gain access to exclusive content shared only with the ToI Community, including weekly letters from founding editor David Horovitz.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel