August 13, 2015

The Menorah is an Enduring Jewish Symbol

Dating back nearly 4,000 years to Abraham, the Jewish People have developed a rich religious and cultural heritage. Like many cultures and faiths, Judaism has many significant objects and traditional symbols. Just a few include the tallit, tefillin, kippah, seder plate, kiddush cup, Shabbat candles, besamim (havdalah spices) lulav and etrog, and of course, the Ten Commandments and Torah. One of the oldest and most enduring symbols of the Jewish culture is the menorah.

The menorah was a seven-branched candelabrum of intricate detail and pure gold construction. It is described in the Bible as God instructs Moses to build it to be used in the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, a portable sanctuary constructed in the desert to worship God after the Israelite exodus from Egypt. The menorah was lit each day using pure olive oil and was operated by the Kohanim, or Jewish priests. It would later be used inside the Temple in Jerusalem.

Above: Depictions of the menorah in the Temple. It is uncertain if the branches of the menorah were straight or curved.

The fate of the original menorah is uncertain. It is believed that the menorah used in the Second Temple was looted when Rome sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD, as depicted by a relief carving on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

Even if its whereabouts were known, like many religiously significant objects described in the Torah, the menorah has no practical use so long as there is no Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. However, the menorah endures as an important national symbol of the divine “light” of Torah and of the responsibility of the Jewish People to follow its laws. Today, the menorah is the official symbol of the state of Israel and is featured prominently on the state’s emblem.

Above: Emblem of the State of Israel featuring a menorah

The menorah is also often found as a decorative motif in Jewish artwork and jewelry, though this motif is perhaps less common than some other Jewish symbols, including the ubiquitous Star of David.

Above: A Star of David pendant features a menorah design

 The Ner Tamid

The menorah’s enduring symbolism led to the creation of the ner tamid. The ner tamid, or eternal light, is a lamp typically found in Jewish synagogues above the ark that houses the Torah scrolls. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, community synagogues emerged as the primary place of Jewish worship and these lights became symbolic analogs of sorts for the menorah. As its name suggests, the ner tamid is a light that is never turned off, much as the menorah and altar were constantly lit in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Above: A ner tamid in a synagogue

The Hanukkiyah

Another Jewish object that is evocative of the menorah is the hanukkiyah (hanukkiah), or Hanukkah menorah. Though the hanukkiyah is a nine-branched candelabrum, whereas the menorah had seven branches, the typical hannukiyah’s branched appearance is clearly similar to that of the Temple menorah. The connection is purposeful as the hanukkiyah was designed to remind Jews of the well-known Hanukkah miracle involving the menorah.

In 201 BCE, the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire conquered Judea and made it a client state. In 168 BCE, the army of King Antiochus IV sacked Jerusalem, defiled the Jewish Temple, and imposed a series of laws against Jewish customs and worship. This led to the Maccabean Revolt against Hellenistic rule and influence in Judea. Following the defeat of the Seleucid army and the recapture of Jerusalem, a single day’s worth of oil miraculously burned in the Temple menorah for eight days; long enough for the Jewish priests to make new oil as they purified the Temple’s religious objects and rededicated the Temple to God. The word “Hanukkah” actually means “dedication” and Jews are commanded to remember this event by lighting the Hanukkah menorah during the eight nights of the Hanukkah holiday.

Above: A lit hanukkiyah