Monday, December 3, 2012

Chanukah: The Shape of the Menorah

When the Maccabees returned to the Temple after having defeated the Syrian Greeks, they needed to replace numerous Temple vessels which had either been stolen, defiled, or broken. Of special importance in the Chanukah story was the fact that the golden Menorah of the Sanctuary was no longer present, having been stolen by Antiochus four years earlier. As a temporary measure, the Jews fashioned a Menorah made out of iron. When they became more affluent they replaced this Menorah with one of silver, and later still they were able to replace the silver Menorah with one of gold (Rosh Hashanah 24b).

The seven-branched Menorah is described in great detail in the Torah (Exodus 25:31-40). Even so, the Torah omits one very basic detail which has led to divergent opinions on the matter: whether the Menorah's branches were straight or curved.

There are a number of archeological finds which may shed light upon this question. A coin minted by Mattathias Antigonus circa 40 BCE depicts a candelabra with curved branches. As this was a Jewish coin it has been argued that this depiction surely was meant to be an accurate representation of the actual Temple vessel, lending support to the theory that the Menorah of the Sanctuary had curved branches.

Another depiction from around the same time was found in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and it shows a portion of a 7-branched candelabra with curved branches The ornamentation is excessive for what is described in the Torah, but it would not be surprising for the artist to have made such an error since the Menorah of the Sanctuary was only rarely visible to the general public. Those who assume this to be a depiction of the Sanctuary Menorah would argue that while the artist may have guessed at the finer details of the cups and flower designs, the overall shape of the branches would be easily remembered and thus would not have differed significantly from the original.

One of the most famous depictions of a 7-branched candelabra from the Temple is found upon the Arch of Titus in Rome. The triumphal arches of that time were meant to serve as historical records of the events they depicted and are therefore assumed to be very accurate. In one of the scenes on this arch a procession carries the Temple vessels out of captured Jerusalem, and featured among the treasures is a candelabra. The prominence given to this candelabra ostensibly is an indication of its importance, which leads many to speculate that this is the Menorah from the Sanctuary. As can be clearly seen in the picture, the branches are curved. (A new study was carried out to determine the color of the paint used on the original arch, and a summary of the results can be read here. See also this page for more details about this project, including some fantastic up-close photos of the arch.)

Others argue that this surely could not have been the Menorah of the Sanctuary since the base is nothing like we would expect the real Menorah to have. First, its two-tiered, octagonal design is a novelty. Second, archeologists have concluded that some of the creatures depicted on its panels are sea serpents, and Jews would not have allowed such heathen images in the Temple.

In stark contrast to the above finds is the image shown here of a drawing attributed to the hand of Rambam (Maimonides). Unlike the previous pieces of evidence which may or may not have been depicting the actual Menorah of the Temple, this drawing does just that. It is intended to be an accurate rendering of what the Menorah looked like, and while it is not drawn to scale, all of its components and dimensions are labelled. From the fact that the curvature of the base is drawn so precisely, most likely with the aid of a compass, it is apparent that the artist could just have easily drawn curved branches had he so desired. We may conclude that, in the view of Rambam, the Menorah of the Temple had straight branches. Below is a 3-D rendering of what the Rambam Menorah would have looked like.


  1. So why then does chabad insist that the Rambam style chanukia is the correct model despite all evidence to the contrary?

    A foreign fan of this blog...

    1. Harav Chaim Kanievsky shlita, in his pirush to Beraisa D'mleches Hamishkan writes that the pictures showing the branches of the Menorah semicircular seem to be incorrect, since Rashi writes that they were diagonal.

  2. As I understand it, Chabad chassidim are strong proponents of Rambam in general, so when Rambam himself offers an exact diagram of the Menorah it should come as no surprise that they would accept this as their model.

  3. The Rambam draws the cups upside-down. I do not see this in your 3D model.

    1. Yes, this interpretation is an interesting one (see this article here which gives an overview of the discussion), but I decided to show the cups according to the majority view that they were right-side up.

  4. the lubavitcher rebbe in one of his sichos gives a few explanations as to why in all the old depictions the menora is round

    1. Thank you for the comment. Are these sichos available online so that I could look up the information and/or link to it here?

  5. The menorah is very frequently employed as a Jewish symbol. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the design with which the menorah is usually depicted is a matter of question. For there are several inconsis­tencies between the designs gen­erally employed and the description of this article in the tradi­tional sources. The branches of the Menorah are one such ex­ample.

    Generally, these branches are depicted as semi-circular or oblong in shape. Nevertheless, Rashi in his commentary to the Torah,1 explicitly writes that the branches “extended upward in a diagonal.” Indeed, the very Hebrew word which the Torah uses to describe the branches, ohbe, implies a straight line.2

    What is the Rambam’s view?

    Part of the confusion con­cerning the shape of the branches of the menorah stems from the fact that the Rambam makes no definite statement re­garding this issue, neither in his Commen­tary on the Mishnah, nor in his Mishneh Torah. For that reason, several commentar­ies3 were led to the conclusion that he also agrees that the branches were semi-circular.

    A Depiction of the Menorah Based on the Drawings of the Rambam
    Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The Rambam does not describe the shape of the branches of the menorah, because it is unnecessary. In both his Commentary on the Mishnah and his Mishneh Torah,4 he adds drawings in which he depicts the menorah. And in both instances, he shows the branches as extending diagonally, in straight lines. Unfortu­nately, at the time the Rambam wrote these works, printing presses had not been invented. It was not until several centuries after his passing that his texts were printed, and in these print­ings, his original drawings were omitted.5

    Equally clear evidence of the Rambam’s perspective can be gleaned from the commentary to the Torah written by his son, Rabbeinu Avraham. When describing the manner in which the menorah was fashioned,6 Rabbeinu Avraham states: “The six branches... extended upward from the center shaft of the menorah in a straight line, as depicted by my father, and not in a semi-circle as depicted by others.”

    The Position of the Goblets

    Another of the points of difference between the Rambam’s conception of the menorah as reflected in the above-mentioned diagrams, and the commonly accepted design of the menorah, is the position of the goblets. To explain: There were 22 goblets in the menorah.7 The Rambam describes them8 as “Alexandrian chalices with wide mouths and narrow bases.” In his drawings of the menorah, he depicts them as having been positioned upside down,9 while the general conception is that they are standing upright.


  6. The Source for the Misconceptions

    How did these misconcep­tions arise? The source for the commonly accepted drawings of the menorah is its depiction on the arch of Titus in Rome. When Titus returned from the con­quest of Jerusalem, he had an arch constructed in honor of his victorious army, and on that arch appears a relief which includes a depiction of the menorah.

    The design on that arch is obviously an artist’s interpreta­tion, and not an exact replica of the menorah of the Beis HaMik­dash. This is reflected by the fact that certain elements of the menorah are omitted in this depiction. For example, the menorah had feet extending from its base,10 and the menorah on the Arch of Titus has no feet. Similarly, the depiction contains additions, for on its shaft is the form of a sea-dragon, one of the false dei­ties worshiped by the Romans.11 Accordingly, it cannot be relied on as an accurate source regarding the design of the menorah, particularly in regard to points where it contradicts the views of our people’s leading Torah authorities.

    Herein, lies another significant point: As mentioned, the menorah is often employed as a Jewish symbol. This is indeed appropriate, for our Sages teach12 that the menorah is “testimony to all the inhabitants of the world that the Divine Presence rests within Israel.” How unfitting is it that instead of drawing that symbol according to its conception by Torah sages, the concep­tion from the arch which proudly states “Judea is vanquished” is used instead!

    The Outpouring of Divine Light

    To return to the design of the menorah, one might ask: why are the goblets indeed positioned upside down? The resolution of this question is con­nected with the function of the menorah within the Beis HaMik­dash. Our Sages explain13 that the purpose of the menorah was not to illuminate the Sanctuary, but rather to spread its light throughout the entire world. For this pur­pose, the windows of the Beis HaMikdash were constructed in a unique manner, wide on the outside, narrow on the inside,14 clearly indicating that their purpose was for the light of the Beis HaMikdash to shine outward.

    A similar concept applies in regard to a goblet.15 It possesses two functions: to receive and to pour. Turning a goblet upside down indicates an emphasis on spreading influence to others. To apply these concepts to the goblets of the menorah — their overturned position reflects the purpose of the menorah within the Beis HaMikdash, not to receive and contain G‑dly light, but to spread that light throughout the world at large.

    An overturned cup is associated with happiness.16 This also relates to the Beis HaMikdash which served as the source of happiness and joy for the Jewish people. May we soon experi­ence the ultimate happiness, when we, together with the entire Jewish people, return to Eretz Yisrael, to Jerusalem, and to the Beis HaMikdash. And may this take place in the immediate future.

    Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXI, Parshas Terumah; Vol. XXVI, Parshas Tetzaveh

    1. Thank you mendy for the informative comment about the Menorah.