From the Arch of Titus, to the emblem of the State of Israel, the most popularized vessel of the holy Temple is undoubtedly the menorah.
Though frequently replicated, and the subject of much artistic interpretation, the exact shape of the Temple menorahh is not simple to determine. Although the Gemara delineates the height and general appearance of the menorahh,1 numerous details are omitted, and are subject to controversy.
For example, if we were to imagine ourselves looking down at the menorah from directly above it, we would imagine it comprising of a straight row of lights. Not so, according to the Zayis Ra’anan (by the author of the Magen Avraham), who challenges this commonly accepted view, quoting the Sifri: “How do we know that the branches [of the menorah] were encircled like a crown? From the verse, “The seven lights shall give off light.” 2 Based on the Sifri, he suggests that the seven branches were not in a row; rather, the centre lamp was in the middle, with the six branches surrounding it like a circular crown! This, he says, is the meaning of the verse, “They, the seven lights, shall give light.” All the lamps gave light to the center lamp equally, since all the lamps were equidistant from center. 3
The Code of Jewish Law states that it is forbidden to duplicate the form of the menorah of the Temple. 4 The Bechor Shor adds that one should not duplicate the menorah, even if made as a circular star, since the menorah would be valid in that form as well. Rabbi Akiva Eiger owned a circular lamp of seven lamps to which he added an eight light (writes his son-in-law) to ensure that it was dissimilar to the menorah of the Beis Hamikdash.
Another point of controversy is the shape of the menorah’s decorative cups. 5 The Gemara states that these resembled Alexandrian goblets, which were wide at the top and tapered down towards the base. 6 Most traditional illustrations depict the cups in a normal standing fashion. This is also the opinion of numerous commentators, who compare it to other mitzva objects, such as the beams of mishkan, or an esrog, all of which must be used derech g’diluson, literally, in its natural manner of growth. These commentators suggest that, since a “cup” has a normal way in which it is used, that is, the upright position suitable for drinking, so too, the cups in the menorah were positioned upright. The Chizkuni adds that the cups, aside from their aesthetic quality, served the utilitarian function of catching any dripping oil.
The Rambam seems to have differed from this prevailing view. Although the illustration in the standard edition of his commentary on Mishna portrays a menorah with upright cups (Fig. 2), a later edition based on a manuscript illustrated by the Rambam himself, clearly depicts the goblets upside down. (Fig. 3) It can be argued that Rambam’s diagram was not intended to be taken so precisely; the Rambam himself writes that his diagram was only meant “to show the generalities of how it was, [such as] to know the number and placement of the cups, but not its exact shape.” This may account for his diagram, for example, showing the cups as triangles, although it is highly unlikely the Alexandrian cups were perfect triangles, since in this case they would not be able to stand. Still, it is difficult to comprehend why the Rambam, for no apparent purpose, would purposely draw the cups incorrectly in 22 places.
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt’l, suggests that the Rambam’s view was based either on a direct mesorah (tradition from rabbi to student) that the cups were upside down, or had access to a midrash which is no longer extant, as are many midrashim which are quoted by Geonim and Rishonim.
He further posits the following rationale for the cups’ unusual topsy-turvy position. There is a fundamental functional difference between a barrel and a cup. A barrel primarily holds liquid; the purpose of a cup is to pour and drink liquid from. Allegorically, the cups symbolise Hashem’s continual bestowal of light and sustenance upon the physical world. Since these blessings are poured down, so to speak, from above, the cups are upside-down.
Branches of the menorah – Curved or Straight?
Another subject of intense debate is the shape of the branches themselves. The branches are commonly depicted as curving upwards like an upside rainbow, and this is exactly how it appears in the standard edition of the Rambam’s commentary of the Mishna. (Fig. 2) However in the diagram drawn by the Rambam himself, they extend diagnally from the center stem in a straight line (Fig. 3). One can attempt to reconcile the dramatic departure of the Rambam’s diagram from the traditional view by suggesting that the Rambam never intended his illustration to be an accurate artistic representation, exact in all its details, but only – in his words – “To make it easier [for the reader] to envision.” The diagram gives the appearance of the handiwork of a draftsman rather than that of an artist, who perhaps felt more proficient in drawing a straight line instead of a curve. However the testimony of his son, R Avraham, negates this theory explicitly. He writes, “that the six branches stemmed from the centre shaft in a straight line, as my father depicted it, and not as a curved arch as other’s drew it.”
The question arises: if the menorah did have straight branches, how did it become universally accepted to picture it with curved branches? A possible answer may be the existence of one of the most famous pieces of archaeological evidence from the Temple period – the Arch of Titus. After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, General Titus brought many Jewish slaves and the vessels of the Temple back to Rome. In 71 CE there was a procession in the main square of Rome of the booty and captives from Yerusholayim, and ten years later, the Roman Caesar erected a victory arch to “commemorate” that event. The most prominent vessel depicted in the procession was the menorah. (Fig. 4)
It is interesting that the menorah held special significance to the Romans in demonstrating their power over the Jews. In the story of Chanuka, the menorah represented the victory of the Jews over the mighty Greek Empire, of the few against the many. Lacking this symbol of their miraculous victory, perhaps the Romans figured that the Jewish people could no longer rely on their miraculous victories against powers greater than them. Little could they comprehend that whereas the Roman Empire would eventually decline and fall, Jews around the world would nonetheless continue to exist and perpetuate the miraculous light of the menorah.
Is the menorah from the arch of Titus taken from the Temple?
Aside from the general difficulty in utilizing archaeological evidence to establish Halacha, 7 the accuracy of the Arch of Titus is particularly questionable. While the upper part of the menorah is possibly an authentic portrayal of the Temple menorah, the lower half is a blatant forgery.
The Gemara states that the menorah was 18 tefachim high, and that its legs, including the first flower motif, totalled a height of 3 tefachim. (Fig. 5) 8 In other words, the total base of the menorah comprised one sixth of its height. Furthermore, the base was not one solid block, but composed of three legs.
On the panel of the Arch of Titus, the upper part of menorah is roughly similar to menorah as described in the above Gemara. All branches come to the same height; branches have flowers, knobs, and cups, although the numbers are inaccurate. The proportions of the upper half also accurate reflect the words of Chazal. The most glaring departure from the Gemara in Menachos is the gigantic base, rising to one third of the height of the menorah! Even artistically, the heavy and inelegant base contrasting with the delicate branches gives the appearance of the base being a later addition. (Fig. 6)
When was the Roman styled base attached to the menorah? From the coin of Mattisyahu Antigunus (37 BCE) (Fig. 7), the last of the Chashmanaim kings, it is clear that the menorah was intact up till that period. One side of the coin read ‘Mattisyahu the Kohen Gadol and friend of the Jews,’ and the other ‘the [coin] of King Antigunus.’9 On one side of the coin was imprinted the menorah, presumably that of the Temple. As the small coin was made using only basic minting technology, one cannot expect it to be true in every detail. Still, the base roughly corresponds to Chazal’s proportions, being roughly one sixth of the height of menorah, and totally missing is the gaudy appendage found on Titus’s arch. 10
If one looks closely at the base of the menorah, one discovers the matter is even more horrific. The panels on the base include: the picture of two eagles (the symbol of Rome), and a dragon with a tail of a fish! (Fig. 8) The dragon was one of the idols of Greek mythology, worshiped during Roman rule. The Mishna in Avoda Zara states that, “if one finds vessels and upon them are the picture of a dragon… they must be thrown into the Dead Sea.” 11 They must be destroyed because one is forbidden to derive any benefit from as an idol. In fact, an exact duplication of panel, both the picture of the dragon as well as the border motif, is found in a Roman Temple in Turkey (Fig. 9).
Some historians suggest that the menorah’s idolatrous addition was constructed during the rule of Herod, who, having deposed Mattisyahu in 37 BCE, possibly added the abominable base in order to find favour with the Romans. Josephus writes that Herod placed images of eagles atop the gates of the Beis Hamikdash against the will of the populace. Quite possibly he made this change to the menorah as well.
Alternatively, one could suggest that the Romans themselves made the alteration. The Romans saw the capture of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple as perhaps their greatest achievement. 12 The Arch of Titus was erected to immortalize this victory and to perpetuate the degradation of the Jews. 13 It is quite possible, therefore, that when the Romans plundered the menorah, they themselves fitted it with the idolatrous base illustrated in the Arch, or indeed, simply depicted the menorah with the altered base (without actually modifying the menorah itself), to demonstrate the subjugation of the Jews and Hashem, to their idols r’l. 14
The menorah as the emblem of the State of Israel
In July 1948, months after the establishment of State of Israel, the agenda of the tenth Parlimantary meeting included deciding on the emblem of the new state. Most of the suggestions were to use the motif of the menorah of the Beis Hamikdash. The graphic artists entrusted with producing the design originally used a modern image of the menorah. (Fig. 11) However, when the design was brought before the committee, its members felt “their hearts were torn.” “How can we use a modern image?” they lamented. “Let us go back to the ways of the past, and use the image of the menorah as we have from tradition, from the ancient archaeological drawings!” 15
The Committee chose to adopt the menorah as it appeared in the Arch of Titus. (Fig. 12) Rabbi Herzog z’tl, then Chief Rabbi of Israel, noted how unfortunate it was that the committee chose the menorah on the Arch of Titus, over the profusion of archaeological evidence from Jewish sources. Indeed, the countless ancient mosaics and engravings of the menorah found in catacombs in Jewish cemeteries and the ruins of ancient synagogues, both during the Temple period and immediately afterwards, all depict a base comprised of three legs, which fully corroborate the view of the Talmud in Menachos 28b. 16 The committee’s choice showed an unfortunate disdain for authentic Jewish sources, in favour of a pagan structure constructed to mock the Jewish people. It is also a pointed twentieth century illustration of the spiritual conflict that we commemmorate on Chanuka.
May we merit to possess the true menorah, in its full height and splendour, with the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days.
1 Menachos, 28b.
2 Bamidbar 8:2.
3 According to this view, the menorah appeared similar to the Judenstern, (literally, “star of the Jews”) a circular lamp in the shape of star, which typically had six or seven lamps. Centuries ago, Jews had the custom to suspend a Judenstern from the ceiling, and light it for Shabbos. Hundreds of these lamps still exist in museums, and in Judaica collections around the world. (Fig. 1)
4 Yoreh De’ah 141:8
5 Shemos 25:31.
6 Menachos, 28b.
7 See letters from the Stiepler Gaon, Vol 2 p. 154
8 Menachos, 28b
9 The Ramban (Bereishis 49:10) writes that the Chashmanaite dynasty sinned by taking the mantle of royalty, a crown reserved exclusively for the tribe of Yehuda. For this indiscretion they were punished in that Herod usurped the throne and annihilated every last vestige of their family.
10 It is interesting that the shape of the branches is clearly curved, unlike the opinion of the Rambam.
11 Avodah Zara, 3:3.
12 The Romans even minted a coin that proclaimed Judea Capta – “Judea is captured!” – that depicted a Roman soldier standing over Judah portrayed as a maiden, sitting on the ground in mourning. (Fig. 10)
13 In fact, the Romans would force the Jews to visit the Arch regularly in order to publicly humiliate them.
14 This would also explain why the base was not built in proportion to the upper half of the menorah, but is glaringly ostentatious.
15 As quoted in Sefer Minhagei Yisrael vol.5 P 206
16 In Rome, for example, after the building of the arch of Titus, the artisan of this glass plate drew the menorah, not as found on the well-known arch, but with three legs. (Fig. 13)
The author is indebted to the author of Sefer Minhagei Yisrael , upon which this article and the illustrations therein are largely based.