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Menorah

Menorah: The seven-branched lampstand in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, one of the most common symbols of Judaism.

First Temple

Drawing of a menorah
Drawing of a menorah
The word menorah just means candelabrum or lampstand, and there were several menorahs in the temple in Jerusalem. According to the Biblical book of Kings, there were ten lampstands in the hall of the temple of Solomon:

So Solomon made all the vessels that were in the house of the Lord: the golden altar, the golden table for the bread of the Presence, the lampstands of pure gold, five on the south side and five on the north, before the inner sanctuary.note

It is possible that these menorahs were seven-branched, because they had to give light to a room that measured "sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high".note Ten small oil lamps is insufficient for a room with these dimensions, and it must be noted that archaeologists have found bowl-shaped oil lamps with seven spouts, supported by lampstands. That these ten candelabra were seven-branched is certainly not impossible, but we will never know for certain, because every precious object in the temple of Solomon was destroyed by the troops of king Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE.note

Description

Fourth-century oil lamp with a Menorah
Fourth-century oil lamp with a Menorah
After the Babylonian Exile (586-530), Judaism had to reinvent itself. Now that Jerusalem was part of the Achaemenid Empire, there was no king, and religious power came into the hands of the priests, who added texts to the Bible that deal with correct cultic practices. (This does not mean that they invented them; although they certainly included new elements like the Babylonian calendar, the priestly authors sincerely believed that they wrote down what had been practice before 586.) In this age, the following description of the seven-armed Menorah appears to have been written:

And you shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its capitals, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it; and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almonds, each with capital and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almonds, each with capital and flower, on the other branch - so for the six branches going out of the lampstand; and on the lampstand itself four cups made like almonds, with their capitals and flowers, and a capital of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their capitals and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it one piece of hammered work of pure gold. And you shall make the seven lamps for it; and the lamps shall be set up so as to give light upon the space in front of it. Its snuffers and their trays shall be of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold shall it be made, with all these utensils.note

The priestly author of these words believed that the Menorah had been made by Moses, and had been with the Jews when they wandered through the desert. The seven-branched Menorah would have burned from evening to morning (Leviticus, 24.3). Measurements are not given in the Bible, and reproductions of the Menorah are absent from this period; perhaps the measurements can be derived from the Talmud (Menahot, 28b), which says that the Menorah was eighteen handbreadths high.

Period of the Second Temple

A menorah from Ostia
A menorah from Ostia
When the temple was rebuilt, there was only one Menorah, not ten. The object is mentioned with some stress in the book of Chronicles, which was written immediately after the Exile, and is based on Kings. The next line, however, has no parallel in Kings, and is therefore an insertion by the author of Chronicles:

The priests offer to the Lord every morning and every evening burnt offerings and incense of sweet spices, set out the showbread on the table of pure gold, and care for the golden lampstand that its lamps may burn every evening.note

This line is from a speech that enumerates the priestly duties, and it is obvious that the author considered the Menorah very important. It is also referred to by Ben Sira, who wrote in c.200 BCE and takes for granted that everyone knows the Menorah (Ben Sira 26.17). According to 1 Maccabees, 1.21, the Menorah was stolen by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, but a new one was made after Judas the Maccabaean had cleansed the temple.note The relighting of the Menorah is still commemorated at Hanukkah.

The Menorah on the honorific arch of Titus, Rome
The Menorah on the honorific arch of Titus, Rome
This lampstand is described by Flavius Josephusnote and shown on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The lower part of the central shaft shows an oriental design very much like the columns of Persepolis. It is perfectly possible that the Menorah made by Judas the Maccabaean is an accurate copy of a candelabrum made immediately after the return from the Babylonian Exile. Alternatively, the last-mentioned Menorah, although taken away by Antiochus IV, may have been given back at some unknown moment.

By now, the Menorah was never extinguished; according to Josephus, three candles burned permanently (the others were lighted only during the night).note Cleaning, lighting, and trimming was among the tasks of the high priest.

Later history

After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Menorah was brought to Rome. The representation on the Arch of Titus poses a minor problem, because the pedestal (an octagon) is different from all other representations, which nearly always show the Menorah with three legs. Worse, the octagon shows eagles with garlands in their beaks and capricorns on its upper tier, and aquatic animals on its lower tier: these symbols are not known from Judaean art of the centuries BCE, and violate the second of the Ten Commandments ("You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth") Eagles and water snakes do not belong on a Jewish cultic object.

Several solutions have been proposed, which all have their problems: perhaps this is not the real Menorah (but what's the point of carrying it around in a triumph?), perhaps the pedestal is a Roman restoration because the Menorah was damaged during the sack of Jerusalem (no evidence), perhaps the pedestal is in fact a litter, designed to give the object stability during the procession (perhaps the least implausible explanation).

Ivory with a Menorah
Ivory with a Menorah
However this may be, the Menorah was in Rome, and was deposited (with other cult objects from the temple of Jerusalem) in the Temple of Peace in Rome.note The Temple Treasures may have been transferred to another place after the Temple of Peace was destroyed in a great fire in 192, and were probably taken to Carthage by the Vandals, who sacked Rome in 455. Here, the Menorah was among the objects seized by the Byzantine general Belisarius, who captured the city in 534. In his Vandal Wars, Procopius states that the sacred objects of the Jews were brought to Constantinople and carried through the streets during Belisarius' triumphal procession.note

If Procopius is to be believed, the Menorah was almost immediately sent back to Jerusalem, because a Jew told Justinian that the lampstand had brought disaster to every city where it had been. The object's presence in Jerusalem, however, is not recorded, perhaps because Palestine was later conquered by Muslims.

Literature

This page was created in 2006; last modified on 14 April 2014.