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The unsolved mystery of the menorah

Dave Gordon - Sunday, 20 December, 2015

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What most of us know about the holiday of Hanukah is the Jewish revolt against the ruling Greeks to fight assimilation, the miracle of the eight-day oil, and the rededication of the holy Temple.

What is less known is that the symbol of Hanukah – the menorah – has been at the center of considerable debate, as scholars have endeavored to shine some light on what certain versions could have looked like.

Indeed, believe it or not, evidence indicates there may have been many different versions of the menorahs.

Tabernacle and Temple

First, some history.

What we know is that the menorah is first described in the Book of Exodus (25).  The Torah there instructs fashioning a menorah out of a single block of gold, and making six branches – three on each side, with a rod in the middle holding an elevated cup. That menorah was originally built by Betzalel, and placed in the Tabernacle.

Some 400 years later, the Temple of Solomon had 10 golden candelabras, five on each side of the entrance to the inner sanctuary, as described in the Book of Kings. Some of those, scholars say, bore constructional similarities to the original menorah, but they were not “the” menorah.

Roughly 400 years thereafter, in 586 BCE, the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian army when it sacked Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah alludes to the Temple menorahs being taken to Babylon. But did they remain there?

The First Hanukah

The Jews were allowed to return to their land 70 years later. As the Book of Ezra tells, the construction of the Second Temple was authorized by Cyrus the Great and began in 538 BCE.

That Temple’s menorah was then stolen in 169 BCE by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who also ransacked other holy items – as well as the city of Jerusalem. Scholars believe it’s possible that this menorah had been built four centuries earlier by the returning Babylonian exiles.

After three and a half years, when the victorious Maccabees returned to see the desecrated Temple in 165 BCE, they found that much of its contents had been plundered by the Greeks, and that the menorah was still missing.

In an effort to procure a quick replacement, Judah the Maccabee commissioned the construction of a new seven-branched candelabrum to be placed in the Temple.

For the time being, soldiers produced a makeshift menorah out of hollowed spearheads. The Talmud relates that the new menorah initially wasn’t made of gold like the original, and was fashioned instead out of iron and tin. Only later was a new golden model created, which was lit at the official rededication of the purified Temple, the first Hanukah.

Tripod or Solid Base?

Over 120 years later, around 40 BCE, the last Hasmonean king, Mattathias Antigonos, minted coins bearing the image of a seven-branched curved menorah. It is said to be the oldest “picture” of the Temple menorah that exists. The image on the coins was meant to associate the menorah, and the Temple, with Mattathias’ assertion of his Priesthood, and to remind people of his family’s heroism during the revolt against the Greeks.

Of particular interest to scholars and historians is that the menorah on the coins stands on a tripod – in agreement with the Talmud’s description that it had “legs.” In later centuries, the menorah depicted in Jewish art embraced this representation. The three-legged menorah base appears on the sixth-century mosaic floors of the Zippori and Beit Alpha synagogues, and in the Shalom al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho.

But there’s something peculiar here. Doesn’t the official seal of the State of Israel – and the famous Roman Arch of Titus from the first century – depict the Menorah with a solid base?

This is a mystery that will unravel shortly.

Roughly 230 years after the Maccabee revolt – in and around 70 CE – Jerusalem and its holy Temple were destroyed by Roman legions.

With it, went the menorah. Again.

What little detail we know about what occurred in those years is described by the historian Josephus Flavius, a Jewish defector to Rome.

As he was a kohen (a high priest), he was able to detail what was inside the Temple with great accuracy, including the menorah, having seen it firsthand.

Josephus writes that a menorah was paraded around during the Roman triumphal march, and later represented in stone in what is known as the Arch of Titus.

Located near Rome, the Arch was commissioned in 82 CE by Roman Emperor Domitian – the older brother of Titus, the general who led the destruction of Jerusalem – to posthumously honor Titus’ victory over the Jews. The Arch depicts numerous Temple spoils stolen by the Romans, but the menorah is most prominently featured.

The depiction on the Arch of Titus differs from the description of the menorah in Biblical tradition. The menorah on the Arch has a two-tiered hexagonal base, whereas the Talmud, as mentioned, describes the menorah as sitting on a three-legged base.

Some scholars speculate that the base seen on the Arch is actually a box, fashioned around the tripod, to make it easier to carry the menorah.

Another suggestion is that the Arch’s depiction is simply an artist’s flawed rendering. There is no way of knowing whether the artist saw the procession with his own eyes as the legions marched with the spoils, or whether he sketched the menorah in great detail before carving it into stone on the Arch.

It is also possible that the base of the menorah became damaged en route from Jerusalem to Rome and was later hastily repaired, thus accounting for the discrepancy. Moreover, 12 years passed from the siege of Jerusalem and the carving of the Arch, and it is entirely possible that the artifact was modified in some way in the interim.

Although the menorah has been a visible Jewish symbol since antiquity, its design varies from one place to another.

Ancient lamps and ossuaries decorated with pictures of menorahs have anywhere between six, seven and even eight branches. The same is true of ancient carvings, coins, tombs and the walls and floors of synagogues.

Apparently, the concern was for symbolism, rather than accuracy. It could also be a case of a popular motif of what people saw day-to-day: candles and candelabras used to provide light. Indeed, many scholars theorize that some of the menorahs depicted were simply ordinary lamps – in a house, perhaps – and not the sacred menorah from the Temple, and thus they could have more or fewer branches.

Still, the mystery remains: is the menorah depicted on the Arch the main menorah used in the Temple, and if so, where did it go?

This question has yet to be answered, and remains a mystery to this day.


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