The menorah, originally a seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple, is one of the oldest symbols used by the Jewish faith. In contrast to the ancient menorah of Exodus is the Chanukkah menorah with eight candles, which is used today. The use of eight candles celebrates the miracle that a small amount of oil lasted for eight days.
Today's nine-branched menorah is used to celebrate Chanukkah, the festival of lights which occurs near the winter solstice. A ninth candle, the shamesh, is used to light the other eight, one night at a time, for the eight days of Chanukkah.
The Symbolism of the Menorah
It has been said that the menorah is a symbol of the nation, in this case meaning the nation of Israel. The term "nation" is used in the classical sense, meaning a group of people with a shared history and a sense of a group identity. The Jewish People are considered to be a nation, contrasted with the other nations of the world.
The mission of the menorah is to be "a light unto the nations." (Isaiah 42:6). The sages emphasize that light is not a violent force; Israel is to accomplish its mission by setting an example, not by using force. This idea is highlighted in the vision in Zechariah 4:1-6. Zechariah sees a menorah, and God explains: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit."
According to the Jewish Heritage Online Magazine article entitled "The Seven-Branched Menorah: An Evolving Jewish Symbol," the menorah has been portrayed next to the Torah since the ancient times. Such representations became more and more common through the Middle Ages. The symbolic images of the Torah, viewed as light and the divine spark, also shone onto the menorah, underscoring its characteristics as a symbol of perfection and harmony.
In regards to symbolism, the menorah has gone through a series of ups and downs in recent centuries. During the Emancipation, states the article, the menorah even lost its place in synagogues and decorations of the ark. However, in those congregations not touched by the spirit of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation until later, the menorah continued to be a focal motif in artistic compositions in synagogue ornamentation, ritual objects, paper cuts and tombstones. A figurative form would sometimes appear on these, evoking associations of the Temple menorah, along with associations of the Sabbath candlesticks, of light as an abstract concept or of organic shapes such as the Tree of Life. Such forms can be found in paper cuts, a Jewish branch of folk art found in Eastern Europe and North Africa. Sometimes symbols such as birds or other animals are incorporated next to the figurative shapes. The lamp stand in today's synagogues, called the ner tamid, which translates into the eternal flame, symbolizes the menorah.
If the light borne by the menorah symbolizes the spirit of understanding and action granted by God to man, what is the relationship of the candlestick to the light that it bears?
If one reflects on the physical features of the candlestick, then its flower-shaft base, its shaft and its branches with their almond-shaped flower cups, knobs and blossoms are similar to a tree growing in a straight, upward direction from its root stock to become the bearer of light.
The menorah, which was to made entirely of gold, by virtue of this substance from symbolizes firmness, constancy and permanence. The menorah's appearance represents a process of unfolding and development.
What is a Menorah?
A menorah is a seven-, six- or nine-branched candelabrum. One of the holders is typically higher or different than the others. This holder is called the shamash, or head, and contains the candle used to light the other candles.
During the celebration of Chanukkah, a nine-branched menorah is used. Technically, this is called a Chanukiah. It contains eight holders, one for each day of Chanukkah, plus the shamash.
The Torah states that menorah should be made out of one piece of pure gold, which many have taken to mean that the menorah is to symbolize the very purest matter and represent a harmonic perfection of the heavens.
According to S.R. Hirsch's article "The Menorah," a menorah consists of yerekh, or a base, and kaneh, or a shaft, and it had to have gviim, or flower cups; kaphtorim, or knobs shaped like apples; and prakhim, flowers. These ornaments were not to be soldered to the menorah but had to form one piece with it, mimenah yihyu.
According to tradition there was a single flower at the base of the shaft; the base, together with this flower, accounted for one-sixth (i.e., three tphakhim, handbreadths) of the total height of the candlestick. Above the base was a space of another two tphakhim, followed by one flower cup, one knob and one flower in the sixth tephakh at a point one third of the total height of the menorah. These ornamentations were followed by three flower cups, along with one knob and one flower in the final three tphakhim, immediately below the top of the shaft, on which rested the ner, or the lamp.
The menorah was only the central shaft of the whole structure. From the shaft there came forth kanim, or branches on both sides, three pairs, or altogether six branches. According to tradition, these branches rose to the height of the central shaft, so that on top seven lights all burned in a straight line. The commandment states: Six branches shall go out from the sides of the menorah; three branches of the menorah from its one side and three branches from its other side, (Ex. 25:32). On each of these six branches there were three flower cups, one knob and one flower. However, the flower cups, knobs, and flowers were required only if the menorah was fashioned out of gold. It was forbidden to make the menorah from grutaot, or scrap metal, or from a substance other than metal.
The History of the Menorah
The original menorahs, used by the First and Second Temples in ancient Jerusalem, had seven branches. Exodus 25, 31-37 says: "And thou shalt make a candlestick [of] pure gold... six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches... out of the one side,... And three branches out of the other side... Three bowls made like unto almonds... In one branch... And three bowls made like almonds in the other branch.... And you shall make the seven lamps thereof."
According to "Number Symbolism: Menorah" by Paul Calter, Robert Graves gives the menorah cosmic significance by comparing the seven flames to the seven planets. He cites Zechariah 4:1-10, "And the angel... came again, and waked me,... And he said to me, What seest thou? And I said, I have seen,... A candlestick all of gold, with its bowl upon the top of it, and its seven lamps thereon;... [these are] the eyes of Jehovah, which run to and fro through the whole earth." Graves takes the seven eyes to mean the seven planets.
After the Temples were destroyed, a tradition was developed that mandated that nothing be duplicated from the Temple. Because of this decree, the seven branch menorahs were no longer used. The use of six-branched menorahs became popular, but, in modern times, some rabbis have gone back to the use of seven-branched menorahs. They argue that they are not the same as those used in the ancient Temple because today's menorahs are electrified.
In ancient times, the kohanim lit the menorah in the Sanctuary every evening and cleaned it out every morning, replacing the wicks and putting fresh olive oil into the cups. The kohanim was a priest, charged with performing various rites in the Temple. A kohanim, which was a descendant of Aaron, is not the same thing as a rabbi.
Lighting the Menorah
The eight-day celebration of Chanukkah, the festival of lights, occurs near the winter solstice. The history behind the eight days of festivities is to pay homage to the small amount of oil that managed to keep the menorah lit for eight days.
On the first night of Chanukkah, a single candle (or oil wick) is lit on the far right side of the menorah. A candle is added, from right to left, each night, and the newest candle is always lit first.
Ideally, it is felt that the candles should be lit as soon as stars become visible in the night sky. As the candles are being lit, the blessings are given and the whole family participates. The candles will continue to shine until they burn themselves out.
Allen, Mike, et al. "Subject: Question 11.9.5: Symbols: What is a Menorah?" Internet FAQ Consortium. 10 March 2002. http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/05-Worship/index.html
Calter, Paul. "Number Symbolism: Menorah." Geometry in Art and Architecture Unit 4: Dartmouth College. 1998. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/math5.geometry/unit4/unit4.html
Hirsch, S.R. "The Menorah." The Hope. 6 March 2001. http://www.thehope.org/menorah.htm
Huberman, Ida. "The Seven-Branched Menorah: An Evolving Jewish Symbol." Jewish Heritage Online Magazine.…