The menorah is the official symbol of the Jewish nation. This image of the lamp accompanied by the olive branch was not chosen arbitrarily – it is based on a chain of events that happened way back in ancient history. Join me for a journey in time, I promise this won’t be boring…
The history of the menorah begins with the Biblical artisan, Bezalel, who created the first six-branched lamp for use in the First Temple. You can find it described in the book of Exodus and in the biblical Talmud. It had six branches that stemmed out of one main post. It was made from one solid block of pure gold. One of the most famous documentations of this candle bar can be found on the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue in Bet–Shean (Israel).
The First Temple was built by King Solomon in 1000 B.C.E. You can read about it in the Book of Kings, where you can also find another description of the menorah. In the Temple stood not one but ten of these great objects. They stood intact for four hundred years until 586 B.C.E, when Nebuchadnetzar, king of Babylon, destroyed the temple and all it contained.
Seventy years later the Second Temple was built. After it was completed, a new menora was created and placed inside – this time there was only a single one, made of gold but now with seven branches. This is the variation used today.
It was first described in the book of Zechariah. Zechariah was a prophet who lived in the time of the return from the Babylonian exile (around the fifth century B.C.E). He described this new variation of the candle bar ss follows: “I see a lamp stand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And by it there are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.”
The Second Temple stood for 400 years, until 70 B.C.E when the Romans army destroyed it.
At 167 B.C.E the fighting began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. Led by the courageous Mattathias and his sons, the Jews fought for over three years. After the first year, Mattathias died, his son Judah Maccabee took charge of the growing army. Although the Jews were outnumbered and had less ammunition, their determination eventually led them to victory – they defeated the Greek army against all odds!
After their great victory, Judah Maccabee and his soldiers went to the holy Temple, where they found that many things were missing or broken, including the golden menorah. They repaired and purified the Temple, and after completing the task they decided to have a dedication ceremony and light the great lamp. They looked everywhere for oil, but found only a small flask that contained enough oil to produce light for a single day. Miraculously, this oil lasted for eight days, giving them enough time to obtain new oil to keep the menora lit.
At 70 B.C.E the Temple was destroyed again, this time by the Romans. Titus, the Roman general, placed Jerusalem under siege, captured it and put it to the torch. He seized the gold menorah and other valuables form the Temple and displayed them in his the parade of triumph. This parade was later commemorated in an embossment on the Gate of Titus built in Rome. It depicts the humiliated Jewish captives forced to carry the menorah as a symbol of their defeat. This menorah described is similar to the original in that it has seven branches but all the other details are different.
Following the destruction of the Temple, the menorah became an important symbol of Jewish history. It is a reminder of the sovereignty of the Temple. Surprisingly, the symbol of the candle bar used today is not the one described as the original piece created for the temple, but the one detailed on the gate of Titus.
Not at all, there is a very symbolic twist here. The object once related to the humiliation and defeat of the Jewish nation returned as the proud symbol representing the Jewish sovereignty and the redemption. Some see it as an expression of the idea that the Jewish people are “a light unto the gentiles”, others see it as a symbol of hope.
Today Jews celebrate Hanukkah as a commemoration of the triumph of the Maccabees. Every night for eight nights, Jewish people light candles in a menorah, thus commemorating the eight-day miracle. In order to preserve the holiness of the original menora, Rabbis forbade the use of an exact replica of the seven branched menora. This is why today, candles are lit in an eight branched menorah called a “Hanukiyah” to differentiate it from the seven-branched Menorah of the Temple.
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