Understanding the Menorah

8330665-brass-menorahThe menorah is one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith. Originally one of the sacred vessels of the Holy Temple, this magnificent work of art is today confined to the Jewish home, an expression of the transcendent as well as a symbol of Jewish faith and identity. Let’s take a deeper look.

The Original

The unique design of the menorah is described in detail in the Torah (Exodus 25:31-40). It’s thought by some to be the physical representation of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Handmade out of solid pure gold, it was first used in the tabernacle set up by Moses in the wilderness and later in the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, where the Kohanim lit its lamps every evening from fresh, consecrated olive oil.

The Exile

Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the menorah has been one of the most important Jewish symbols, both in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. The menorah was a reminder of the pinnacle of Jewish history. As Judaism moved out into the exile, the menorah took on a more redemptive quality. This is highlighted in the vision in Zechariah 4:1-6 in which Zechariah sees a golden menorah, and G-d explains: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.”

Modern Use

Today, the most well-known usage of the menorah symbol today is on Hanukkah, the eight day festival which commemorates the miracle of the oil in the Temple. The major difference between the Temple menorah and the “hanukkiah” of today is obviously the number of branches. While the Temple Menorah had seven, the hanukkiah has eight. In addition to its use on Hanukkah, the menorah symbol continues to be a beautiful and meaningful decorative motif throughout Jewish artistic expression, in traditional and contemporary designs.