During the wanderings of the Children of Israel through the desert, the artisan, Bezalel, the son of Uri, was commanded to fashion a seven-branched candelabrum or menorah, for use in the Lord's Tabernacle:

Menorot, very likely made according to these instructions, once stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. Descriptions of the menorah, in all its detail, received extensive symbolic interpretation from antiquity on. The first century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, excelled in his imagery for the menorah. Well-versed in Hellenistic culture, Philo worked into his descriptions symbols which he derived from notions of the cosmos and the universe current in his day. He saw the menorah and vessels of the Temple as representing the planets, the cyclic quality of life and the concept of time. The branches of the menorah, according to Philo, could be likened to the celestial bodies. The light in the center represented the sun, while those on either side stood for the remaining planets, three on each side, with their flames facing the center.

Beit She'arim catacomb,
Eretz Yisrael, 3rd cent. CE.
Click to view enlarged

The emphasis which the Torah placed on making the menorah of pure gold, beaten out of one piece, gave rise to various allegorical interpretations, according to which the menorah was intended to symbolize the very purest of matter, and hence represented the harmonic perfection of the heavens.

The numbers which are stressed in the word-for-word description of the menorah — four bowls and seven branches — were viewed as symbolic representations of the seasons of the year and the days of the week.

The integrity of the menorah, despite its being divided into seven branches has, through the course of time, evoked images of a body comprised of individual limbs or of a tree whose trunk separates into its branches.

After the destruction of the Temple, the motif of the menorah became an extremely widespread and central figure in Jewish art. The classical scholar, Erwin Goodenough, notes at least 182 examples of seven-branched candelabra among his findings from ancient times along. In the first few centuries after the destruction of the Temple, the form of the menorah was depicted in synagogues on the gates and portals, and was incorporated in designs on mosaic floors, clay lamps, glass cups, and bracelets.

From Cervera Bible,
Cervera, Spain, 1300,
National Library, Lisbon.
Click to view enlarged

The form of the menorah has also been discovered hewn into rock and stone. It was equally prevalent in Israel and the Diaspora. The menorah soon became a simple, often schematic, figure, yet rich in meaning — a symbol which maintained its central position in Jewish tradition for centuries, even until modern times.

It may have been the key position of the menorah in the Temple and the cosmic notions connected with it which moved the Rabbis of the Talmud to forbid making any menorah which was identical or even similar to the one that had stood in the Temple. From this prohibition it followed that making two-dimensional seven-branched menorot was permissible, but three-dimensional ones had to have the number of branches altered. Indeed, in Jewish art there are hardly any specimens of three-dimensional seven-branched candelabra. However, seven-branched candelabra have appeared in mosaics, bas-reliefs and paintings, and have been executed in other two-dimensional techniques such as embroidery, applique, or chasing and embossing.

The menorah has symbolized the destroyed Temple, Jerusalem and the hope for redemption so that its cosmic associations tied in with its historical and national symbolism. It became a multifaceted symbol, rich in messianic significance, and any abstract, skeletal drawing of it sufficed to evoke its symbolic associations.

Maon Synagogue floor,
Eretz Yisrael, 530 CE,
mosaic detail.
Click to view enlarged

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 recent centuries, we have been witness to ups and downs in the prevalence of the menorah as a symbol. During the Emancipation, it 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.

Relief from Priene synagogue,
3rd century, Asia Minor
Click to view enlarged

The combined motif, of course, developed into various styles in keeping with the surrounding cultures. In the nineteenth century, the menorah went into eclipse as a key Jewish symbol in Central and Western Europe. However, with the reawakening of Jewish nationalism, the seven-branched menorah reemerged, this time as a Zionist symbol, and since 1948 it has served as the emblem of the State of Israel, a heraldic symbol of formal-representational character.

The menorah which appears on the emblem of the State of Israel was copied from the relief carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome, where it had once stood for the suppression of the Jewish Revolt, the conquest of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple. In this context, the symbol of the menorah expresses the thesis and antithesis of Jewish history: exile and redemption.



Judaica Art Gallery: Menorah Lamps, 18th-20th centuries
Art Nouveau Menorah Designs, Bezalel Institute of Art, early 20th century
KISLEV/HANUKKAH Table of Contents

SEVEN Table of Contents



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