Remembering and Reremembering the Menorah: Reflections of a Jewish Historian

Courtesy of Harvard University Press

Courtesy of Harvard University Press

Recently I concluded The Menorah: from the Bible to Modern Israel (Harvard University Press, 2016). This volume is a personal history, my own “take” on the biblical menorah and its place in western civilization. The Menorah was written with both the scholar and the lay reader in mind. My imagined audience was “you” students, fellow scholars and also my college friend who seriously considered becoming a Jesuit and also a not-so-frum physicist in San Diego.  Writing for so many audiences was complex, and I hope that I pulled it off. The Menorah has been “in the works” for a very long time— ever since I was in high school. It reflects my passion to see and to read and to learn, an excitement that carried me to within inches of the Arch of Titus menorah (figure 2), into more lonely archaeological sites, crowded batei midrash and dusty archives than I can now remember!I have not written a simple linear “history” of an icon, but rather a reflection on how really hard and complex it is to understand— let alone pass on— our received traditions. This is how I conclude the book:

Professor Fine with a YU team at the Arch of Titus, 2012 (Courtesy of the Arch of Titus Project)

2. Professor Fine with a YU team at the Arch of Titus, 2012 (Courtesy of the Arch of Titus Project)

While this has been a story of a single significant “symbol,” it as much a story of discontinuity, of cultural twists and turns of profound significance— under the cover of continuity. It is a story of memory created and recreated, of a past forgotten and sometimes reremembered— again and again. In this sense, the history of the menorah is a test case for thinking about symbols and ideas and institutions and relationships that appear to be “timeless,” and a challenge to maintain relationship with our root symbols even as our culture reaches toward its inevitable next stages.

I wrote The Menorah as a historian, and for the historically-minded. I therefore assume that each text and each artifact has its own story to tell of a world in which they existed, but I do not. They are survivors of many different, sometimes intersecting, worlds that have “passed by.”  My role is to let each and every artifact communicate as best it can— to provide a framework where the hints imbedded in each text or “thing” can be given sufficient context that even I— sometimes millennia later, sometimes only half a century— can begin to understand how a pasuk of the Torah, a noun in the Mishnah, an illustration in the Rambam, an ancient Jewish burial catacomb in Rome or even an article in an early Hebrew newspaper functioned and might have been understood in its own time.

This requires a level of beqiut, of broad knowledge, that often stretches across the human experience, encompassing the borderless places where Torah and madda[1] are not separate things, but as the vav of u-madda asserts the consecutive interaction between all of our parts that make us whole people of our own time— and made our ancestors whole people of their own times. I often tell my own students that my goal is to understand Rabbi Akiva not just for his shitot, his legal positions, but the entire person— what he ate, where he lived, how he interacted with others— and even how he smelled (which, as any doctor might tell you, can tell me much about other aspects of his life). My goal is to imagine how Jews before me lived in their worlds, thought about their own places, and lived the life of Judaism. In a real sense, my impossible goal is to make their mouths “move” each time their words are cited— and to fully understand what they “mean” (or don’t mean) when I hear their voices and watch their lips.

What did Rabbi Akiva “see” fifty or more years after the Ḥurban, the destruction of Herod’s temple, when he envisioned the menorah? What could have been in Judah Maccabee’s mind when he relit the altar and the menorah at the solstice of 166 BCE— renewing light to a darkened temple, at the moment the world itself was about to become just a bit brighter? What did pilgrims “see” when they came to the Beit ha-Miqdash— to Herod’s temple— on the pilgrimage festivals, and the kohanim took out the kelim so that all could marvel at the menorah and the table of showbread? What contact did Rashi have with the world around him as he described the biblical menorah using the technology of his period, imagining a lampstand strikingly similar to those created as church appurtenances of his time? This list of questions, many of which I discuss in the book, could go on and on— and in fact it does for 300 pages. The point is that each and every exemplar requires deep penetration into the worlds of our ancestors.  Context is everything.

Let me give one example. From the latter Second Temple period onward— at the very latest, Jews imagined the biblical menorah having rounded branches. We know this from many discoveries of incised menorahs in Eretz Yisrael— from a tomb, on the side of a sundial, a drawing from a patrician house in Jerusalem, and most recently on a stone discovered in a synagogue at Migdal, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee. The branches are always round. Both the Jewish philosopher and communal leader, Philo of Alexandria (died circa. 50 CE), and the historian Flavius Josephus (aka, Yosef ben Matityahu, d. ca. 100 CE), tell us why. Both of these ancient authors, a generation apart, describe the branches as rounded so as to represent the paths of the five visible planets and the moon around the sun. Philo writes:

The candlestick he [Moses] placed at the south [of the Tabernacle] figuring thereby the movements of the luminaries above; for the sun and the moon and the others run their courses in the south far away from the north. And therefore six branches, three on each side, issue from the central candlestick, bringing up the number to seven, and on all these are set seven lamps and candle bearers, symbols of what the men of science call planets. For the sun, like the candlestick, has the fourth place in the middle of the six and gives light to the three above and the three below it, so tuning to harmony an instrument of music truly divine.[2]

Rashi, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Exodus 25, France, early 13th century, Bodleian Library, Oxford (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

3. Rashi, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Exodus 25,
France, early 13th century, Bodleian Library, Oxford
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

This association, also mentioned in rabbinic sources, relates to Zechariah’s notion that the lamps of the menorah represent the “eyes of God” (Zechariah 4:1-14). The roundness of the branches has been an unspoken “given” in almost all images of the menorah since then— Jewish, Christian, Samaritan and Muslim. It is, in a way, so basic that it has hardly been questioned. It is as much a component of the menorah as black paint is to tefillin. Truth is, the ancient rabbis struggled to describe the arched branches. On one occasion they wrote that “two branches go [elekh] from it [from the central stalk].”[3] The Babylonian Talmud, Menaḥot 28b preserves an almost untranslatable (though poetic) attempt that employs the same verb three times: “from here [the central stalk] and onward they go and go”— mi-kan ve-elekh holekh ve-elekh. There was just no word yet for “arched” in their vocabulary (kashti from the word keshet, a bow, came later).[4]  Rashi (d. 1105) to Exodus 25:32 enlisted the Greek loan word alkason, which means kinda diagonal, and in his own manuscript (a copy of which was prepared at the time of Baalei Tosafot, figure 3), illustrates rounded branches.

That is, until the Rambam (d. 1204) drew a rather crude image of a menorah with straight branches in his Mishnah commentary, in order to illustrate the parts of the menorah. Happily, this manuscript, believed to have been written by the Rambam himself, is preserved at Oxford University (figure 4). The Rambam was quite aware of his limited skill as a draftsman, even commenting on it in his commentary. This might have been the end of the story, except that the Rambam’s son, Abraham, wrote explicitly in his commentary that his father intended straight branches: “The six branches extend from the central shaft of the menorah to its height in a straight line, as depicted by my father of blessed memory, and not rounded as depicted by others.”[5] This assertion generated a manuscript tradition of drawing manuscripts with straight branches that found its way to medieval Spain, and then to Yemen. This tradition never “caught on” beyond Maimonides manuscripts, however.

Resting behind this stance is the notion that since Ḥazal, the ancient rabbis, never discussed the shape of the branches, the simplest assumption would be that the branches were straight, and not curved. The textual interpretation— at best a da’at yaḥid, the interpretation of a lone (if highly significant) medieval commentator— here takes precedence over more than two thousand years of lived experience. This approach to text has found many followers in recent decades, as my colleague Haym Soloveitchik has shown, and has rightly lamented.[6] A thousand years after his death, the Maimonides position found a new audience, in modern Israel.  Yemenite chief rabbi, Yosef Qafiḥ (today generally pronounced Qapaḥ), flagged it in his 1965 edition of the Mishnah commentary as an alternative to the Arch of Titus menorah that was chosen as symbol of modern Israel in 1949.[7]

Rabbinic interpreters have long had difficulty with the Arch menorah— beginning with Moses Mendelssohn (d. 1786),[8] and continuing to Ashkenazi chief rabbi Isaac ha-Levi Herzog during the 1950’s.[9] I cannot go into the many reasons that people like Rav Herzog disliked this image, except to note that his sense that religious Zionism left no place for a menorah— or a state— that did not conform (or could not ultimately conform) to Ḥazal’s vision. Since the Arch of Titus menorah base is not constructed as a tripod— as is described by Ḥazal (and was standard for lampstands in Roman times) Rav Herzog believed it to be unfit to serve as symbol of a state worthy to be reshit tsemiḥat geulateinu, “The first sprouts of our redemption” (a phrase that he used in the “prayer for the state”). Rav Qafiḥ went further, condemning the branches as well, based upon the Oxford Rambam manuscript. This was no mere academic discussion, and his language is unusually heated. Discussions of the menorah were a cipher for the identity politics of early Israel, especially within the religious Zionist community.

In the next phase, in 1982 Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (d. 1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe, noted Rav Qafiḥ’s argument, and promoted the “Rambam menorah” as the “authentic” menorah.[10] This too was not just an academic discussion, but rather a significant— and brilliant— attempt by the Rebbe to destabilize the image of the menorah— both that of Zionism and the larger Jewish community— and to replace it with a Chabad-branded menorah.  It was a piece of his continuing war against Zionist messianism, and his attempt to usurp its symbolism into his own messianic program. As one anonymous misnaged put it, with characteristic sarcasm, “every new religion needs a symbol.”[11]

I tell this story here in some detail, but not nearly in the detail with which I engage it in my book. There I trace it across periods, from the Tabernacle to Ḥazal to medieval contexts, up to the contemporary world. In each case, my goal is to “see” what Jews saw and to imagine what they thought— with compassion and I hope, with depth. It is no easy matter to reach behind the text and beyond the image to touch the “real” people looking out from behind them. In dealing with our culture heroes— Ḥazal, Rishonim, Aḥaronim, great leaders of our times, and simple Jews of all times— I feel an even greater responsibility. Truth is, sometimes I imagine Rabbi Akiva (not to mention Judah Maccabee, Rambam, Rav Herzog and all of the other people whom I study) looking out at me and nodding approvingly, at other times disapprovingly, and at still others rather quizzically. Never before, until the modern era, did Rabbi Akiva have to contend with probing historians like me coming “to visit.” The kinds of questions that I ask— and wrote about in The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, reflect my world, and our shared experience. I do hope though, that at the end of the day, Rabbi Akiva would be pleased that I have stopped by.

Steven Fine is the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and Director of both the YU Center for Israel Studies and the Arch of Titus Project.


[1] Torah UMadda, roughly “Torah and secular knowledge,” has been the logo of Yeshiva University since 1946, and was developed as an ideology under the leadership of Rabbi Norman Lamm.  In general, see, and the sources cited there.

[2] Philo of Alexandria, The Life of Moses, 2, 102-3; idem, Questions and Answers on Exodus, 75. Josephus, Jewish War 5.216-17; idem, Antiquities of the Jews 3.146, both cited from Harvard University Press’ Loeb Classical Library editions.

[3] Baraita De-Melekhet Ha-Mishkan: A Critical Edition with Introduction and Translation, ed. R. Kirschner (Cincinnati, 1992), ch. 6, p. 193.

[4] Elieser Ben Yehuda, Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis et Veteris et Recentioris, ed. N. H. Tur-Sinai, (Jerusalem, 1980), 14: 6273.

[5]  Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon, Perush Rabbenu Avraham ben ha- Rambam z”l al Bereshit ve- Shemot, trans. and ed., A. Y. Weisenberg (London, 1959), 296–297.

[6] Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition, 28, no. 4 (1994), 64-130.

[7]  Moses Maimonides, Mishnah im Perush Moshe Ben Maimon, trans., ed., and commentator Yosef Qafiḥ (Jerusalem, 1965), to Menaḥot 3:7 (3:117–120). See also Qafiḥ’s commentary to Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Beit ha- Beḥirah 3:7 (Jerusalem, 1983), 12:54–58.

[8] Moses Mendelssohn, Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom (Berlin, 1783), to Exodus 25.

[9] Isaac ha-Levi Herzog, “The Shape of the Menorah in the Arch of Titus,” Scritti in memoria di Sally Mayer (Jerusalem and Milan, 1956), 95-8, in Hebrew.

[10] Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Hilkhot Beit ha-Beḥirah, (Brooklyn, 1986): ch. 8, pp. 50-51.

[11] Cited by David Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (London and Portland, 2001), 62.