History of Menorah
The Menorah, and accompanying ritual objects, shewbread table, Torah shrine and the Ark of the scrolls are Jewish symbols appearing in synagogal and funerary art. Profound and significant values associated with Judaism. Derived from the accoutrements used in Temple rites.
Three sacred vessels stood in the sanctuary of the Second Temple: the menorah, the shewbread table, the incense altar. These also stood in the first Temple, together with the Ark of the Tabernacle which stood in the Holy of Holies.
Exodus (25:31-32, 37:17-18): ‘and you shall make a menorah of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the menorah shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its capitals and its flowers shall be of one piece with it; and there shall be six reeds (arms) going out of its sides…’
See Hebrews, Ex 25:31-50, 37:17-24. Menorah described as a central shaft with ‘six branches coming out of its sides’. Each branch is called a qaneh, literally a reed in Hebrew, and ‘hollow pipe’ in Greek Septuagint. So it should be seven-armed, but has become known as seven-branched.
In Solomon’s Temple the menorah was possibly one of the holy vessels from the Tabernacle that was brought up to Jerusalem by the priests and Levites (I Kgs, 25:13-16).
The menoroth in Solomon’s Temple may have been taken to Babylon in 586BC. (Jeremiah 52:19).
c.516BC. With the return from Exile in Babylon, the rebuilding of the Temple was resumed by Ezra and Nehemiah. There is no evidence that the menorah was among the vessels returned to the Temple (Ezra 1:7-11). New menorah could have been fashioned based on earlier menorah.
The Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt following the return of the Babylonian exiles to Zion (Ezra 3:10-11). Cyrus, King of Persia, consigned the sacred Temple vessels to Sheshbazzar, and they were transported to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:7-11). It’s not clear if this included the menorah.
First mention of a menorah with seven lamps is in the book of Zechariah, 6th century BC, following the return to Zion (4:2-3), showing seven lips on each of the lamps.
Antiochus Epiphanes plundered the Temple and took its ritual vessels, including the menorah, as spoils. ‘Arrogantly entering the temple, he took the golden altar and the candelabrum with all its furnishings’ (I Macc. I.21 and Ant.12.250).
After conquering Jerusalem ca.168 BCE, Judah the Maccabean cleansed and renovated the Temple and kindled the lights on a makeshift lampstand (the original been plundered). This menorah was not made of gold but according to the Babylonian Talmud, was made of iron rods, bars, overlaid with tin with lamps affixed to them. Later Maccabeans created new vessels, including menorah, and with the re-dedication of the Temple they renewed the rituals. ‘They also made the new sacred vessels, and they brought the candelabrum and the altar of incense and the shewbread table into the nave. They burned incense on the altar and kindled the lights on the candelabrum that they illuminated the nave.’
After conquering Jerusalem in 63BC, Pompey entered Temple ‘and saw what it was unlawful for any but the high priests to see. But though the golden table was there and the sacred lampstand… he touched none of these because of piety.’ Pompey saw a single menorah.
In 54BC Crassus plundered the Temple but did not take the ritual vessels.
37BC. Struggle between Herod and Mattathias Antigonus, last Hasmonean king and High Priest, supported by priestly families against Herod. The Roman emperor Octavian (Augustus) appointed Herod king of Judea. Antigonus emphasised his heritage by depicting sacred Temple vessels on the coins he minted.
The Menorah served in Herod’s Temple until its destruction in 70AD. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple its vessels were taken to Rome as spoils and were displayed in Titus’s triumphal procession (as described in Josephus’ Jewish War), as depicted on Arch of Titus. Vespasian placed the menorah and other spoils in a newly erected special Peace Temple.
6th century: Byzantine historian, Procopius of Caesarea records that ‘the treasures of the Jews’ were taken to Carthage by the Vandals in 455 after their sack of Rome.
The Menorah was carried in Belisarius’s triumphal procession in Constantinople in 534 (according to Procopius, History of the Wars 4, 6-9). Justinian sent the sacred vessels to Jerusalem following a warning by a Jew that ill luck would strike the holder.
7th century: The Menorah supposedly fell into the hands of Persians or Arabs. Medieval sources mention the presence of the menorah in Constantinople.
Nowadays the Menorah is known as the branched candlestick used at Chanukah, and is a strong symbol of Israel, appearing on coins and banknotes.
For more information, see Rachel Hachlili, The Menorah, the Ancient Seven-Armed Candelabrum: Origin, Form and Significance, (Brill: Leiden 2001)