The Menorah: Embracing an Impossible Symbol

The latter sections of the book of Shemot (Exodus) provide a long narrative detailing the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  It began last week with Terumah and continues into this week, Tetzaveh.  It will be interrupted next week with parashat Ki Tisa, a cautionary tale detailing the severe damage wrought by the construction spirit gone awry, as the Israelites, who had just received instructions for a beautiful golden menorah, instead put their goldsmithing to work in fashioning an idol, the Golden Calf.  Soon enough, though, we return to the Tabernacle details in the final two parashiyot of Shemot, Vayakhel/Pekudei, where the work of construction is accomplished.

Tetzaveh opens with a command to the Israelites to bring “clear oil of beaten olives”. They were directed to bring the oil, not to prepare it, so presumably olive oil was brought from Egypt.  The 15th century Portuguese Jewish commentator Isaac Abarbanel wondered about the insertion of this command into a section that focuses largely on building the Tabernacle and preparing the priestly vestments. Why were the Israelites instructed to bring oil when the Tabernacle had not yet been constructed – the actual work being described in the last two parashiyot of Shemot?  This command seems premature.

Nechama Leibovitz answers Abarbanel’s question by positing that the lighting of the menorah is the central activity of the Temple service and essential to the Jewish people.  The imagery of light is strong in Jewish sacred text, represented in liturgy, for example, by the enlightenment of Torah (ve’ha’er einenu beToratekha) and our striving for Divine Light (ohr olam be’otzar hayyim).  The sixth century prophet Zekharia evoked a vision of the menorah surrounded by two olive trees, when he imagined the realm of God re-established “not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says Adonai Tzevaot.” (Zekharia 4).

The notion that the menorah was the central symbol of the Tabernacle and Temple is pervasive and continues until our time.  Over the centuries, the seven-branched menorah of the Temple has achieved the status of symbol for the Jewish people.  Israel in antiquity already had embraced the symbolism of the menorah.  Coins issued for use in Israel by Roman governors pictured the menorah, and mosaic floors and carved stone sarcophagi provided images as well. Yannai, the 6th century poet who likely lived in the Galil, also associated Israel with the menorah. In one of his poems, he refers to the Jewish people as the Lamps of Zion.[1]  The menorah appears in the Arch of Titus in Rome, carried off as a spoil of war during the second exile. Through the ages, the menorah has appeared in illustrated manuscripts, ketubot, gravestones, paper cuts, Torah ornaments, military insignia, home decorations, jewelry, Israeli stamps and currency, wine labels, candy wrappers, El Al advertising[2], and in the layout of a neighborhood of Tel Aviv streets[3]. At the Latke-Hamantashen debate last week, I noticed that it was part of the metal grill of fencing around Adas Israel Synagogue.

1931 Tel Aviva planning mapProposed El Al poster

One of the most telling indications of the continuity of the menorah in Jewish imagination is the design contest in 1948 for the official emblem of the State of Israel.  Early guidelines called for a design with a menorah and with seven Jewish stars – 7 representing Herzl’s socialist dream that in the New Land, Jews would only work 7 hours a day.  The colors were to be blue and white, the colors of the tallit.  The entries incorporated designs or other motifs that spoke to self-perception in the new Jewish state. Artists worked roaring lions, vines, olive branches, doves, and flames into their designs.  One of my favorites designs created a menorah out of a cactus, playfully suggesting that the new nation would be represented not by the Priestly Class, but by the rugged pioneers of the desert landscape.  The most poignant entry represented the new state as a new limb, sprouting out of a cut-off trunk – symbol of the revived nation.[4]Menorah design entry, 1948 symbol of state

Menorah as cactus, seal of state of israel entry









With the inclusion of the menorah in the design of the emblem, the symbol of the Roman exile was reversed to become the image of the fledging new state. In the end, the Shamir brothers,  famed Israeli stamp designers, prevailed with their now well-known design.  Their entry was instantly criticized for any number of reasons – the primitive alphabet, what some thought were overbearing olive branches, but most Emblem of Israelof all for the choice of base. Their base used the double-layered, carved base in the Arch of Titus – almost certainly not a true depiction of the menorah described in Shemot.  Its appearance in the state symbol is part triumphalism, the return of Jewry from the Roman exile.

The argument over the appropriateness of the Shamirs’ design is apt. The menorah, this profound symbol of the Jewish people is, it seems, impossible—impossible to agree on, and, from what we know from the sources, impossible to even fashion.

One difficulty is with the description itself. The menorah of Terumah was a singular design challenge, to be hammered out of a single block of gold. Indeed, its construction was perhaps so difficult that it’s unclear whether Bezalel even effected its manufacture.  Rashi, commenting on the passive voice in the phrase ‘it shall be made’ in Exodus 25:35, suggests that the menorah was made of its own accord, to be plucked fulMenorah-like sage from Forward articlely fashioned from a fiery furnace.  The Midrash Tanhuma describes Moses trying to imagine its construction, failing to grasp the details even after three episodes of Divine instruction.  Indeed, Steven Fine (cited in the first footnote, above) had his students attempt to draw the menorah based on the Biblical text. Naturally, each effort had a different result, but “most students agree that the menorah is a kind of overgrown plant, complete with branches, bulbs, and flowers[5].” Indeed, the similarity of the menorah, particularly Rashi’s sketch of it, to a common sage plant known as moriah or salvia is the subject of an chapter in the Israel Museum volume as well as an essay in the Forward[6].

Even lighting the menorah is an impossibility.  Abarbanel aptly noted that the command to light it, relayed at the beginning of our parasha, comes at an unlikely time. The command is given, but there is no menorah to light.

SO: how does a set of impossible instructions followed by a inexecutable command end up being our national symbol?

Maybe that is how a symbol becomes precious.  It provides not the accessible, but the ideal. It is inclusive by its lack of specificity, allowing Dr. Fine’s students to obey the instructions and still infuse their own individuality into the construction.  It represents trust in the future – why else would the Israelites carry oil, rather than water, on their backs into the wilderness?  We have a symbol that stumped even Moses, that was carried off as a spoil of war, yet illuminates even in its absence.  The choice of this symbol for the Jewish people identifies us as those who are sure that the impossible with still work out.

[1] The poem is cited in Steven Fine, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2016, p. 42.

[2] Proposal for poster for El Al Airlines, 1959 Design: Rafi Mintz, b. 1938.  From The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, In the Light of the Menorah: Story of a Symbol, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society (English edition), 1999.

[3] The 1931 planning map of Tel Aviv depicts a neighborhood in the southeastern corner, Neve Sha’anan, with streets laid out as a menorah. From Naomi Zeveloff, “In Tel Aviv, a Neighborhood Shaped Like a Menorah”, The Forward, December 15, 2016.

[4] The two design entries shown above are unidentified but included in The Israel Museum volume.

[5] Fine, op cit, p. 28.

[6] Jo Ann Gardner, “The Secret Sage-Scented History of the Menorah,” The Forward, Dec. 12, 2016.

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