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The Mystery of Menorah

Updated on July 20, 2011

The Menorah symbolically takes the shape of two, but mutually similar, traditions for the Jewish family. The menorah, which literally means lamp, was in ancient and traditional times a seven-branched candelabrum that has been part of the Jewish tradition for about 3000 years. The ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem used the Menorah for Tabernacle and Temple use, and is believed to represent the burning bush that Moses saw on Mount Horeb. It is the continual light that represents the eternal flame of God. The Hanukkah Menorah is an eight-branched candelabrum with a ninth branch for the Shamash or helper candle used to light the others and used during the eight-day Hanukkah holiday for the Jewish family celebrations. Each candle represents one of the eight nights of the miracle of Chanukah and is the ultimate symbol of this Jewish holiday.

Origins of the Menorah

The Menorah was to be the symbol of the seven days of creation, the Sabbath, and of Israel’s mission to be the “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). This light is interpreted through Zechariah 4:1-6 in his account of the menorah when G-d explains that the symbol represents the edict of, "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit”. Through this explanation, the Jewish people have taken their mission to be one of example, rather than one of violence or force. The Torah tells of G-d giving Moses the design and purpose of the Menorah in the Temple. Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, recorded the fate of this Jewish symbol after it was brought to Rome. It is believed that it remained in Rome’s Temple of Peace until the city was besieged in 410 CE. The Chanukah menorah has been more recently called the “Chanukkiyah" by the wife of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who revived of the Hebrew language at the end of the nineteenth century in Jerusalem. It is designed to not to resemble the traditional Temple menorah, but rather to honor the eight miracle days of oil that the traditional menorah lasted. This celebration represents the rededication of the Temple after a successful revolt by the Jewish people against the Seleucid monarchy. Unfortunately, the people found only enough ritually pure olive oil for the light the menorah to last one day. This one day supply miraculously burned for eight days, until a fresh supply of pure olive oil was produced. Each day of the eight-day Chanukah, a new candle is lit to symbolize these eight miraculous days that the blessed oil burned and defines the miracle of G-d and His blessing on His people. Another reason for using the eight-branched candelabrum is because of the sanctity of the Temple menorah. To duplicate this sacred design is considered forbidden in the halakha. The eight branches also symbolize Hannah and her seven sons as depicted in the Talmud’s Book of Maccabees. In this story, Hanna’s seven sons were tortured and put to death because they refused to bow to Antichus’ idol statue and would not eat the pork that was thrust upon them.

The Ritual Designs and Practices for the Temple Menorah

There are very specific instructions for the use and maintenance of both the Temple menorah and the Chanukkiyah. Because of its sanctity and representations, these practices most be followed to the letter by the Jewish people. Exodus 25:31-40 marks the specific directions as to how the menorah should be constructed. "And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knops, and its flowers, shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of the sides thereof: three branches of the candlestick out of the one side thereof, and three branches of the candle-stick out of the other side thereof; three cups made like almond-blossoms in one branch, a knop and a flower; and three cups made like almond-blossoms in the other branch, a knop and a flower; so for the six branches going out of the candlestick. 34 And in the candlestick four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knops thereof, and the flowers thereof. And a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of the candlestick. Their knops and their branches shall be of one piece with it; the whole of it one beaten work of pure gold. And thou shalt make the lamps thereof, seven; and they shall light the lamps thereof, to give light over against it. And the tongs thereof, and the snuffdishes thereof, shall be of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold shall it be made, with all these vessels. And see that thou make them after their pattern, which is being shown thee in the mount.” According to tradition and dictates in the Temple, the Talmud states that the branches must be pointed east and west, as are all vessels in the Temple. The wicks are to be turned to face the center lamp. Every morning a priest of the Temple cleans and refills the lamps with pure olive oil, except the two most easterly lamps. Lamps that have gone out are relit by the priest. After the morning services are completed, the remaining two easterly lamps are then cleaned and refilled. The helper lamp, or the Ner ha-Ma'arabi, is left lit until evening when it is them refilled. Each lamp, including the Ner ha-Ma'arabi, is filled with a half log of oil, or about a cup and a half, which is enough to last through a long winter day. A ladder of three steps ascended in front of the menorah and on the second step tongs, dishes, oil, and shovels were placed for its maintenance. The ladder was made of shittim-wood; but in Solomon's Temple it was made of marble.

Uses and Practices for the Chanukkiyah

For the chanukkiyah, the design has eight branches for the eight candles or oil lamps. No lamp should be higher than the other, with the exception of one higher branch for the shamash. The helper lamp guards against any unwarranted secular use of the chanukkiyah, as well as its exclusive purpose of lighting the other lamps. On the first night of Chanukah, the lamp on the far right of the Menorah is lit. Every night thereafter night another lamp is lit beginning from left to right until all eight candles are aflame on the final night of Chanukah. Each night, blessings are recited before the lighting of the lamps. Afterward, Jewish families sing traditional songs to celebrate. Each member of a Jewish family will possess their own menorah. Jewish family members proudly and traditionally display their menorahs in conspicuous window to illuminate and share the miracle of Chanukah. When the stars begin to appear, it is time for the Chanukkiyah to be lit. If it is not lit at that time, it may still be lit during the evening if the family is present. If it is impossible to light the lamp(s) until late in the evening, a family member may light it without a blessing, but the sharing of the miracle is no longer possible. If night has passed, the lights cannot be lit for that evening, but the tradition of mitzvah can be continued the next evening. Jewish family members cannot imbibe in any intoxicating drink or eat a half-hour before the Chanukkiyah is lit. The study of the Torah is suspended until the lamps are lit. The lamps should be allowed to burn for no less than an half an hour. Sufficient oil for the lamps to burn for at least fifty minutes should be provided. If the oil is insufficient at the start, none can be added during or after the lamps are lit, and the mitzvah cannot be fulfilled. The essence of the mitzvah is the act of lighting. Traditionally, the lighting of the Chanukkiyah is done with pure olive oil and cotton wicks for a pure and clear light; and to honor the Menorah of the Holy Temple. Other materials may be used as long as they provide a steady, clear, and sustained flame. Lamps holders should be made of metal or glass that is clean, polished, and attractive. Ceramic or earthenware can only be used once. Wicks and oils may be reused from the previous day. The Chanukkiyah should be lit at the street-facing entrance to one's home or more recently in a street-facing window. They should stand at the left side of the home’s entrance with the mezuzah on the right and the lamps on the left. It should be not placed lower than three handbreadths from the ground or higher than twenty arm's lengths from the ground. This ensures the public visibility for sharing the miracle. If one lives on a floor with a window more than twenty arm's lengths above the ground, the Chanukkiyah should be placed at the entrance on the left side of the most heavily used room in the house. As the Chanukkiyah is lit, the entire Jewish family household should be present to honor the miracle and its public showing.

The Miracle of the Menorah

The Menorah represents a great many things to the Eternal Jewish family. Essentially, the menorah represent a great many events for the Jewish people, all of which are symbolically dedicated to the perseverance and mission of G-d’s chosen ones and His miraculous deeds. The Jewish people are therefore dedicated to the celebration of these deeds and what they mean to not only their faith in G-d, but as their representation of their mission of being the “light unto the nations”.


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