The menorah, a seven-branched candelabra that stood in the Temple, is the most enduring and iconic Jewish symbol. But what did it look like? In early August, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) issued a press release announcing the discovery of “an engraving of the Temple’s menorah on a stone object” in a 2,000-year-old drainage channel near the City of David, which is being excavated by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron.a (An unusually well preserved iron sword in its leather scabbard, which presumably belonged to a Roman soldier, was also found there.) The IAA release went on to say that “a passerby who saw the [Temple] menorah with his own eyes…incised his impressions on a stone.” The excavators were quoted as saying that this graffito “clarifies [that] the base of the original menorah…was apparently tripod shaped.”
But does it?
Depictions of menorot (plural of menorah) with tripod, or three-legged, bases were indeed quite popular in late antique Judaism (fourth–sixth centuries C.E.). This can be seen clearly on the mosaic floors of several synagogues (Hammath Tiberias, Beth Shean, Beth Alpha and Nirim), not to mention inscribed plaques, oil lamps and even a tiny gold ring from the fifth century.b (One theory is that these “tripod” bases actually have four legs but the artistic perspective obscures the fourth leg in back from view.)
Although there is thus later artistic support for a tripod-based menorah, the evidence from the late Second Temple period, when the menorah was still standing in the Temple, is rather different. The handful of contemporaneous depictions we have seem to show the menorah with a solid, usually triangular base. These include the fragmentary menorah graffito discovered by the late Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad in his excavation of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, multiple coins of the last Hasmonean king Mattathias Antigonus (40–37 B.C.E.) and the decorated stone table recently discovered at Magdala.c (The Temple menorah pictured on the Arch of Titus in Rome has an unusual octagonal tiered base that is usually rejected as unrealistic.) Therefore this newly discovered crude drawing of a menorah hardly settles the question of what the Temple menorah’s base looked like.
Another glaring problem is that this menorah has only five branches. The Temple menorah had seven branches, as did the desert Tabernacle menorah described in Exodus 25:31–40.d Although the rabbis prohibited making seven-branched menorot like the one in the Temple, some Second Temple menorah depictions (including those referred to above) do contain seven branches. So was this menorah with five branches meant to represent some other menorah? Or was the artist simply in a hurry or confused? And would it have been possible for a Yohanan Q. Public to come in from the streets of Jerusalem, walk into the Temple and see the menorah?
The answer to that last question is: It depends on what time period we’re talking about. According to Professor Victor Hurowitz of Ben-Gurion University, the 017018 priestly laws of the Pentateuch prohibited viewing the menorah because the entire inside of the desert Tabernacle was off-limits to commoners (only priests could enter), and when moving the Tabernacle, the vessels (including the menorah) were covered. These restrictions continued in the First Temple period (1000–586 B.C.E.), Hurowitz explained.
But things may have changed in the Second Temple period (538 B.C.E.–70 C.E.). Hebrew University professor Israel Knohl contends that the Mishnah and the Temple Scroll indicate that in the late Second Temple period the usual purity laws related to Temple rituals were loosened somewhat during the three major pilgrimage festivals of Sukkoth, Pesach and Shavuot.1 To encourage popular participation in the Temple rites and the festival service, the ritual purity laws that normally constrained common Israelites to the outer Temple courts were relaxed: In “a two-way movement,” ordinary Israelites were permitted to enter the inner courts, and the sanctified ritual objects, including the menorah, were moved from the Temple to the inner courts.
It is therefore possible that the artist of this newly discovered graffito could have gotten close enough during a pilgrim festival to see the menorah brought out by the priests and displayed before all the people, but the rough drawing he etched into the stone is far from giving us a clear view of what the Temple menorah looked like.—D.D.R.
The menorah, a seven-branched candelabra that stood in the Temple, is the most enduring and iconic Jewish symbol. But what did it look like? In early August, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) issued a press release announcing the discovery of “an engraving of the Temple’s menorah on a stone object” in a 2,000-year-old drainage channel near the City of David, which is being excavated by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron.a (An unusually well preserved iron sword in its leather scabbard, which presumably belonged to a Roman soldier, was also found there.) The IAA release went on to say that […]
You have already read your free article for this month. Please join the BAS Library or become an All Access member of BAS to gain full access to this article and so much more.
‡ Despite the fact that the Tabernacle menorah described in Exodus has seven branches, Duke University archaeologist Carol Meyers argues that Solomon’s Temple contained only single-stemmed lamps. See Carol L. Meyers, “Was There a Seven-Branched Lampstand in Solomon’s Temple?” BAR 05:05.
Israel Knohl, “Post-Biblical Sectarianism and the Priestly Schools of the Pentateuch” in Julio T. Barrera and Luis V. Montaner, eds., The Madrid Qumran Congress, vol. 2 (New York: E.J. Brill, 1992), pp. 601–609.