In February the almond trees bloom in Israel. They are the first trees to wake up from winter dormancy, and their white flowers appear before their leaves.
Moses receives detailed instructions from God Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), for making a tent-sanctuary and each holy item inside it. God describes the lampstand or menorah in terms of an almond tree.
You shall make a menorah of pure gold. Of hammered work you shall make the menorah; its seat and its shaft, its bowls, its kaftorim, and its blossoms shall be from it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:31)
menorah (מְנֺרַה) = lampstand supporting bowls of oil with wicks.
kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר), plural kaftorim (כַּפְתֺּרִים) = knobs, drupes (fruits with pits, such as peaches, plums, and almonds), capitals of columns resembling almond drupes; natives of Crete.
Since the lamp-stand is hammered out of pure gold, a fairly soft metal, it cannot be any taller than six feet. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) says it was eighteen handbreadths, just over five feet. At that height, the high priest could easily reach the seven oil lamps on top to refill the bowls and trim and light the wicks.1
(The Arch of Titus in Rome, carved in 82 C.E., bears a relief sculpture of the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, including two soldiers carrying away a menorah somewhat shorter than they are.)
The overall shape of the menorah, according to this week’s Torah portion, is like a flat or espaliered tree with a central trunk and three branches on each side. The branches and the central shaft all terminate in oil lamps, so there are seven lamps across the top:
And you shall make seven lamps on it … of pure gold. (Exodus 25:37-38)
And [it shall have] six shafts going out from its sides: three shafts of the menorah on one side and three shafts of the menorah on the second side. Three bowls meshukadim on one side, on each a kaftor and a blossom, and three bowls meshukadim on the other side, on each a kaftor and a blossom; the same way for all six of the shafts going out from the menorah. And on [the central shaft of] the menorah, four bowls meshukadim, [each with] its kaftor and its blossom: a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it—for the six branches going out from it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:32-35)
meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = being made like almonds. (From one of the two root verbs spelled shakad, שָׁקַד.)
Each oil lamp consists of a bowl that looks like an almond blossom sitting on top of an almond drupe. (Unlike a peach, the fleshy part of an almond drupe is a relatively thin covering over the pit, which has an almond seed or nut inside.) The central shaft of the menorah has the same decorative motif at each of the three junctions where shafts branch out, with the central shaft continuing up from the flower-bowl shape. At the top of the central shaft the fourth almond flower-bowl is open and serves as the middle lamp.
Lexicons classify meshukadim as a form of the verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = made like an almond, as opposed to the identically spelled verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = watched for, was vigilant, was alert. Another passage in the Hebrew Bible uses the identical spelling and pronunciation of the two shakad root verbs as a prophetic pun.
And the word of God happened to me, saying: “What do you see, Jeremiah?” And I said: “A shoot of a shakeid I see.” And God said to me: “You do well to see it. Because I am shokeid over my word, to do it.”
shakeid (שָׁקֵד) = almond, almond tree.
shokeid (שֺׁקֵד) = being vigilant, watchful, alert.
The Hebrew Bible also describes God as watchfully attentive to the Israelites, for good or bad.2 Elsewhere in the Bible, the verb shakad that means being vigilant is used to describe people watching for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching for humans to leave their towns and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake at night.5
Lamps are symbols of enlightenment, divine inspiration that casts light so we can see something more clearly. The menorah in the sanctuary is the size of a human for practical reasons—but perhaps also because it is humankind’s job to receive and spread enlightenment.
It may be shaped like a tree in recollection of in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad in the garden of Eden. After all, enlightenment is a spark of insight that blooms into new knowledge.
Why is the design of the menorah taken from the almond tree? I think this is a double symbol, from the double meaning of meshukadim: “being made like almonds” and “from those who are vigilant, watchful, awake, alert”. Almond trees flower before any other useful tree. They wake up and bloom when it is still winter. Similarly, enlightenment can bloom even in the winter of our souls—but only if we keep watch for it, if we stay alert to any sign of holiness.
We can be shokeid, vigilant, by serving as our own high priests, tending the lamps of our own inner menorah. We human beings are all too liable to sink into a semi-conscious state in which we operate automatically, making habitual assumptions instead of asking ourselves questions. Yet when we do pay close attention to our own minds, to the people we encounter, and to the teachings we receive, we create our own menorah and find our own enlightenment.
(I published an earlier version of this essay on January 30, 2011)
- Aaron, the first high priest, has the duty of tending the lamps. See Exodus 30:7-8, Leviticus 24:3-4, Numbers 8:1-2.
- Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
- Isaiah 29:20.
- Jeremiah 5:6.
- Psalm 102:8, 127:1, Job 21:32.
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