Every part of the portable tent-sanctuary that God describes in the earlier Torah portion Terumah, the Israelites make exactly as specified in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”). Here is a link to my 2018 post on God’s description of the menorah or lampstand: Terumah: Tree of Light. The portion Vayakheil uses an almost identical description for the menorah the artist Betzaleil makes.1
Both descriptions leave room for argument about the actual appearance of the menorah. We know it is made in one piece out of pure hammered gold. A central shaft rises from a base and has three branches on each side. The shafts and each of its branches ends in a bowl for oil, so there are seven lamps across the top. But are the branches curved or straight? Smooth or knobby? Neither Torah portion makes these details clear.
Here is what this week’s Torah portion says about the shaft and branches:
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 branches 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 37:21-22)
meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = made like part of an almond tree.
kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר) = a drupe (a fruit with a pit, such as a peach, plum, or almond), a knob, a capital of a column resembling an almond drupe; a native of Crete.
We arrived in Jerusalem when the almond trees were blooming, and I took a picture of one that still had last year’s dried-up almond drupes as well as this year’s flowers. Inside those dark fruits are almonds.
So the two shapes used to ornament the stems under the lamps are the flattened oval of the almond drupe, and a flower with five oval petals. But do the branches curve? And are there smooth tubes of gold between these decorations?
12th-century C.E. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides or Rambam, drew this interpretation of the menorah’s shape in his “Commentary to the Mishneh”. His son, Rabbi Abraham ben HaRambam, wrote that the branches of the menorah were straight lines, like his father drew, not arcs. Rambam’s abstract geometric drawing also shows the ornaments on the branches as continuous, the top bowls for oil at different heights, and the base as a potentially sturdy slice off the top of a sphere. But obviously the line of the central shaft in the drawing is not intended to represent an actual shaft of gold that could support the structure.
A mosaic in a 5-7th century synagogue in northern Israel depicts a menorah with long smooth curved branches. But it also shows a graceful base with thin legs that could not support the weight of the necessary gold. (See my photo below.)
How much further can we go back in history for evidence? If only there were another clue about the shape of the menorah later in the Torah! But all we have is this:
And thus Aaron did: toward the front of the menorah Aaron brought up its lamps, as God commanded Moses. And this was the making of the menorah: hammered-work of gold from its base to its fruit is was hammered-work; like the form that God had shown Moses, thus he made the menorah. (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:3-4)
Then the original menorah Betzaleil made disappears from the bible.
When King Solomon builds a temple in Jerusalem to replace the portable tent-sanctuary, he replaces most of the holy items and adds more. (See my post: Haftarat Pekudei—1 Kings: More, Bigger, Better.) Instead of the original single menorah, he sets up ten new ones inside the middle chamber of the temple, five on each side.2 Their shapes are not described.
According to Jeremiah 52:19, these ten gold lamp-stands are among the holy objects the Babylonian army carries away when it loots and destroys Solomon’s temple in 597 B.C.E. In 538 B.C.E. the new Persian empire lets Jews in exile in Babylonia return to Jerusalem and build a second temple. The book of Ezra says they even get to bring back thousands of gold and silver vessels and utensils that the Babylonians had taken with them, but the only gold items the book specifically mentions by type are 30 basins and 30 bowls—no lamp-stands, no bread table, no incense altar, and no ark.3
So the second temple in Jerusalem had to be furnished with another new menorah, if only so the priests serving inside the windowless room would have light. Its designer may have tried to follow the same instructions as Betzaleil did in this week’s Torah portion.
But this menorah, too, was replaced. In 169 B.C.E. the soldiers of Antiochus Epiphanes looted the temple, and after the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.E.) Judas Maccabeus had new utensils made for the re-consecrated temple, everything except the irreplaceable ark.4
Herod built the Temple Mount platform and rebuilt the second temple between 25 and 10 B.C.E., while the priests continued making offerings on the altar, and carried out the rebuilding of the temple interior. A gold menorah, bread table, and incense altar remained in the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies behind the curtain in back remained empty.
Roman soldiers putting down a Jewish rebellion sacked and destroyed this final temple in 70 A.D. Eleven years later a stone relief was carved on the Arch of Titus depicting soldiers carrying away the menorah and other trophies. The real menorah was on display in a temple in Rome—until that city was sacked by Vandals in 455 C.E. Nobody knows what happened to it after that.
For many centuries the relief on the inside of the Arch of Titus at was the oldest depiction of the second temple menorah. Old photographs of this relief show clearly that the menorah’s branches are rounded. Thanks to the air pollution in Rome, the menorah looked this when I saw it in December:
Commentators have questioned whether the menorah on the arch is an accurate likeness or an artist’s fantasy. Now we have a more authoritative drawing, discovered scratched into a plaster wall in an archaeological excavation of an upper-class house on the hill right next to the Temple Mount.5 This house, like the three adjacent houses or mansions, had mikvot (ritual baths) in the basement indicating that it belonged to a family in the caste of priests. Priests, and only priests, served inside the temple. They saw the menorah; some of them lit and tended its lamps.
This is a drawing of the Second Temple menorah by an eyewitness who lived during the time of King Herod. (The incised drawing to the right might be a view of the bread table.) This menorah has a base that is either a cone or a pyramid, and curved branches. The branches and shaft have no smooth sections; they are made with a continuous ornamentation, alternating flat round shapes like drupes with flat shapes that might even be derived from petals.
I wonder if the homeowner drew it as an object of meditation before immersion in the mikveh, or as an object of instruction for his sons. Either way, it is our closest connection with the sacred object that once lit the temple in Jerusalem. And that menorah was a recreation of the sacred object that Betzaleil creates in this week’s Torah portion to light up a new sanctuary for God, the creator of light.
I write this today on a hill in Jerusalem that is too far from the Temple Mount to walk. It does not matter, since now everyone in Israel is ordered to stay home except to get essential groceries and medicines. I hope no new measures to fight the Coronavirus pandemic will prevent me and my husband from flying back to Oregon in a few days.
The current situation seems dim for all the world’s people. I pray not only for healing, but for a new cooperation among all people, bringing new light into the world.
- Exodus 37:17-24.
- 1 Kings 7:48-49.
- Ezra 1:7-11.
- 1 Maccabbes 1:21.
- Wohl Archaeological Museum, Ha Kara’im Street, Jerusalem.