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Latkes, presents, dreidels, jelly doughnuts. But what would Chanukah be without the menorah? A lot has to do with history, symbolism and a miracle.
Back in the days when the Israelites were wanderers in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, God commanded Bezalel to design a candelabrum or lampstand (Exodus 25: 31) to be placed in the Tabernacle (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary) to serve as a visible symbol of God’s presence.
Later in history, when the Israelites reached the Promised Land and established Jerusalem for their capital and holy city, the menorah proudly stood in the first Temple. It was made of pure gold, with seven branches or arms, and ten such items were found in the Temple.
Each night the Priests would fill the cups at the ends of the arms with specially prepared fine, beaten olive oil. In the morning, they would trim the wicks and add fresh oil, thus producing an “eternal light,” that is, one that would never be extinguished.
This practice continued into the days of the second Temple, when one menorah graced the Temple, along with a few copies. It was one of those copies that was taken by the Romans with the conquest of Judea and is depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome. It was at this point in history that the menorah disappeared, with theories ranging from priests hiding the precious object beneath the Temple Mount to Crusaders bringing it to Byzantium.
While the actual menorah may be lost in history, its symbolism is kept alive today in the joyous festival of Chanukah. According to legend, after the Maccabees made their triumphal entry into Jerusalem after defeating the Syrian Greeks in 165 B.C.E, they needed to rededicate the Holy Temple, which had been defiled with pagan sacrifice.
As the story goes, the soldiers found only one small cruse of ritually pure oil in which to kindle the menorah, the Eternal Light of Israel’s faith. When the menorah was kindled, it miraculously burned for eight days until more pure olive oil could be procured.
While this makes for a beautiful story, historically it most likely never happened in quite this manner. Most historians believe that the small reference to the Chanukah miracle found in the Talmud was added by the rabbis, who did not want to glorify a military victory, even though it saved Judaism from extinction. The most likely explanation for the eight-day celebration of Chanukah came from the fact that because of the fighting for religious freedom, the Jewish soldiers had been unable to observe the eight-day harvest festival of Sukkot. By making Chanukah an eight-day feast, they could also make up for time lost and keep Sukkot in spirit.
Today, the candleholders we use for the Chanukah festival are called chanukiyot (singular, chanukiyah).
Unlike the original menorah, this candleholder has eight cup holders plus another one slightly above the others for the shammas or servant candle. This is a special ritual so that the lights of the chanukiyah are not diminished or used for illumination but rather to “publish the miracle,” i.e., to promote the symbolism of the holiday of religious freedom and the light of goodness and peace. As the candles are added each evening, the beautiful candles of the chanukiyah fill each Jewish home with their special, holy glow.
There are those who maintain that the menorah is a symbol of Israel’s mission to be a “light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) This mission was not to be obtained by force, but by setting a moral and ethical example to the world. This vision is highlighted in a vision by the prophet Zechariah in chapter 4:1-6. In this prophecy, Zechariah sees a vision of the menorah and God tells him: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” It is the very passage read in synagogues today during the Sabbath of Chanukah.
Every Jewish home has at least one chanukiyah. They may be made be of silver, brass, ceramic, clay or other materials. They may be heirlooms, recent acquisitions or those received as gifts. Themes can be traditional, modern or even whimsical, as the special Mickey Mouse and Friends one recently gifted to me by friends. To be kosher, they all must have eight cup holders and one extra for the shammas.
For those of you who like things big, check out the huge chanukiyah erected each year in the southeast corner of Central Park in New York City. On each of the nights of Chanukah, a cherry picker lights each of the candles in this 32-foot high, 4,000-pound chanukiyah.
May the light and warmth of the Chanukah lights fill every home with peace and love. Happy Chanukah.
Chanukah begins tonight at sundown.
Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Ocala with her husband, Phil. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.