The Jewish menorah—especially the Temple menorah, a seven-branched candelabra that stood in the Temple—is the most enduring and iconic Jewish symbol. But what did the Temple menorah actually look like?
In early August 2011, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) issued a press release announcing the discovery of “an engraving of the Temple menorah on a stone object” in a 2,000-year-old drainage channel near the City of David, which is being excavated by Professor Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron. (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 [ancient] menorah … was apparently tripod shaped.”
But does it?
Depictions of the Jewish menorah with a tripod, or three-legged, base 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.
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Although there is thus later artistic support for a tripod-based Jewish menorah, the evidence from the late Second Temple period, when the ancient menorah was still standing in the Temple, is rather different. The handful of contemporaneous depictions we have seem to show the Jewish menorah with a solid, usually triangular base. These include the fragmentary ancient 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. (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 recently discovered crude drawing of a Jewish menorah hardly settles the question of what the Temple menorah’s base looked like.
Another glaring problem is that this ancient menorah has only five branches. The Temple menorah had seven branches, as did the ancient menorah in the desert Tabernacle described in Exodus 25:31–40. Although the rabbis prohibited making seven-branched menorot like the one in the Temple, some Second Temple Jewish menorah depictions (including those referred to above) do contain seven branches. So was this ancient menorah with five branches meant to represent some other Jewish 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 Jewish 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 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. 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 recently 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.
Originally published October 2011, updated June 2014.
Based on “Strata: Is This What the Temple Menorah Looked Like?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.