BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

Does this ancient menorah graffito show the Temple menorah?

menorah-graffito

Does this ancient menorah graffito show us what the Temple menorah looked like?

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 was 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.
 


 
Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.
 


 
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 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.

——————

Based on “Strata: Is This What the Temple Menorah Looked Like?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Magdala Stone: The Jerusalem Temple Embodied

1,600-Year-Old Bracelet Stamped with Menorah Motifs Uncovered in Dig

Modi’in: Where the Maccabees Lived

Where the Heroes of the Maccabean Revolt Lie

The Stones of Herod’s Temple Reveal Temple Mount History

The Ophel Treasure: A “once-in-a-lifetime discovery” at the foot of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in October 2011.
 


 
Pictured below are a number of important menorah depictions from antiquity.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

The Temple Menorah appears in the fragment of a first-century graffito etched in plaster found in excavations in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter merely a few hundred feet from the Temple Mount. It is one of the earliest depictions of the candelabra that illuminated the Jewish Temple. The seven-branched Menorah rests on a triangular base.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

A graffito on stone found during the excavation of a 2,000-year-old drainage channel near the City of David shows a five-branched menorah with a tripod base.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

This engraved stone with an early depiction of a seven-branched menorah (facing panel) was discovered in the central hall of the Magdala synagogue, which dates to the first century C.E. or earlier. The stone may have served as a table on which Torah scrolls were rolled out.


Understanding the Jewish Menorah

As they huddled in the cistern of their Nahal Mikhmas cave, in a last-ditch effort to hide from Roman soldiers, Jewish refugees from the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.) drew messages in charcoal on the plastered walls, including this seven-branched candelabrum, or menorah, which may resemble the menorah that stood in the Temple.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

A bas relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts the celebratory procession of Titus’s victorious troops after defeating the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.). They carry the spoils of the Temple on their shoulders: the Menorah, the Showbread table and the trumpets. The unique tiered octagonal base of the Menorah is considered unrealistic by many scholars.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

A flame lights each of the seven branches on this 1-by-1-inch carved menorah on top of a stone oil lamp that had been declared a forgery but was recently defended as authentic in a journal publication by several eminent scientists.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

Jews who fled Jerusalem after the First Jewish Revolt settled in the south and created oil lamps showing the menorah, as one expression of their yearning to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. The menorahs on these lamps all had more branches (such as this one) than the seven-branched Temple menorah because of the Talmudic prohibition against depicting the Temple menorah.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

This early-fourth-century C.E. Roman gold glass (formed by laminating both sides of the base of a glass bowl with sheets of gold) bears images of seven-branched menorahs, a lulav (palm branch), an etrog (citron) and a shofar (ram’s horn)—all ritual objects used in Temple services. In its upper register, the gold glass depicts not the Temple but an open Torah ark with its scrolls displayed.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

Two seven-branched menorahs flank a gabled ark in this scene decorating a floor in the fourth-century C.E. synagogue at Hammath Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. A lulav, or bound palm branch, and an etrog, or citron, both associated with the holiday of Sukkoth (Tabernacles), are shown to the left of each menorah, while a shofar, the ram’s horn sounded on Rosh Hashanah, lies below an incense shovel to the right of each menorah.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

The seven-branched menorah was one of the typical Jewish symbols often found on Jewish grave markers from the Hellenistic through the Byzantine periods (300 B.C.E.–500 C.E.), most of which were written in Greek.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

This tiny, 24-karat gold ring, only one-quarter inch in diameter, was probably made for a newborn infant. It is the only example from its period—c. 5th century C.E.—of a gold ring with a depiction of the seven-branched menorah. However, a number of contemporaneous bronze and silver rings with menorah depictions have been found.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

One of two seven-branched menorahs on the mosaic floor from the fifth-century C.E.. synagogue at Beth-Shean.


Understanding the Jewish Menorah

This damaged panel from the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic (fifth–seventh centuries C.E.) features an ark (or perhaps the Temple) flanked by menorahs.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

The Ark mosaic from the sixth-century C.E. synagogue at Beth Alpha, which was located directly in front of the synagogue’s actual Torah shrine, contains depictions of sacred vessels and objects used in the Temple, including two seven-branched menorahs that flank the Ark.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

A menagerie of roaring lions, doll-like elephants, caged birds and free, and even a hen laying an egg surrounding the central menorah enliven this sixth-century C.E. floor mosaic from a Jewish synagogue in Nirim, Israel.

Understanding the Jewish Menorah

Built in the eighth century A.D., the Jericho synagogue featured an elaborate mosaic carpet that included this famous medallion depicting, from left to right, three Jewish symbols: a palm frond (lulav), a menorah and a ram’s horn (shofar). The inscription below reads “Peace unto Israel” (Hebrew, Shalom al Yisroel).


Understanding the Jewish Menorah

A nine-branched menorah, flanked by an incense shovel on the left and a shofar on the right, appear in relief on this arch stone (likely belonging to a synagogue) from the Jewish village of Yahudiyye.

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24 Responses

  1. […] itself has contextual problems as well as the artistic motifs. For example, the candelabra (Menorah) at the top of the medallion has only six branches, the biblical description of the temple Menorah […]

  2. Ivica says:

    In Split, Croatia, about a dozen of carved menorahs can be found on walls of the ancient Roman Diocletian’s Palace, more specific in the eastern wing of the Palace’s substructures or basements. All of those menorahs are five-branched, and with a tripod base, as visible on photo #3 of this slideshow: https://www.wmf.org/slideshow/ancient-rome-today-jews-split-english
    They are dated back to around 7th century AD, but maybe even earlier, as notable Jewish Community existed since the 1st century in nearby Roman city of Salona. Simple version of this story says that in 600s AD Salona was destroyed by nations/tribes coming from today’s Eastern Europe, and that most of its population, including Jews settled within walls of the Palace, today old town Split. Unfortunately, just a few works were written about this, and it’s still not explained enough. Anyone knows more?

  3. Edward J. Morse says:

    One thing I’ve missed is all the posters telling us that the Menorah was a foreshadowing of Jesus and we all need to get right with him if we want to see the divine light…
    🙂

  4. Donna says:

    This just proves you see what you want to see. I don’t see a menorah at all. 5 branches going into 1, 5 branches coming out – could be a plumbing diagram! Irrigation canals, maybe. After all, it was found in a drainage channel. Maybe the builder’s sketch?

  5. urdu says:

    Antonia et al, You represent historians & scientists who categorically view their craft in two dimensions, kind of like a puzzle, but ones with amorphous edges everything can be pieced together at will. If something is similar, it must be borrowed or evolved; history or science will be according to one’s own logic and bias. It cannot be any other way! However, thanks for your insight about other religions who also have something akin to a menorah. My takeaway: It doesn’t mean that the customs of a culture (whether of the pagan or of the faithful) were the prototypes or bastardizations of ones before or after. You provide a “cautionary tale” for theorists everywhere. Caveat! Avoid being like the supposed sponge ancestors of the humanoid race who are multicellular but can’t hold water outside of its environment.

  6. Antonia Dawson says:

    The original imagery the Menorah’ came from was of the ‘tree of life’ which was on stone reliefs situated in early or proto Mesopotamia, and depicted the branches and thus the fruits the three would bring forth…
    It was taken from this maybe several thousands of year BC and somehow was turned into the ‘Menorah’ by peoples who lived and dwelt in these regions and who also stole numerous other ideas and histories and catastrophes and epics etc etc so as to use them in their own ‘history’ which was mostly made up!!!

  7. Jan Puffelen says:

    A menorah is a stylized representation of Asherah in the form of a tree with 5, 7 or 9 branches. Asherah was the consort of El/Jhwh. See my message #18!

  8. thomson says:

    amen o ra

  9. Jan van Puffelen says:

    The first picture with five uneven spaced branches clearly represents a tree. The goddess Asherah consort of El of Canaanite origin was widely worshipped by the Jews as well. Asherah was symbolized by a tree. She was also represented in the Temple. I therefore think that the origin of the menorah was a symbolic representation of Asherah.

  10. Ken Hasekamp says:

    Could this even have been one by a child, thus the five verses seven branches? Sometimes too much emphasis can be placed on a single object, especially when that particular object does not agree with others. NOT all “old things” are valuable on the same level A child’s art project compared to Michelangelo comes to mind. So, interesting, yes! Definitive, no. Love the pursuit, though.

  11. Silverwolf says:

    The true Menorah of Betzalel is gone. If Shishak or Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzar did not have it in their hands and melted it down, then its likely Anitochus lV did as he had to hire mercernaries and that cost money.
    Their were other Menorahs their to light up the Temple, Solomons or Herod. The arch of Titus Menorah was carved by Domitian his younger brother in 82 ad after his brothers death. The artist clearly took symbols common from Temples in Turkey and such and added the serpents and other idolatrous symbols, maybe on Domitians orders to mock the Jews and make it more Romanish.
    The Temple institute has apparently sougght a compromise betwee base and tripod by having a wide base supported by 3 little feet as it were. So who really knows and speculation at this point is wishful thinking no matter who the scholar may be.

  12. Dawn Rutherford says:

    ORDINARY Israelites (MALE ONLY Israelites) were permitted to enter the inner courts.” A rather big difference — say, 50% of the population.

  13. Burr says:

    Carl – more than one temple in Israel’s past, so more than one temple menorah.

  14. Alex says:

    If there’s someone there with a giving heart, Please let me know if you’ve got a spare menorah to give away as I am looking for a Menorah, Thanks and blessings

  15. Tzur says:

    In regard to the Hanukah menorah, it should be clarified (in response to Sue’s question) that there are actually nine candles, one elevated over the others (and usually placed in the middle, but it need not be and can be at one end) and eight lined up at a lower level. The elevated one is the “shamash” candle, which is lit first and used to light the others. The reason for it is that it is forbidden to make ordinary utilitarian use of the actual Hanukah lights, they are dedicated to the one purpose of sacred commemoration, so the shamash candle serves to light the others. Hanukah lasts eight days, and an additional candle is lit each day until there are fully lit candles in each holder. Some families light more than one menorah, and the light from them all really creates a lovely atmosphere in the home. It is common to place them near a window so that they can shine into the darkness.

    Another point is that while candles are commonly used, anciently and still today many use little vials of oil in which a wick floats, instead.

  16. Guy Fortin says:

    to sue… it’s not a menorah but a hanoukiah… it commemorates the miracle of the oil in the Temple under impious greek king Antiochus Epipane IV

  17. Lois says:

    Sue,
    The eight candle menorah has to do with Hanakuh tradition regarding the oil lasting for eight days in the time of the Maccabees revolt.; It is a different menorah than the original described in the Bible. I am always surprised when I go into stores selling these and they don’t even know about the seven lamp menorah.
    Lois

  18. Gigi says:

    Ditto Mark L’s comments.

  19. Anna says:

    love yall

  20. Sue says:

    I am confused. My Jewish friend says that they light eight candles in the menorah at chanukah, one being in front of the others. I have seen fire, nine and seven candle holding menorah but not eight. Sue

  21. Diana Watson says:

    Maybe it is not a Menorah? Maybe it is just a simple candle stand? Not everything is so complicated…

  22. Breaking Tradition (to Be in a Native American language) | My Blog says:

    […] America and other continents.  The latter book additionally contained not only a picture of a Menorah […]

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


24 Responses

  1. […] itself has contextual problems as well as the artistic motifs. For example, the candelabra (Menorah) at the top of the medallion has only six branches, the biblical description of the temple Menorah […]

  2. Ivica says:

    In Split, Croatia, about a dozen of carved menorahs can be found on walls of the ancient Roman Diocletian’s Palace, more specific in the eastern wing of the Palace’s substructures or basements. All of those menorahs are five-branched, and with a tripod base, as visible on photo #3 of this slideshow: https://www.wmf.org/slideshow/ancient-rome-today-jews-split-english
    They are dated back to around 7th century AD, but maybe even earlier, as notable Jewish Community existed since the 1st century in nearby Roman city of Salona. Simple version of this story says that in 600s AD Salona was destroyed by nations/tribes coming from today’s Eastern Europe, and that most of its population, including Jews settled within walls of the Palace, today old town Split. Unfortunately, just a few works were written about this, and it’s still not explained enough. Anyone knows more?

  3. Edward J. Morse says:

    One thing I’ve missed is all the posters telling us that the Menorah was a foreshadowing of Jesus and we all need to get right with him if we want to see the divine light…
    🙂

  4. Donna says:

    This just proves you see what you want to see. I don’t see a menorah at all. 5 branches going into 1, 5 branches coming out – could be a plumbing diagram! Irrigation canals, maybe. After all, it was found in a drainage channel. Maybe the builder’s sketch?

  5. urdu says:

    Antonia et al, You represent historians & scientists who categorically view their craft in two dimensions, kind of like a puzzle, but ones with amorphous edges everything can be pieced together at will. If something is similar, it must be borrowed or evolved; history or science will be according to one’s own logic and bias. It cannot be any other way! However, thanks for your insight about other religions who also have something akin to a menorah. My takeaway: It doesn’t mean that the customs of a culture (whether of the pagan or of the faithful) were the prototypes or bastardizations of ones before or after. You provide a “cautionary tale” for theorists everywhere. Caveat! Avoid being like the supposed sponge ancestors of the humanoid race who are multicellular but can’t hold water outside of its environment.

  6. Antonia Dawson says:

    The original imagery the Menorah’ came from was of the ‘tree of life’ which was on stone reliefs situated in early or proto Mesopotamia, and depicted the branches and thus the fruits the three would bring forth…
    It was taken from this maybe several thousands of year BC and somehow was turned into the ‘Menorah’ by peoples who lived and dwelt in these regions and who also stole numerous other ideas and histories and catastrophes and epics etc etc so as to use them in their own ‘history’ which was mostly made up!!!

  7. Jan Puffelen says:

    A menorah is a stylized representation of Asherah in the form of a tree with 5, 7 or 9 branches. Asherah was the consort of El/Jhwh. See my message #18!

  8. thomson says:

    amen o ra

  9. Jan van Puffelen says:

    The first picture with five uneven spaced branches clearly represents a tree. The goddess Asherah consort of El of Canaanite origin was widely worshipped by the Jews as well. Asherah was symbolized by a tree. She was also represented in the Temple. I therefore think that the origin of the menorah was a symbolic representation of Asherah.

  10. Ken Hasekamp says:

    Could this even have been one by a child, thus the five verses seven branches? Sometimes too much emphasis can be placed on a single object, especially when that particular object does not agree with others. NOT all “old things” are valuable on the same level A child’s art project compared to Michelangelo comes to mind. So, interesting, yes! Definitive, no. Love the pursuit, though.

  11. Silverwolf says:

    The true Menorah of Betzalel is gone. If Shishak or Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzar did not have it in their hands and melted it down, then its likely Anitochus lV did as he had to hire mercernaries and that cost money.
    Their were other Menorahs their to light up the Temple, Solomons or Herod. The arch of Titus Menorah was carved by Domitian his younger brother in 82 ad after his brothers death. The artist clearly took symbols common from Temples in Turkey and such and added the serpents and other idolatrous symbols, maybe on Domitians orders to mock the Jews and make it more Romanish.
    The Temple institute has apparently sougght a compromise betwee base and tripod by having a wide base supported by 3 little feet as it were. So who really knows and speculation at this point is wishful thinking no matter who the scholar may be.

  12. Dawn Rutherford says:

    ORDINARY Israelites (MALE ONLY Israelites) were permitted to enter the inner courts.” A rather big difference — say, 50% of the population.

  13. Burr says:

    Carl – more than one temple in Israel’s past, so more than one temple menorah.

  14. Alex says:

    If there’s someone there with a giving heart, Please let me know if you’ve got a spare menorah to give away as I am looking for a Menorah, Thanks and blessings

  15. Tzur says:

    In regard to the Hanukah menorah, it should be clarified (in response to Sue’s question) that there are actually nine candles, one elevated over the others (and usually placed in the middle, but it need not be and can be at one end) and eight lined up at a lower level. The elevated one is the “shamash” candle, which is lit first and used to light the others. The reason for it is that it is forbidden to make ordinary utilitarian use of the actual Hanukah lights, they are dedicated to the one purpose of sacred commemoration, so the shamash candle serves to light the others. Hanukah lasts eight days, and an additional candle is lit each day until there are fully lit candles in each holder. Some families light more than one menorah, and the light from them all really creates a lovely atmosphere in the home. It is common to place them near a window so that they can shine into the darkness.

    Another point is that while candles are commonly used, anciently and still today many use little vials of oil in which a wick floats, instead.

  16. Guy Fortin says:

    to sue… it’s not a menorah but a hanoukiah… it commemorates the miracle of the oil in the Temple under impious greek king Antiochus Epipane IV

  17. Lois says:

    Sue,
    The eight candle menorah has to do with Hanakuh tradition regarding the oil lasting for eight days in the time of the Maccabees revolt.; It is a different menorah than the original described in the Bible. I am always surprised when I go into stores selling these and they don’t even know about the seven lamp menorah.
    Lois

  18. Gigi says:

    Ditto Mark L’s comments.

  19. Anna says:

    love yall

  20. Sue says:

    I am confused. My Jewish friend says that they light eight candles in the menorah at chanukah, one being in front of the others. I have seen fire, nine and seven candle holding menorah but not eight. Sue

  21. Diana Watson says:

    Maybe it is not a Menorah? Maybe it is just a simple candle stand? Not everything is so complicated…

  22. Breaking Tradition (to Be in a Native American language) | My Blog says:

    […] America and other continents.  The latter book additionally contained not only a picture of a Menorah […]

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