Adapted by Rabbi Israel Rubin from a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likutei Sichos, Vol. XXI, Terumah)

Popular Jewish Symbol rebbe gray

Long after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the loss of its holy vessels, the Menorah continues to live on in our minds and hearts. Throughout the centuries, the Menorah has been the most common Jewish symbol. Long after its flames were extinguished by the ruthless Roman legions who took it captive two millennia ago, the Menorah persistently appears everywhere as a Jewish logo and motif.

Archaeologists have discovered the Menorah shape embedded in ancient mosaic tiled floors in northern Israel, and in the decoration of pottery, jewelry and artifacts. Menorah engravings have been found in old Jewish catacombs and on tombstones in the Middle East and Europe.

Even today, the Menorah prominently adorns the doors, walls, and building facades, stationary and letterheads of synagogues, organizations and institutions.

In terms of its popularity, the Menorah certainly overshadows the Temple Altar, the Showbread Table and the Laver, and even the image of the most sanctified Ark and its cherubic figures.

And while our Chanukah Menorah features eight candles commemorating the eight day miracle, it recalls the original seven-branched golden Menorah of the Temple, where the miracle occurred.

The Sign of the Menorah

The original Menorah in the Temple was not a common candelabra. The Menorah was much more than a utilitarian source of light to illuminate the dark interior of the Temple Hall.

Indeed, we find that the Torah  rambam menorah instructs and insists that all of the Menorah candles should face inward to its center, which is contrary to the practical method of diffusing light in as wide an area as possible.

This shows us that the Menorah's unique structure served more for spiritual than for physical light. It is a symbol of the special relationship between G‑d and Israel.

As expressed by the Prophet Zecharia upon seeing a Heavenly Menorah vision: "Behold! These flames represent the House of Israel."

Meaning of the Menorah

The Menorah expresses Israel's yearning to rise upward and serve as a beacon to the world. It demonstrates our commitment to uphold the Divine Light and Wisdom of Torah above all else.

Graphically, the Menorah's form mimics a tree growing upward, starting with the single trunk on the bottom that branches out into different directions. The Menorah also reflects the diversity of the Jewish people. Personally, we, too, branch out into different modes within the Torah framework, while deep down, we are all one and the same.

Recently Discovered Manuscript

While the Menorah branches are commonly depicted in a semi-circular shape of a rounded arch, a recently discovered source shows otherwise.

The great Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, 1135-1204) had originally written his Mishna commentary in the Arabic Language, which was later translated into a standard Hebrew edition studied by Jews for the last 800 years. Recently, an improved Edition (Kapach) of Maimonides' magnum opus, the Mishne Torah, has been published on the basis of newly found documents. These include an original manuscript in Maimonides' own handwriting on the Mishna Menachot 3:7, which is highlighted by a diagram of a Menorah that was personally drawn by Maimonides. This unusual illustration depicts the Menorah's seven branches in straight diagonal lines!


The importance of these diagonal lines in Maimonides' illustration have been further confirmed by his son, Rabbi Abraham ben Moshe, who attests to the specific details in his illustrious father's drawing.

The renowned Rashi (1040-1105) commentary also states clearly: "The Menorah branches descend diagonally to the center." (It should be noted that this 12th century Maimonidian manuscript had not been available to the earlier Talmudic commentators.)

Arch of Titus

The mistaken curved branched Menorah image may be traced to a scene on the Arch of Titus in Rome. Titus was the Roman general who had conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the second Temple, killing and exiling millions of Jews. The impressive Arch was constructed to honor Titus on his conquest during his triumphal return to Rome. (Historically, during the Middle Ages, this infamous Arch was a sore point of humiliation to Jews who lived in the Roman ghetto). Depicting scenes of the Roman victory over   Judea, the engraving shows captives carrying the spoils of war, including a curved branched menorah.

The Roman artist's fanciful rendering and stylistic changes are no proof of accuracy. His model could have been one of the other additional candelabras stationed outside in the Temple courtyard, rather than the one and only Menorah inside that was originally fashioned by Moses with Divine direction and assistance.

It is certainly proper that we follow the depiction of the Menorah according to our Torah sages, rather than the non-Jewish Arch of Titus designer.

Upside Down?

If we take a little closer look at Maimonides' illustration, we will also note that the three cups on each branch of the Menorah appear to be inverted. Instead of standing in a normal upright position, the cups face downward! What can be the significance of these upended cups that seem to be spilling out their contents?

Low and Behold!

This downward orientation of the Menorah may be better understood against the general background of the Temple as a whole. It certainly seems strange that we humans should build a physical Temple to serve as a "Dwelling place" for the A-lmighty on high. The Temple, however, is built on the principle of Divine Descent from the highest Heavens to the very lowest. "G‑d desired a dwelling place here below"(Zohar), where spirituality is most urgently needed. Accordingly, the Menorah's 21 upended cups that seem to run over suggest a flow of holiness, spiritual light and energy from above to below.

Dual Direction

The Menorah has within it a dual symbolism, which goes both ways. The branches express our yearning to rise higher, as static pillars that support and carry the Divine Light aloft. And vice versa, for what goes up also comes down. The Menorah's branches also represent a conduit that channels G‑d's blessings and spiritual energies from above to below.

This direction may also explain the diagonal shape of the branches. Rather than go through a roundabout route, the diagonal Menorah directs the spiritual flow in the straightest line between the two points.

There is a similar misconception regarding the Ten Commandments, which are usually depicted as chapel-like with rounded tops.

Actually, however, the Tablets were squared off on top. The Talmud (Bava Bathra) details their exact measurement as they fit inside the rectangular Ark.

above - Diagram of the Menorah as drawn by Maimonides himself.