Introducing the Menorah

On Chanukah, everyone strives to light the lamps, one way or another, in a Menorah. Even in the darkest moments of Jewish history and in the most adverse conditions, Jews would procure even the smallest of makeshift menorahs that would shed a little light, not only on past events, but also on the strength of Jewish commitment in our days.
Clay Menorah How many know, however, to distinguish between the menorah used on Chanukah and the ancient Temple menorah? There are differences: The Chanukah Menorah - known as Chanukiyah in Hebrew- is the candelabrum designed to hold the lights of Chanukah. It is similar to the ancient menorah that stood high in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and that became one of the earliest symbols of the Jewish people. But it differs both in structure and function.

The Menorah in the Bible

The Menorah is described in detail in the Bible (Exodus 25:31-37) and was considered by some as the physical representation of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. It had seven branches, each one, it is said, standing for another day of Creation.

The Menorah was a central feature of the Temple, and its lights served as a source of light from evening till morning. Its central light was never allowed to burn out, this being the source of the term Ner Tamid (or "Eternal Light") found in synagogues today. Legend recalls that the light of the Temple menorah overflowed beyond the confines of the sanctuary and lit up every household in Jerusalem.

The Temple Menorah burned pure, beaten, olive oil that was produced in olive presses supervised by the priests or their representatives. The oil was "packaged" in containers sealed with the mark of the High Priest to distinguish it from ordinary oil.

This is what the priests were searching for after the Temple was purified, following the victory over the Syrian Greeks. Among all the rubble, they actually found one closed and sealed jug which contained enough oil for one day...

The Chanukiyah


When Judah the Maccabee decreed an eight day holiday to commemorate the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of the oil, the people began to light the eight lights of the festival. It soon became obvious that it was easier to light a single lamp with eight wicks than eight, separate, clay oil lamps. Thus the Chanukah menorah was born.

The major difference between the Temple Menorah and the Chanukiyah is obviously the number of branches. While the Temple Menorah had seven, the Chanukiyah has eight. Commonly, there is also the addition of a ninth lamp called the shammash (or "helper") which is used to light the lamps each night (since it is forbidden to make use of the Chanukah lights themselves).

Why not a Seven Branched Menorah?

But why not use a seven-branched menorah on Chanukah if it symbolizes a miracle associated with the ancient Temple Menorah?

The answers given are based on different sources for the celebration of the festival of Chanukah, and include:

*The lights of the Temple Menorah lasted for eight days after the purification of the Temple (Shabbat, 21b). The festival was declared for eight days and each branch of the chanukiyah represents another day.

*The Maccabees found eight iron pipes in the Temple which they then erected, filled with oil, and kindled (Midrash: Pesikta Rabbah 2:5).

*After the destruction of the Second Temple, a prohibition was placed on making replicas of the seven branched Temple Menorah (see Rosh Hashanah 24a, Avoda Zara 43a). The lighting of eight lights thus enabled the dedication of the Menorah to be celebrated without transgressing this prohibition (after R. Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, 1921-35).

Whatever reasons given for lighting the eight-branched menorah on Chanukah, one thing is certain: the lights of the chanukiyah will continue to inspire generations to come with lessons of bravery, devotion and the power of belief in ancient Jewish traditions.