Until recently, people assumed that using a special menorah to kindle the Chanukah lights was a relatively new convention. The conventional wisdom was that in earlier times Chanukah menorahs never existed. People would use whatever was on hand to set up a row of lights, be it an arrangement of wicks around a plate (covered by another plate) as the Gemora describes, or a row of small lamps. After all, about the most ancient menorah ever found was carved out of one piece of solid marble in Avignon, southeastern France, during the twelfth or thirteenth century, engraved with the verse from Mishlei (6:23), “For a mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light.”
Two Record Holders
Not long ago, this concept of the relative recentness of menorahs was shattered when workers excavating in Yerushalayim unearthed an ancient pottery menorah, which set a new world record for menorahs. It was acquisitioned by the “The Living Torah Museum” of Boro Park whose director kindly sent Yated the following letter confi rming the authenticity of this unique artifact:
“The Living Torah Museum located in the heart of Boro Park, Brooklyn, has in its collection the oldest Chanukah menorah ever excavated.
“The Menorah was examined by Dr. Mayer Ben-Dov, the former director of the Temple Mount Excavations (The area around the Kosel.). He wrote a letter of certification on this oil lamp, which reads:
“’It is undoubtedly the earliest Chanukah lamp extant. It is also possibly the oldest Jewish ceremonial object to have been discovered to date.’
“The oil lamp has a central hole to fill the oil and all the nozzles would be filled with oil and would draw out oil from the central well of oil. There are nine nozzles for wicks: eight for Chanukah and one for the Shamish.
“This menorah is on display for public viewing…”
In an interview afterwards, he added that this priceless menorah (estimates of its value reach $1,000,000) has been scientifically verified as dating from about a mere sixty years after the Chanukah story, and about ninety years before the Churban.
While on the subject of record-setting menorahs, it would be a pity not to mention that the most ancient depiction of the Bais Hamikdosh menorah was also discovered recently. This happened in September last year when the Ark New Gate Company was planning to build a new hotel at Migdal Beach on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. According to Israeli law, the Israel Antiquities Authority has the right to inspect any proposed building site in order to save priceless archeological treasures from being bulldozed into oblivion. In this instance, the government’s caution was certainly justified, because beneath the site’s earth and rocks was unearthed one of the few shuls of Bais Hamikdosh times ever discovered.
What is more, standing in the middle of the shul was a stone engraved with the oldest depiction of the menorah ever found. As Israel’s Ministry of Tourism reported at the time:
“A unique synagogue, dating from the Second Temple period (50 BCE-100 CE), has been exposed in archaeological excavations at Migdal, near the Sea of Galilee. A synagogue from the Second Temple period (50 BCE-100 CE) was exposed in archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is conducting at a site slated for the construction of a hotel on Migdal beach. In the middle of the synagogue is a stone that is engraved with a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the likes of which have never before been seen.
“The main hall of the synagogue is c. 120 square meters in area and its stone benches, which served as seats for the worshippers, were built up against the walls of the hall. Its floor was made of mosaic and its walls were treated with colored plaster (frescos). A square stone, the top and four sides of which are adorned with reliefs, was discovered in the hall. The stone is engraved with a seven-branched menorah set atop a pedestal with a triangular base, which is flanked on either side by an amphora (jars).
“According to the excavation director, Dina Avshalom-Gorni of the IAA, ‘We are dealing with an exciting and unique find. This is the first time that a menorah decoration has been discovered from the days when the Second Temple was still standing. This is the first menorah to be discovered in a Jewish context and that dates to the Second Temple period/beginning of the Early Roman period. We can assume that the engraving that appears on the stone, which the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered, was done by an artist who saw the seven branched menorah with his own eyes in the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue that was uncovered joins just six other synagogues in the world that are known to date to the Second Temple period.’
“…The synagogue is located in Migdal (‘Magdala’ in Aramaic), which is mentioned in Jewish sources. Migdal played an important role during the Great Revolt and was actually the main base of Yosef Ben Matisyahu (Josephus Flavius), commander of the rebellion in the Galilee. Migdal also continued to resist the Romans after both the Galilee and Tiberias had surrendered… At the end of the Second Temple period Migdal was an administrative center of the western basin of the Sea of Galilee. Until the founding of Tiberias in the year 19 CE, Migdal was the only important settlement along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.”
Interestingly, this ancient engraving depicted the menorah as having curved branches, similar to the depiction of the menorah on Titus’ Arch and Chashmonaim coins, and not straight branches as found in an illustration in the Rambam’s commentary to Menochos. Of course, no definitive halachah can be deduced from an ancient engraving.
Another halachic issue takes us back to the subject of Chanukah menorahs. Many old menorahs from the Middle East are decorated not only with secular Arab motifs but even with the star and crescent symbol of Islam. As private collector Bill Gross of Tel Aviv writes of one such piece in his collection:
“This rather large Chanukah menorah is entirely in the shape of the star and crescent, a normal symbol on the Jewish art of Algeria. But to have the symbol as the main body of the entire object is unusual, as is the circular placement of the holders for the burner cups. The use of a quintessentially Islamic symbol, perhaps THE Islamic symbol, is found on Jewish pieces in Algeria, in the Ottoman Empire and in Iraq.”
This strange practice of using the star and crescent for ornamentation raises three halachic questions: First, is it permitted for Jews to use an Islamic religious symbol for ornamentation, second, what about the prohibition against producing images of heavenly objects such as the sun, moon, and stars, and third, aren’t the candles supposed to be arranged in a straight line?
Despite its present religious significance, it can be argued that unlike the cross, which represents an idolatrous faith, the star and crescent represent a religion generally opined to be non-idolatrous and no prohibition would be involved in incorporating it into an ornamental design.
Regarding using the shapes of heavenly bodies in ornamentation, although Rav Moshe Feinstein rules (O.C. 5:9) that the prohibition of depicting heavenly bodies only applies when they are a good representation, and Star-K apparently relies on this logic to sanction the printing of its star shaped logo, it would seem that the crescent is too good a representation of the moon to be included in Rav Moshe’s rationale.
As for the third problem of not having the lights in a straight line, it is worth reading the Mishneh Berurah (671:16, citing the Chayei Adam) that a circular menorah is not disqualifi ed so long as there is a partition between the lights and a finger-breadth between them. The Chayei Adam himself adds (154:10) that people customarily lit in the old time lamps used in Europe that consisted of a circle of oil holders, adding, however, that it is not a hidur mitzvah to light in a circle.
Outside Eretz Yisroel, it is not always obvious what kind of menorah one is talking about, as the menorah of both the Bais Hamikdosh and Chanukah share the same name – menorah. To solve this problem, at the end of the nineteenth century, Eliezer ben Yehuda, remembered for better or worse as the father of modern Hebrew, coined a distinctive name for the Chanukah artifact, calling it a chanukiyah, a name that has caught on in almost every sector of Israeli society.
His wife deliberately introduced the new word into an article in the “Hatzvi” newspaper, writing, “We rejoiced, played music, and sang, in memory of this chag, and a chanukiyah of shining gold was hanging in the middle of the big, high salon, and with it we lit five candles.”
Not everyone was delighted. In an article complaining that modern Hebraists were butchering the Hebrew tongue in their efforts to modernize it, one of Ben Yehuda’s contemporaries mentioned the newly coined word chanukiyah as a classic example of this trend:
“Our brothers in Eretz Yisroel… are generally unfamiliar with the ways of the language and its development. Therefore, they are incapable of sorting the wheat from the chaff and swallow all kinds of distortions and all sorts of words ladled to them by our innovators. Today they tell them that a menorah of eight candles is called a chanukiyah and they’ll swallow it (even though the menorah has no link to the root chinuch, and you could give the same name to the top kids play on Chanukah), tomorrow tell them that the three cornered cookie eaten on Purim is a Purimiah, and the day after that tell them that the milk and cheese delicacies of Shavuos are Shavutiyot… They’ll soak it all up like a sponge without any complaints, either due to their involvement with physical labor, or out of ignorance.”
The literary critic then made a prediction, which to a large extent has come true:
“If it actually happens that in the fullness of time this reprehensible, confused, and clumsy language is accepted and becomes a living language of our brothers in the Holy Land, I am very doubtful whether people knowledgeable of the language or who have taste will rejoice over this ‘revival’ or be grateful to its proponents for the favor they are doing our language.”
Although history has proved his prediction correct, few people in modern Israel know enough Hebrew etymology to know the difference and anyway, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “That which we call a menorah, by any other name would be as bright.”