Even Moshe found it impossible to conceive the menorah’s complexity until Hashem showed him a menorah of fire. So it is not surprising that certain aspects of the menorah remain shrouded in mystery, including even its basic shape.
The First Mystery
While Rashi writes that its branches came out on both sides “diagonally, continuing upwards until equal to the height of the menorah,” it is unclear whether “diagonal” means straight or curved. Rav Avrohom, son of the Rambam, adamantly supports the first option, writing, “The six branches… extended upwards from the central shaft of the menorah in a straight line as depicted by my father, and not in a semi-circle as depicted by others.”
He is referring to illustrations the Rambam drew in Yad Hachazaka and Peirush Hamishnayos, which were omitted in later manuscripts and rediscovered during the nineteenth century.
One such drawing appears in a manuscript the Rambam wrote himself. The “others” mentioned by Rav Avrohom include the Ibn Ezra who writes (Shemos 25:37), “The six are arranged one after another in a half circle.”
Almost every image of the menorah from the times of the second Temple and shortly afterwards, depicts it as having curved branches. This includes the oldest surviving image of the menorah that appears on a coin minted by Antigonus Mattathias, the last Maccabian king, who ruled 3721-24/40-37 BCE. Emphasizing that he was both king and Kohein Gadol, one side of the coin is stamped with the Greek inscription “of King Antigonus,” and the other with the Hebrew words “Mattisyahu Hakohein Hagadol, chaver haYehudim.”
This first depiction of the menorah is doubly instructive. First, like almost all images of the menorah from those times, it depicts it with rounded branches in accordance with the opinion of the Ibn Ezra. Secondly, it is supported on legs in accordance with Shmuel (Menachos 28b) who says the menorah stood on legs, and with Rashi and other Rishonim who said it stood on three legs.
After the Churban, Chazal (Vayikra Raba 22:3, Kohelles Rabah 5) tell us that the Romans transported the menorah, the table, and other Temple vessels to Rome, and Josephus (Wars) adds that the menorah was kept in Vespasian’s Temple of Peace (Josephus). This is the last clear record of it that exists. It may well have been destroyed when the Temple of Peace burnt down in 3951/191.
According to some seforim the Romans captured substitute menorahs, but the genuine Menorah was hidden with the other vessels of the Bais Hamidash. In fact, the Chiddushei Harim and S’fas Emes write that the Menorah is still burning miraculously in our day. Only eleven years after the Churban in 3841/81, Roman artisans carved a scene of Rome’s triumphal parade after the capture of Yerushalayim. Prominently figuring in the scene is the menorah borne on the shoulders of captive Hebrews. This menorah has two aberrations. First, instead of three legs, it has a massive six sided base; secondly, carvings on the base are very similar to carvings of the idolatrous Roman Temple of Didyma in southern Turkey.
Consequently, when the State of Israel adopted the Titus Arch’s menorah as part of its state seal in 5708/1948, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog penned a painful protest:
“Our government is doing something today that is not good…by imitating specifically the menorah in Titus’ arch, which seems influenced by foreign hands and whose details are not completely pure…Furthermore, an archeologist testified to me that all the menorahs drawn on the graves in the Roman catacombs have three legs, and so [too] all the menorahs illustrated in mosaics in the ruins of shuls in Eretz Yisroel. In my opinion, this is absolutely clear.”
Unfortunately, the government paid little heed to his plea.
The Second Mystery
A second mystery involves the ten extra menorahs Shlomo added to his Bais Hamikdash (Melachim 7: 49), five to the right of Moshe’s Menorah and five to the left. The problem is: why did this not contravene the prohibition of Bal Tosif, to not add on to the Torah’s commands?
You might answer that all Shlomo’s alterations were through prophecy, since Dovid had said to Shlomo when he gave him the Temple plans (Divrei Hayamim 28:19), “All this [I give you] in writing, as Hashem made me wise through His hand upon me, all the work of the plan.” However, this doesn’t seem to cover all the bases, since even prophecy cannot abrogate Torah mitzvos on a long term basis. Rashi (Menachos) seems bothered by this question, writing that even according to the opinion that Shlomo lighted all his menorahs, he never lit them simultaneously but only one at a time. This does not explain why it was not Bal Tosif to construct more menorahs than the Torah commands even without lighting them. Also, in contrast to Rashi, the Yalkut (Melachim I remez 185) writes that Shlomo’s seventy menorahs were lit simultaneously in order to subjugate the seventy nations, and that the ceasing of their lighting led to the Churban.
So the question remains – upon what basis was it permitted to construct and light more than the one menorah mandated by the Torah?
The Third Mystery
How come many old menorahs are not straight but round? Shouldn’t they be straight like the original menorah of the Bais Hamikdash?
For many centuries, the original menorah’s shape had minimal influence on the Chanukah lights. People did not necessarily have special menorahs at all, but might have used regular oil lamps for the purpose, being careful to keep each flame separate. As a reflection of this norm, until recently Jews in east Iran and Afghanistan commonly placed separate lamps of glazed earthenware or metal for Chanukah, raising the shamash higher on a piece of wood.
Chanukah menorahs were not necessarily straight. Similar to the Gemara’s discussion about arranging wicks around a plate and covering it with another plate (Shabbos 23b), Jews in Persia and Yemen used round or star shaped stone vessels that had separate compartments for each wick. These served Jews and non-Jews the whole year round. Jews in Europe used star shaped metal lamps that were common in Europe until the sixteenth century when candles became cheap and plentiful. From then on, only Jews continued using them for Shabbos or Chanukah and they became known as the Judenstern (Jewish stars).
The Rama is referring to round lamps like these when he writes (Orach Chaim 671:4), “One must be careful to set up the lights in a straight row and not in a circle, which would be like a fire… and one is allowed to light in pemutos called lamps, because each light is widely separate from the next.”
Surprisingly, there is even an opinion that the menorah of the Bais Hamikdash was circular. As the Sifri Zuta (page 225) writes: “How do we know that they [the lights] follow one after the other like a crown? The verse says (Bamidbar 8:2), ‘The seven lights shall burn.’”
Commenting on this, the Magen Avrohom (in his sefer Zayis Raanan) writes: “The wording implies that he holds that the middle branch was in the middle, and the six branches surrounded it like a crown. Thus it says ya’iru, each one shining towards the middle one equally… However, in Menachos (28b), it seems that all agree that they stood in a row. Therefore one must say that when it says ‘like a crown,’ it means that the branches themselves were round like a crown. However, this [interpretation of the Sifri Zuta] is forced.”
Menorahs may have become more similar to the original menorah due to the custom of lighting in shul. Many eighteenth century Polish shuls began making menorahs that were similar in shape and height to that of the Bais Hamikdash, and this eventually led to private people making similar menorahs, albeit on a smaller scale.
The Fourth Mystery
Unlike our menorahs that generally have room for eight Chanukah lights and one shamash, a number of old menorahs have room for two extra lights. These are generally in the form of two candleholders, one on each side of the menorah. But why would a Jew want two shamashes on his menorah? The simplest explanation is that only one was used as a shamash. The reason there were two, there were two was that the menorah also served as a Shabbos lamp the rest of the year. In fact, one unique Ukranian menorah dating from the nineteenth c19th Century has not two, but four candle holders, obviously meant for regular Shabbos use.
The Minhagei Yisroel offers a more complicated answer. First, he points out that although the Gemara in Shabbos (22a) says the function of the extra candle is to provide light (“One needs another candle to use its light”) the Rishonim also speak of using a special shamash to light the Chanukah lamps. Based on this, he claims that according to the Tur (O.H. 673), the “extra candle” and the shamash are two separate candles. He bases this on the fact that after discussing the “extra candle” that provides light, the Tur should be use it to concludes, “a person should have another But it is not called the shamash, because the shamash is the one with which one lights the candles.” This suggests that the candle providing light and the shamash candle are two separate entities , and might ay explain why some menorahs had two extra candleholders. One was for the “extra candle” and the other for the shamash. One was for light, the
However, the commentaries on the Tur do not concur with this strange interpretation. Also, this strange chiddush would not explain why the Ukrainian menorah has four candle holders. other for lighting.
So let’s stick with the simple answer that they were meant for Shabbos use. May all questions soon be answered with the speedy geulah of Klal Yisroel.
(Partial source: Sperber, Daniel. Minhagei Yisrael. Mossad HaRav Kook: Yerushalayim, 5749.)