The Menorah in Ancient Judaism by Sean Burrus

In the ancient world, the menorah was the most widely used symbol of Judaism but was initially a sacred vessel in the Israelite period.

At the most basic level, the menorah was a lampstand with seven branches, each of which held aloft an oil lamp. As a ritual object, the menorah dates back to Israelite times where it was one of the most important cultic vessels alongside ark of the covenant, the showbread table, and incense altar. Its golden form and elaborate floral decoration is first described in the lengthy account of the wilderness tabernacle in Exodus (esp. Exod 25, Exod 37). When the Jerusalem temple was built, the menorah became an important fixture there too.

Following the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., the continued use of the menorah in synagogues is confirmed by accounts in rabbinic literature as well as by archaeological discoveries.  Several freestanding menorahs in synagogues from the land of Israel date from the 3rd century C.E. or later. Depictions of the menorah in many mosaics and frescoes from late antiquity (3rd-5th centuries C.E.) suggest that the menorah had a prominent place in the synagogue, as in the tabernacle and temple before.

On a functional level, the menorah provided light for the ritual and liturgical activities. Ancient authors most commonly explained the cultic significance of the menorah in terms of the light it provided. The prophet Zechariah offered a Persian period (6th-4th century B.C.E.) interpretation of the menorah as “the eyes of the Lord” (Zech 4:10), while Philo and Josephus, in the Roman period, connected the lamps of the menorah to the heavenly lights and celestial bodies.

Prior to the late-Roman period (3rd-4th centuries C.E.) and while the temple still stood, the menorah only appeared occasionally as a symbol or motif. Early occurrences include depictions on Hasmonean coins, on clay lamps, and in burials on ossuaries and as graffiti. In this early period however, the menorah does not seem to have been used with any special prevalence as a symbol or marker of Jewish identity; other motifs and ritual objects, such as the facade of the temple or the showbread table, appear at least as often.

In the third century C.E., the menorah’s popularity dramatically overtakes other motifs in Jewish art and iconography in an astonishingly wide variety of contexts. Depictions of menorahs are found on objects used from daily life such as bread stamps and lamps, and on ritual objects like incense shovels. We see menorahs in synagogues in architectural reliefs (as at Magdala), on mosaic floors, and in Jewish burials, where menorahs were painted, carved or incised on walls and tomb seals, on grave goods and sarcophagi.

The popularity of the menorah is best explained as the result of several factors. First, the menorah was a prominent sacred vessel in both the temple cult and in ancient synagogues. Used symbollicaly, it provided a link to central Jewish institutions. Furthermore, the menorah was easily the most distinct and recognizably “Jewish” object in antiquity. The Jewish god was imageless, and other ritual objects like offering tables and incense shovels were similar or the same as those used in pagan cults. The menorah had the advantage of being simple in form, easy to depict, and unique to the Jewish religion.

Another possible factor was the influence of Christianity. There is little doubt that the growth of Christianity and the proliferation of the cross as a symbol of Christian identity played a role in elevating the menorah as a visual Jewish symbol. Like the menorah, the cross was used symbolically in a wide range of private and public contexts to mark objects, individuals and spaces as Christian. It is important to point out however, that use of the menorah as a Jewish symbol predated the Christianization of the Roman empire by at least a century.

Sean Burrus , "Menorah in Ancient Judaism", n.p. [cited 21 Oct 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/places/related-articles/menorah-in-ancient-judaism

Contributors

Sean Burrus

Sean Burrus
Ph.D. in candidate, Duke University

Sean Burrus is a Ph.D. candidate in Jewish History at Duke University, where he researches Jewish visual culture in antiquity. Sean specializes in the role of material culture in the production of religious identities and is an archaeologist with over seven seasons of excavating, photographing, and supervising in the field at the sites of Yotvata, Ashekelon, and Sepphoris.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

The seven-armed candelabrum that stood in the Jerusalem temple; the rekindling of the menorah when the Maccabees rededicated the temple is celebrated during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Painting, usually murals, created in wet plaster.

Unauthorized writings or pictures drawn onto a wall or other public place.

Relating to the dynasty established by Simon Maccabeus that ruled Israel independently from 140-37 B.C.E.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A designation describing a set of practices centred on the worship of YHWH, which developed out of the ancient Israelite religion in the late Second Temple period.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

Artwork composed of small pieces of material—glass, stone, pottery—arranged in patterns or depicting persons and scenes.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

Boxes used for the burial of human bones, often made of limestone or clay.

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Exod 25

Offerings for the Tabernacle
1The Lord said to Moses:2Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receiv ... View more

Exod 37

Making the Ark of the Covenant
1Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood; it was two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.2He ... View more

Zech 4:10

10For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel.
“These seven are the eyes of the Lord, wh ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.