Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Temple Menorah - What Did It Really Look Like?







“And six branches shall extend from its sides, three branches of the menorah out of one side, and three branches out of the other side”  Shemot (Exodus) 25:32

Any reader of chapter 25 in the Book of Shemot (Exodus) which is dedicated to the customs associated with the Tabernacle, will quickly notice that much attention is given to the description and the embossing of the fine details and ornaments of the Menorah. Little or rather nothing is said about the shape of its six branches nor its stand or base.  
Why, some may ask, the sudden interest in it?

Actually, it is not sudden. Many, and for a long time, have tried to discern what the Temple Menorah really looked like.

Of course, we are all familiar with the one depicted on Titus’ Arch in Rome, the one that was among the spoils of the Temple which were taken to Rome by the Jewish slaves following the destruction of the Second Temple. Many would also recognize that the emblem of the State of Yisrael, the Jewish Homeland, is fashioned after it.


There are, so it seems, some inconsistencies between what we have been familiar with and the description of this holy Jewish symbol in traditional sources.

One of them is the description of the Menorah given in the Book of Zechariah. It is different than the one that stood in the First Temple. The one in Zechariah has an added feature, a “bowl at the top,” which served as a vessel to hold the oil. -  a detail that is not mentioned in the instructions given to Moses at Mount Sinai.

That, however, is a minor detail which is not given much attention in Jewish writings. The added “bowl,” can probably be attributed to and be the result of a more developed version of the original Menorah, a kind that might have been more widespread during second Temple period.

What I find fascinating about the Menorah, though, relates more to the shape of the branches and its stand. The branches are generally illustrated as semi-circular in shape, as we can see on Titus’ Arch.
Archaeological evidence, as in many other incidences, helps us shed light on this issue. A Jewish coin, for instance, minted in 40 BCE shows the Menorah as having curved branches thus lending support to the suggestion that the Menorah had indeed semi – rounded branches.

Another archaeological revelation which renewed interest in the shape of the Temple Menorah was the subject of a Press Release by the Yisrael Antiquities Authority in August 2011. It announced the discovery of “an engraving of the Temple Menorah on a stone object” (which I personally saw) in a two millennia old drainage tunnel near the City of David.



The Authority’s release went on to suggest that “a passerby who saw the Temple Menorah with his own eyes….incised his impressions on a stone.” The drawing, albeit a crude one, clearly shows that the branches are more straight than circular (the depiction of the base proves that the passerby could have drawn curved lines had he witnessed the Menorah as having rounded arms or branches).

Some Jewish sources provide other insights into the question of the shape of the Menorah’s branches. Rashi, for instance, suggests in one of his commentaries on the Torah that the branches of the Menorah “extended upward in a diagonal.…” fashion rather than in a curved, rounded one. The Rambam, like Rashi, though he never makes any definitive statement concerning the branches, shares his view on it. In his commentaries on the Mishneh Torah and Mishnah, he adds drawings which leave no room for doubt. In them, he depicts the branches as extending diagonally and in straight lines.  



Rabbeinu Avraham, the son of Maimonides, states: “The six branches... extended upward from the center shaft of the menorah in a straight line, as depicted by my father, and not in a semi-circle as depicted by others.”
A Depiction of the Menorah Based on the Drawings of the RambamAs in the case of the engraving found in the City of David and judging by the fact that the curvature of the base is drawn so precisely, most likely with the aid of a compass, it is apparent that the artist could just have easily drawn curved branches had he so desired.
The base of the original Temple Menorah has also been a subject of controversy for many years. The one carved on Titus’ Arch is very different from the one found in the City of David. It also differs from the drawings attributed to the Rambam. The excavators of the City of David were quoted as saying that the graffito found in there “clarifies [that] the base of the original [ancient] menorah … was apparently tripod shaped.”
The unique, two-tiered, broad, solid and hexagonal Menorah base depicted on Titus’ Arch, has led many to believe that it is nothing like the Menorah would have looked like for two reasons. The first pertains to the fact that the Greeks discovered all polygons much later, during the Pythagorean era. Though, early Egyptians and ancient Chinese developed such geometry, it was mostly used for navigational purposes.

The second, and a more germane reason, relates to Jewish law. Archeologists concluded that some of the panels of the Menorah carved on the Arch (though partially eroded), display creatures such as eagles, sea serpents, dragons and other heathen images which Jews would not have allowed to be present at the Temple.

Experts agree that there is no reason to question the authenticity of the depiction in Titus’ Arch. Its details and its size reflect the sculpture’s close familiarity with the Temple vessels as described in the Tanach and various other Jewish sources.

The question, however, remains, how can the disparity between the two representations of the Menorah base be compromised?

There is no doubt that the Menorah as we see it on the Arch bears a strong Roman influence. The eagles are a well-known symbol of Roman sovereignty. Dragons were a prevalent ornamental motif in Roman art. A similar base albeit with more pagan images, was excavated in Didymus, Turkey where there once stood a Roman temple.

These clues have led scholars to the almost unavoidable conclusion that the disposition towards Roman art coupled with Jewish prohibition of pagan images could be ascribed to one person, Herod, who throughout his appointment as “King of Judea” tried to impose Hellenistic traditional concepts and values upon his oppressed Jewish subjects.

If that was indeed the case, it is safe to assume then that the Menorah plundered from the Temple was not the one that the Maccabees had intended it to be following their rebellion, a symbol of religious freedom. Rather, it was another attempt to suppress it. This might also be the reason why the Menorah was not present on Jewish coins commemorating the Jewish rebellion in 69-70 and 135. Other symbols from the Temple were used in its place.

Regardless of the changes and the origin of some of the details of the Menorah, it has become a symbol of Jewish religious freedom and political sovereignty and Jewish pride for the Eternal Jewish Homeland in Eretz Yisrael.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Magic of Hebrew




The Hebrew language... is the only glue which holds together our scattered bones. It also holds together the rings in the chain of time.... It binds us to those who built pyramids, to those who shed their blood on the ramparts of Jerusalem, and to those who, at the burning stakes, cried Shema Yisrael!”


I love languages. I speak six and teach three.  These factors, I believe, have provided me with a rather fair and objective way to study and evaluate the wisdom of languages. Furthermore, it has given me a tool to better understand and more greatly appreciate my own as the wise words of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe lucidly articulated it: “He who knows no foreign language does not know his own.”

Of course, everyone should love their own language first. I do. I love Hebrew, the few millennia old language of the Jewish People. I love it not merely because it is my language and the language of my People that connects our Jewish past, present and future as Y.L. Peretz suggested in the quote above. I love it because, I found that of all the languages that I know and teach, Hebrew is, by far, one of the most cogent and sensible.

And before anyone accuses me of being “an elitist” or being “biased,” please allow me to explain.

Hebrew, one of the most ancient languages in the history of mankind, is based on the root structure. What this means is that every word consists of basic three letters (sometimes four). These three letters are called Shoresh (root).

Just like the root of a tree that spawns a stem and branches, so does the root of a Hebrew word produce and create words (I understand that Latin is another language, albeit classical, that utilizes root etymology). Similarly, just as a root of a tree forms branches that are linked to it and resemble each other, so does the root of  Hebrew words help form words that, in most cases, share a similar meaning and are hence related.

Let me expound on this unique attribute of Hebrew with a few examples.

Zachor  זכור, which means remember, is a word almost every Jewish person is familiar with. Remember is not only a word, it is a central tenet in our Jewish culture, one that is an integral part of the DNA of the Jewish People, past and present
The three-letter root of  the word זכור is:   ז כ ר

A brief look at the list below will reveal that these three letters appear in all of them. Hence it is their root. Ensuing the logic that I tried to render above will help us see how these words are related.

זכרון,  zikaron: memory
 מזכרת, mazkeret: souvenir
 זכר zachar: remember
 זכר zecher: remnant
זכר  zacahar: male
מזכירה mazkira: secretary

To any non-Hebrew speaker, in this case, English speakers, some of these words would seem unrelated. And this is where the magic of Hebrew comes into play. Ensuing the logic that I tried to render above will help us see how these words are related. The simple fact that they all share the same Shoresh implies that they are related in their meaning, as I suggested above.

We can all agree that the English words: memory, remember, souvenir (which is supposed to remind us of places and people) remnant (which refers to that leftover that is supposed to remind us of something or someone) are related.

However, what do “male” and “secretary” have to do with memory, or remember, you may ask.

Let us start with the easy part. A secretary shares the same root of זכר  because he/she are expected to remember and remind their bosses of their schedule and other important issues.

There are, though, two possible explanations as to why the word “male” shares the same shoresh with “memory.” The first is found in the Reuveni essay which compiles a collection of Midrashim (the sages’ interpretation of Jewish Holy Scriptures). There, we are told that G-d names man “male” so that he can remember His Creator and his Commandments, for that is what man was created for.

The second explanation can be discerned through comparing semitic cultures.
In those cultures, the male was the provider, the one who inherited the family assets, whose name was passed on to posterity. That is how he was going to be remembered
 
No wonder then that Hebrew is also called לשון הקודש” (Leshon Hakodesh, the Holy language). קודש (Kodesh) is derived from the shoresh  ק ד ש which means to dedicate, to sanctify. It is the language of Am Yisrael and the Jewish People, עם קדוש (Am Kadosh, Holy nation) the ones who G-d sanctified and dedicated to Himself.

Am Yisrael Chai