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The Temple Menorah: Where Did It Go? What Did It Look Like?

Mitchell Abidor
December 7, 2017

Discussed in this essay: The Menorah by Steven Fine. Harvard University press, 279, pages, 2016

THE MENORAH IS, among the three great monotheistic religions, the symbol with the longest pedigree. It goes back, Steven Fine tells us in his engaging and informative study The Menorah, three thousand years, far beyond the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent. Focusing on the seven-branched menorah of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, shown on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrates the defeat of the Judeans and depicts the booty from the Second Temple brought to Rome, Fine presents us with a fascinating tale that covers the fields of classical history, cultural history, political history, religious history, and folk history. As he writes, the story of the confiscated menorah, whose symbolic presence has been a key element of the Jewish imagination, is also a “story of discontinuity, of cultural twists and turns of profound significance — under the cover of continuity.”

He draws a distinction between the menorah and the Star of David, “a new symbol developed in recent centuries . . . The menorah, by contrast represents Jewish tradition itself.”

The Temple menorah appeared on Jewish artifacts centuries before its disappearance from Jerusalem and its reappearance on the triumphal arch. Fine traces its actual and symbolic existence down the centuries, recounting the many stories of its disappearance, starting with the fire in the Roman Temple of Peace where it was housed by the Romans, through supposed theft and removal during the Visigoth sack of Rome in the 5th century, through urban myths about its being buried beneath the Tiber River, to its oft-claimed and never-proved presence among the treasures of the Vatican. Fine disproves all of these claims and concludes that “[w]e really do not know what happened to the menorah and other ‘treasures of the Jews.’ Rome was in turmoil, and precious metals of all sort were apparently taken away en masse.”

Particularly fascinating is his account of the battle over the actual design of the menorah, including its base, which has at times been decorated with animals or mythical creatures in contravention of Jewish law. Its actual design would seem to be an open and shut case, given its appearance on the Arch of Titus — but Fine quotes the biblical description of the menorah, which is well-nigh on incomprehensible, and shows how Maimonides muddied the waters in a manuscript copy of his commentary on the Mishnah in which he draws the menorah, not with the familiar curved branches but with diagonal ones. Though Maimonides himself admitted the drawing was schematic and that he depicted parts of it, particularly the branches, “so as to make it easier to draw,” his son Abraham Maimuni wrote that the “six branches extend from the central staff of the menorah to its height in a straight line, as depicted by my father of blessed memory, and not rounded as depicted by others.”

Despite Maimonides’ drawing and the authority he held, it was the curved menorah that figured everywhere in Jewish life, taken up by the Zionist movement and used by the Jewish legion of the British Army in World War I as the badge on the soldiers’ hats.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL, in devising a state seal, immediately determined it would include the menorah. Fine tells well the story of the seal’s development, including the controversy over its aesthetic value, featuring Salman Schocken’s diatribethat “[i]f this symbol is raised in the coming days above the assembly, and soon above the missions of the State of Israel everywhere in the world, it will be a demonstration of international proportions of the lack of taste and the lack of aesthetic culture of the State of Israel and of its lawmakers.”

If Schocken represents the secular, modern attack on the state seal, the Zionist chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, condemned it from the other end of the spectrum, saying that the menorah on the Arch of Titus “was apparently made by foreigners and is not wholly made in the purity of holiness, as is supported by the teachings of our teacher Moses [Maimonides].”

This leads to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, proclaimed as messiah by his Lubavitch khasidim, whose menorahs resemble the Maimonidean version, for reasons that are far from innocent. In 1982, Schneerson decreed that “the standard Jewish menorah, and particularly the menorah used on the Seal of Israel, is incorrectly formed.” He made the case for the diagonal version, defended by Maimonides and a small minority since, but it was not a disinterested exercise. Rather, the Lubavich critique, according to Fine, “was intended to disrupt standard Jewish practice and create space for a new and distinctly Chabad menorah.” But Schneerson aimed even higher. He denied that anything about the Arch of Titus menorah was Jewish, since it was created for gentiles by gentiles, and, Fine continues, that “[b]y implication then, all other Jewish groups — including the State of Israel — were in error in using menorahs with rounded branches . . . They were purveying gentile syncretism.” Fine concludes his examination of Schneerson and the menorah with a statement that is unarguable: “The Chabad menorah gives expression in bronze and aluminum to Schneerson’s assertion of exclusive rabbinic authority — and his own messianic authority — over Jewish visual culture — over the Jewish past and its future.”

This appropriation of the menorah as an underhanded attempt at seizing hegemony over Judaism is matched in current history, as Fine recounts, by the Temple Mount Institute, which (with the assistance of American evangelical Christians) is attempting to rebuild the Temple, and the settlers in Gaza, who dramatically carried an oversized menorah from their final settlement,consciously echoing and misusing Titus’ arch. when they were expelled after the Oslo Accords.

Steven Fine, a scholar at Yeshiva University, has provided us with a labor of love that is also one of great intelligence and insight. The book is beautifully designed and produced, printed on heavy, cream colored stock, generously illustrated, and is a delight to hold and read. Harvard University Press would have done well to credit the book designer; whoever he or she is elevated this already excellent volume to an even higher level.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.