Explaining why Maimonides’ view of the Menorah is incorrect . . .

The menorah’s physical dimensions have puzzled many scholars for centuries. This famous image of the menorah raises several problems and much has been written on it.  The authenticity of the depicted menorah’s base is sometimes called in question since it consists of two hexagons, the one superimposed on the other, on whose sides dragons are depicted–images that one would hardly expect to see on a sacred Jewish artifact! Perhaps Roman artists added these embellishments for the public procession of Israel’s captured treasures.

Those scholars who regard it as genuine article insist that the Roman triumphal arches were designed as historical documents and toward that end; in general, they strove to be as accurate as possible. Most of the details demonstrate to the sculptors’ intimate knowledge of the Temple’s vessels as described in the Bible and other Jewish sources. Moreover, the proportions of the menorah, with its over-sized base, are in such blatant conflict with the classical notions of aesthetic form that it is inconceivable that a Roman craftsman would have invented them.

Conversely, those who argue against its authenticity are quick to point out that certain elements of the menorah are omitted in this depiction. For example, the menorah had feet extending from its base [1] whereas the menorah on the Arch of Titus has no feet. The base of the menorah certain fits the Hellenistic and Herodian style which was current at that time and there is ample reason to suggest Herod redesigned the menorah to make it more atheistically appealing. Perhaps Herod followed Solomon’s example who constructed ten single lampstands (1 Kings 7:49). Solomon built ten menorot of gold, five along the northern and five along the southern wall of the Heikhal (1 Kings 7:49; 2 Chron. 4:7). These were ornamented with carvings of flowers and furnished with appliances of gold for tending the lamps (1 Kings 7:49-50), the number of which on each menorah is not stated. This being the case, the Arch of Titus merely shows just one menorah which was taken by the Romans, to whom in all likelihood did not care what kind of  menorah they were carrying. One menorah was probably just as good as another.[2]

Over the last couple of years or so,  the feet of the menorah unearthed from a newly-discovered synagogue not far from the Migdal Beech in Jerusalem, strongly resembles the feet of the menorah depicted on the famous Hasmonean coin. But the synagogue menorah is resting on a square base, whereas the coin’s menorah is not. Perhaps the base of the menorah was placed on top of a square base in the days of the Temple, under Herod’s watchful engineering eye. Simply put, Herod added style and flare, and his aesthetic judgments were quite exceptional indeed.

It is also possible that when the menorah was taken to Rome, Roman artisans fused the base of the menorah with the menorah itself for practical and aesthetic purposes.

So much for history …

Maimonides’ personal view of the menorah has long puzzled many rabbinic scholars. Some have argued Maimonides concurs with the opinion that the menorah’s branches were semi-circular shaped. Strangely enough, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe prefers to accept Maimonides’ peculiar conception that the menorah consisted of long extending diagonally shaped branches. Maimonides’ own son, Abraham ibn Maimon, makes this point quite clearly in his Torah commentary.[3] An identical view was also argued by Rashi in his Torah commentary. It never occurs to the old Rebbe that Maimonides and Rashi are wrong! If I were a Marxist (that would make one great song!), I might assume that if Maimonides and Rashi could be wrong, how more so is the Lubavitcher Rebbe totally off the mark!

Even if Maimonides personally subscribed to such a peculiar view of the menorah, there is no support from the last 2300 years that would even indicate that the Temple menorah had a geometrical design. All the numerous artifacts unearthed from the time of the Maccabees (e.g., gravestones, coins, amulets etc.,) suggests that the branches were U-shaped rather than V-shaped. In one recent archaeological discovery an ancient synagogue dating  back from the Second Temple (50-100 B.C.E.) from the early Roman period; it shows a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), The excavations were directed by archaeologists Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The main hall of synagogue is c. 120 square meters in area and its stone benches, which served as seats for the worshipers, were built up against the walls of the hall. Its floor consisted 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). Remarkably, the menorah looks a lot like the menorah minted on the Hasmonean coin.

All the archaeological evidence proves beyond doubt that Maimonides erred, as did Rabbi M.M. Schnersohn after him. It’s a pity Hassidic Jews would rather cling on to a medieval model of what they believed the menorah to be, rather than examine the hard facts of archaeology and history. This would explain why Haredi and Chabad views of history can best be described as, “ahistorical,” and not “historical.”

One cannot blame the great minds of the past like Maimonides or Rashi; had they possessed the knowledge of archaeology we now possess, they would certainly have used it in their expositions. Hassidic and Haredi Rabbis–like the Rebbe of Lubavitch–generally fear any kind of knowledge that threatens to undermine the wisdom of the past. What a pity they cannot readjust their way of viewing the world . . .

Lastly, without speaking ill of the dead, I wish to add that any modern Rabbi (like the late Lubavitcher Rebbe) who believes that the sun revolves around the earth, is hardly the kind of scholar one should rely on scientific matters. The Rebbe was a fine Jewish leader, but he was unfortunately misinformed in the areas of modern science and archaeology.

[1]T.B. Menachot 28b, Maimonides, MT Hilchot Beit HaBechirah 3:2.

[2]The Talmud harmonizes by placing both the tabernacle menorah and the ten lampstands in Solomon’s temple: “You must therefore say that the menorah stood in the middle with five menorahs to the right of it and five to the left of it.”

[3]Rabbi Abraham ibn Maimon writes in his commentary: “The six branches… extended upward from the center shaft of the menorah in a straight line, as depicted by my father (Maimonides), and not in a semi-circle as depicted by others.”