The Menorah: Straight or Round Branches? Archaeological Evidence
Above photo: Two round-branched menorahs are depicted in a mosaic floor of a Beit Knesset discovered in Tiberias jn northern Israel. Also depicted are two shofars, (rams' horns), two incense shovels, the four species (arba minim) of Sukkot, and the entrance to the Holy Temple.
Depictions of the menorah have been discovered in tens of ancient archaeological digs all throughout Israel and in distant regions where Jews lived. Many of these depictions date back to the time of the 2nd Holy Temple. Significantly, some of the depictions have been found in private homes where kohanim lived. Kohanim would have had first-hand knowledge of the menorah. In every archaeological discovery, without exception, the menorah is depicted with rounded branches.
If this is the case, then why do some of our latter sages believe that the menorah was straight branched? We will explore the answer to this next.
Above photo: A round-branched menorah found among the ruins of the ancient town of Afek, in the Golan.
The Menorah: Straight or Round Branches? The Rambam
The rabbis who are of the opinion that the menorah must have straight branches base their opinion on a drawing found in the Rambam's magnum opus, Mishnah Torah, written in Maimonides' own hand. As can be seen by the image below, the sketch of the menorah, which is rather crude, is made up of lines, circles and triangles. Based on the explanation of the Rambam, the triangles are meant to represent the "goblets" of the Torah description, and the circles are meant to represent the "knobs" of the Torah description.
The picture in question is approximately 10x6 centimeter. It is clear that the Rambam was constrained by the small dimension on the page in which he allowed himself to place the drawing.
Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, founder of the Temple Institute, and the world's foremost expert on the Holy Temple, surmises that the Rambam didn't intend for his simple drawing to be a literal representation of how the menorah should appear, but rather was a schematic drawing intended to clearly show how the different details of the menorah were laid out. This opinion is further strengthened by certain contradictions that appear between the Rambam's written description of the menorah and his schematic design.
Nevertheless, there are distinguished rabbis of recent generations who opine that the Temple menorah must be made with straight branches.
Curiously, the highly detailed description of the menorah in the Torah text itself omits any reference to the shape of the six branches. Rabbi Ariel has thus determined that either menorah - round-branched or straight-branched is kosher and fit for use in the Holy Temple.
The pictures and research used throughout our Menorah feature all come from the book "מנורת זהב טהור," "A Menorah of Pure Gold," written by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, based on the research of the Temple Institute. The book, which appears in Hebrew only, can be purchased here.
The Menorah: Straight or Round Branches? The Rambam: One Last Word
During the latter part of his life the Rambam lived in Cairo, Egypt, where he prayed, studied and taught at the Ben Ezra synagogue. The synagogue was built in the year 882, nearly 300 years before the Rambam would pray in it. In the 1980s the Egyptian government restored the synagogue. A contemporary photograph shows two six branched menorahs standing before either side of the Aron Hakodesh - the Ark of the Torah. Whether these two menorahs, (now electrified, as can be seen in the photograph), or similarly shaped ones once stood in the synagogue during Rambam's day is uncertain.
The Ben Ezra synagogue is also famous for having housed one of the most extensive and historically important genizas ever found in modern times. A geniza is a repository of Hebrew books and documents that contain G-d's name in them and therefore cannot be discarded, but are instead put in storage, or sometimes buried. In practice, the Ben Ezra geniza was used by generations of the local Jewish community for all books and documents, business transactions and personal letters. The discovery of the geniza, in the synagogue's attic, during a restoration of the building in the 1890s has enabled scholars to reconstruct the daily and communal lives of the Jews during that era. Included in the geniza were hand written documents by the Rambam.
Of interest for our purposes is a grade school Hebrew primer found in the geniza. The hand written primer was first made some 100 years before the Rambam's time, but was still in use during Rambam's years in Cairo. As can be seen in the photograph, the opening page of the primer shows on the left, the Hebrew aleph-beit, and on the right, a very clear depiction of a round branched menorah.
What is clear is that, whatever Rambam's intentions were concerning his schematic sketch of the menorah, in Cairo during his day, consistent with every other depiction of the menorah found wherever Jews lived in the world, and throughout the centuries that preceded Rambam, menorahs were depicted with rounded-branches.
Immortalizing the Menorah in the Arch of Titus
The Arch of Titus stands in Rome. It was constructed in 82 CE by the Roman Emperor Domitian after the death of his older brother Titus, to commemorate Titus' military victories, the crown jewel of which was the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Holy Temple in 70 CE.
One entire frieze panel of the arch is dedicated to depicting the arrival of the Holy Temple sacred vessels in Rome, being carried on the shoulders of captive Jews. Prominently shown is the golden Menorah. In addition, the silver trumpets commanded by Torah are also seen, as well as the Table of the Showbread. Recent scientific investigation has shown that the arch was originally painted in color and that the the Menorah was, indeed, painted gold.
The Menorah on the arch has been the subject of intensive study by rabbis and scholars in an attempt to determine whether the depiction conforms to the Torah description of the Menorah and the halachic conclusions and understandings of the sages of Israel.
The basic design components necessitated by Torah are all present in the Menorah of the arch. There appear to be additional decorations beyond the minimum required by Torah, but this is not considered to be in conflict with halachah. Those sages who opine that the branches of the menorah are straight and not rounded do not consider this to be a faithful depiction of the Menorah of the Holy Temple.
In addition there is a question concerning the base of the Menorah. It is traditionally understood that the base of the Menorah stood upon three feet. The base of the Menorah seen on the Arch of Titus appears to have no feet.
Upon the base of the Menorah as seen on the arch are what appear to be the shapes of dragons, a motif which certainly would not have decorated the Menorah of the Holy Temple. However, upon further examination it can be determined that the shapes in question may well be depictions of the Cherubim, which most certainly was a very prominent motif in the Holy Temple, appearing, as we know from the Torah description on the Ark of the Covenant, and also appearing on the great parochet (curtain) which separated the Holy of Holies from the Sanctuary of the second Holy Temple.
The great historian of the war between Rome and Judea was Josephus Flavius, a Jewish priest (kohen) who had defected to Rome. In his writings Josephus provides a copious description of the Holy Temple, including the Sanctuary and the sacred vessels, all of which with he was intimately familiar, as a priest serving in the Holy Temple. He also was present in Rome and witnessed Titus' triumphal return from Jerusalem. Josephus' testimony corroborates the veracity of the depiction of the vessels on the Arch of Titus.