20 Dec The Shape of the Menorah
I. Maimonides and the Menorah
The exact shape of the menorah that was used in the Temple is, to a degree, a matter of debate. In particular, the
shape of the branches of the menorah was a matter about which the rishonim disagreed. Ibn Ezra, in his long
commentary to Shemos 25:32, writes that the branches were half circles. Rashi, ad loc., writes that the branches
were diagonal, but, in my opinion, that statement is inconclusive because he could have been implying a diagonal
curve rather than a straight line. However, Rav Avraham Ben HaRambam writes in his commentary to that verse
that the branches were straight and not curved. The archaeological evidence strongly supports the Ibn Ezra’s
position, as discussed by Rav Yisrael Ariel in his Menoras Zahav Tahor.
The Rambam’s position has been somewhat controversial. In the 19th century a drawing that he personally made
of the menorah was discovered in manuscripts of his Commentary to the Mishnah. That drawing, which has since
been published in the Kafach edition of Rambam’s commentary, portrays a menorah with straight branches.
However, this is inconclusive because the drawing is clearly just a rough example of how the various pieces of the
menorah – the bulbs, cups and flowers – are supposed to placed, i.e. how many on the branches, how many on the
central stem, etc. The lines and circles are so exact that they were certainly drawn with a ruler and compass. It is
unsurprising that the Rambam drew the branches straight for the sake of his illustration because that served his
purposes. However, it seems to me that the Rambam’s son’s testimony mentioned above is sufficient proof – and
the only proof – that the Rambam’s position was that the branches of the menorah were straight.
II. Wooden Menorah
It is common knowledge that when the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) reconquered and entered the Temple, they
could not easily locate oil. What is not as well known is that they could not find a menorah at all and had to build a
new one. I believe that the details of this menorah imply a very specific shape for at least that menorah, regardless
of the above dispute regarding how the regular menorah looked.
There is a debate in the Gemara (Menachos 28b) regarding an earlier disagreement between Rebbe (Yehudah Ha-
Nasi) and R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah. For our purposes, we need only note that according to the first view, R. Yossi
ben R. Yehudah holds that the menorah cannot be made of wood and according to the second view he holds that
it can. A proof is brought for the second view. You are not allowed to make life-size imitations of the Temple
structures and utensils, such as a replica of the altar or of the menorah. However, you are allowed to make replicas
that are different from the real version in a significant way. For example, you may make a menorah with 6 or 8
branches but not one with 7 branches like the menorah in the Temple. A menorah with 7 branches is not allowed
to be made of any metal, and not just gold. R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah adds that you may not even make a menorah
with 7 branches out of wood, like the Hasmoneans did.
This implies that, according to R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah, the menorah in the Temple may be made out of wood,
since that is precisely what the Hasmoneans did. It seems that when they entered the Temple, there was no
menorah there so they had to make a new one.
III. Tin Menorah
However, the Gemara responds that R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah did not mean that the menorah was literally made
out of wood. Rather, the Hasmoneans took iron spits, covered them in tin, and used them as a menorah. When
they were able to afford a fancier menorah, they made one out of silver. Eventually, they were able to replace that
silver menorah with one made of gold. Tosefos Rid explain that the tin looked like wood, which is why R. Yossi ben
R. Yehudah called the menorah wooden, but it was really made of iron and plated with tin.
I find it interesting that the Gemara states not just that the menorah was made with tin-plated iron, but that the
iron was spits (shefudin). To me, this seems to imply that the branches of the menorah were straight rather than
rounded. As we saw above, there is a general debate about the shape of the ideal menorah in the Temple.
However, it seems to me that all would agree that the Hasmonean make-shift menorah, which is really what
Chanukah is all about, had straight branches.
This issue remains entirely historical. There is no obligation for our menorahs to look like the Hasmonean menorah
or the Temple menorah.