What is a Menorah?
The Hebrew definition for “menorah” is “lamp.” Typically, when referring to a menorah, one is referencing one of two things: the golden seven-branched candlestick that was lit day in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, or the lamp with eight flames that are burned for the eight consecutive nights of Chanukah. So, the two types of menorahs are known as the Temple menorah and the Chanukah menorah.
The Temple Menorah
In Exodus 25, G-d expresses to Moses exactly what the menorah should look like. It should be made out of a single piece of pure gold, which is then carved into six branches that move upwards, and a branch that holds the center in the middle. On all seven of these branches, there must be cups with oil and wicks placed on them. The temple menorah is an exceptionally decorated piece. One always finds flowers, 11 bulbs, and 22 goblets turned upside down on it.
The story of the menorah goes that it was placed inside the Kodesh, which was a room in the Tent of the Congregation where the bread table and the golden incense altar also resided. Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was known as the High Priest, made sure the menorah was lit every day. After his passing, his successors continued this ritual.
After the menorah was created in the desert, it was then taken into the Promised Land. Once there, the menorah was ritually lit in every place where the Tabernacle was established, including the biblical cities of Shiloh and Nob. Once the first Holy Temple was built in Jerusalem by Solomon, the menorah remained lit inside of it until the day the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple.
After the destruction of the First Temple, Ezra built the Second Temple with a new menorah found inside of it. The Second Temple period lasted for 585 years, and the menorah was lit for every day during this period. This point in history leads us to the second type of menorah.
The Chanukah Menorah
The Promised Land was taken over by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) during the second century BCE. During this time, the Seleucids attempted to force Israelis to adopt to Greek lifestyle and belief system, rather than their belief in G-d and mitzvah observance. Although the Greeks were quite successful in implementing their powers to change the people of Israel’s rituals, a small group of faithful Jews decided they could not let their culture be stripped away. Judah the Maccabee led this group to defeat one of the strongest armies on earth, which led to forcing the Greeks off Israeli land and restoring the Holy Temple by rededicating it to the greatness of G-d.
Upon reclaiming the Holy Temple, they began to search for something that would light the menorah inside of it. All they could find was a tiny bit of olive oil that had not been polluted by the Greeks. A miracle occurred once the menorah had been lit with enough oil to last one day but managed to last for a total of eight days. After these eight days, they were able to fill the menorah with new oil that made following the laws of ritual purity. To make sure that this miracle was never forgotten, the sages created the festival of Chanukah as a commemoration of this event.
As the days of Chanukah go on, another flame is lit – starting with one on the first day and finishing with eight on the final day. There is an extra candle that is used to light the flames on the menorah that is referred to as the shamash, which means “helper” in Hebrew. The Chanukah menorah is known as Chanukah in modern Hebrew.
How to Tell the Temple Menorah and the Chanukah Menorah Apart:
The structure of the Chanukah menorah looks relatively similar to the Temple menorah, but they have specific differences:
- The Temple menorah is made up of seven stems and the Chanukah menorah has a total of eight, plus the addition of the shamash.
- The menorah that was initially found in the Holy Temple was made of gold. The menorah used for Chanukah can be made of any material, as long as it is fired safely.
- The Temple menorah was always lit indoors, in order to be inside the Temple, while the Chanukah menorah is lit in the outdoors, at the front door of one’s home. Although it is common in some communities to light the Chanukah menorah inside one’s home, near the front door or a window.
- The Temple menorah was always lit during the day, while the flames of Chanukah menorah are only lit after the sun has set, and they stay light throughout the night.
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson was the first to explain the importance of the differences between the Temple menorah and the Chanukah menorah. The number seven, which is attached to the Temple menorah, is representative of the natural order in our world. This idea comes belief of the seven days of creation, as well as the seven days in a week. The number eight that the Chanukah menorah is attributed with has to do with the supernatural, with miracles.