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The History of the Menorah

Professor Steven Fine Explores Lampstand's Journey From Religious Object to Unique Symbol 

From its ancient role in the Biblical Tabernacle to its place today on the state seal of Israel, the seven-branched menorah has been a defining Jewish icon throughout history. But how did it come to represent so much, and how have our perceptions and interactions with it changed over time—religiously and culturally?

In his new book, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (Harvard University Press, November 2016), Dr. Steven Fine, the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History and director of the Center for Israel Studies at YU, explores the multilayered history and significance of the menorah from its earliest mentions to its current role in Judaism and the State of Israel, drawing on artifacts and literature that span 3,000 years.

Fine pays special attention to the menorah images that survive on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which commemorates the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In 2012, he and his team discovered that these images of the menorah had originally been colored with yellow ochre paint, which launched Fine on a journey to unearth the evolution of the menorah as a unique Jewish symbol.

YU News sat down with Fine to discuss his own relationship with the menorah and its place in Jewish history and culture.

What personal significance does the menorah have for you?

Chanukah has always been my favorite holiday, and the experience of the Six Day War when I was a kid—the first time I really took in the menorah as Israel’s state symbol—opened up this vision for me of the menorah illuminating the land of Israel. As I developed my scholarly career, I kept coming back to the menorah, even when I tried to write other things—menorahs kept showing up in my work.

The wonderful thing about the menorah is that it crosses generations and allows you to search the core of Judaism and Christianity and beyond through the focusing lens of one artifact. It’s endlessly interesting because human beings have endlessly written about it, and its meanings change from place to place and time to time. It’s a way of connecting and thinking and more than anything else, finding continuities and discontinuities all at once, in the same object that demands continuity and at the same time demands new thinking.

How did this book emerge from what your research about the Arch of Titus and its original colors?

It was only when I became involved in the study of polychromy, color in ancient art, that I began thinking about how that might relate to the menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus. I had seen a liturgical poem from the Cairo Geniza which describes how the menorah was made from different colors of gold, which doesn't fit with our usual sense that it was made of yellow gold. I started studying ancient metallurgy, and I discovered medieval scribes too had illustrated multi-colored menorahs. I wondered if we could apply the developing discipline of polychromy to the menorah on the Arch. I put together a team of Americans, Germans and Italians and we spent a couple of days scanning the menorah panel on the Forum. Happily, we found yellow paint. Now we’re in the process of imagining what the entire relief will looked like. A hypothetical reconstruction of the arch panel in brilliant colors will be ready in the spring. The results are already startling!

How has the menorah evolved as a symbol throughout history?

Whether as a biblical artifact, a Roman-period lampstand, or a mystical icon in Kabbalistic literature, the menorah has been the most recognizably Jewish symbol in Jewish history.  It became all the more significant in modern times as the emblem of an old-new people, a symbol of Jewish modernity.

The menorah is completely unique. It’s a standard Roman lampstand with branches coming out from its sides, and since at least  the Second Temple period, its branches have  been arc-shaped as well. The amazing thing about the menorah is that its form is so distinct. Even if you only discover a piece of it carved in stone, you’ll still know it’s a menorah. It became for Judaism what the cross became for Christianity and crescent became for Islam.

How does this book study the menorah through the lens of multiple disciplines?

I work with classical sources, Talmudic sources, medieval and modern literature, and also artifacts from all of those times. It’s not easy to read an artifact and then a text and then to try to understand the human beings from the past through words and images. It requires a lot of training and tools to bridge these two media.

What I’m interested in, first and foremost, is how one tiny people, over a vast span of time and space, has kept the focus on this one object. I have worked to develop  the tools that allow me to answer questions about that experience. These sources allow me to orchestrate a conversation between the Bible, the Talmudic rabbis, Rashi, early Zionism, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Roman emperors, Church fathers, art, archaeology and even modern dictators that traverses millennia. Each step and each new connection along the way is riveting.

What insight into the menorah do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will see how utterly complex and interesting all this is, appreciating  the ways that generation upon generation of Jews, then Christians and even Muslims imagined and reimagined  the menorah. This project is a sustained meditation on the ways that we remember and re-remember and then re-re-remember our past.  It is a chance to think about  how we maintain connectedness in a world where ties with the past can be precarious, and the future seems unsure.  

For me, the menorah reflects a life-long fascination—really a complex and very visceral love affair. I'm hoping to share some of this with my readers.