Hanukka is fast approaching. A motzei Shabbat excursion to the grocery store brought me face to face with two shluchim (Chabad rabbis) of the younger generation, hard at work erecting a Hanukka display that will remain up through Hanukka. The centerpiece of the display is a menorah with straight diagonal branches, often mistakenly referred to as Rambam's menorah. (More on this below.)
I like both of these rabbis very much. I've known them since they were children. I know the work they do is often selfless. One has done innovative, successful programing – a rarity in these parts. But every time I see a "Rambam's menorah," I want to scream. And tonight was no exception.
I restrained myself somewhat and contented myself with pointing out a historical fact – the menorah in the Temple looked nothing like that. As a simple proof, I mentioned that coins have been found from the reign of Mattias Antigonus [see one to the left], the last Hasmonean king, who ruled just before Herod. These coins have the menorah on them, and the branches are curved, not straight.
The elder of the two answered my challenge by quoting the Rebbe: The menorah on those coins and on the Arch of Titus is not the Temple menorah – it is merely a second menorah, a copy, used for non-sacramental purposes in the Temple.
Well, there are a few problems (to put it mildly) with the Rebbe's thesis, not least among them is this – all representations of the menorah contempraneous to the existence of the Temple show the menorah with curved arms. Further, in all of Jewish history, only two rabbis appear to have claimed anything different – the Rambam and Rashi. Both lived almost 1000 years after the Temple stood. Neither had any representation of a menorah that matched the Rebbe's understanding of their positions.
But take a look at the Rambam's own drawing of the menorah, and compare it to the Rebbe's version.
The cups on the Rambam's drawing are at different heights and at different angles. In Rebbe's menorah, each cup is at the same height and the same angle. (And of course there are other differences, as well.)
So here we have an entirely new version of the menorah not found anywhere else throughout Jewish history. Worse yet, the Rebbe claimed this was the "correct" version of the menorah, and the one found on the Hasmonean coin (minted by a king who was both a kohen and the high priest and who served in the Temple!) was incorrect.
Rabbi Seth Mandel has a long post on AishDas.org dealing with the shape of the menorah. In it, he explains convincingly that the Rambam's drawing was a schematic, and was not meant to be representative of the menorah itself:
[I]f the arms weren't exactly straight, why did the Rambam draw them
that way? Well, why did he draw the kaftorim as a circle? Because he
drew everything with a ruler, a compass and a protractor (much as an
electrical schematic drawing is done with straight lines). Note that all
the kaftorim are drawn not as free-form circles, but are perfectly round
(even though the real kaftorim were not). Similarly, the top of the
base, above the three legs, is a perfect arc clearly drawn with a
compass. The distances are also schematic: the space occupied by the
gavia', kaftor and perah above the base are one tefah, as the note on
the drawing next to them states, whereas the empty space above them and
below them are both two t'fahim, also clearly noted ("t'fahayim") on the
drawing, yet those latter spaces in the drawing are much less than the
space taken by the g'via', kaftor and perah.…
Now even in a schematic drawing, if the arms were semicircular arcs, as
they are on the Arch of Titus, the Rambam would have surely drawn them
that way, using a compass. But what if the arms were not semicircular,
but were curved somewhat? What, as a matter of fact, if they were like
the arms shown in a), the coins of Matitya Antigonos or the arms shown
in b), the drawing on the wall of the house discovered in the Old City
[conclusively dated to the end of the Second Temple era],
that were partially curved and partially straight or almost straight? I
would argue that in his schematic drawing, the Rambam would see nothing
wrong with drawing them with a ruler as a straight line. After all, as
he says, "my intent in this drawing is not that you should know [i.e. I
should draw] the exact form. Rather my intent is to show you the number
of the g'vi'im, the kaftorim and the p'rahim, and their placement, and
the length of places of the arms of the Menorah that are empty and that
of the places that have kaftorim and p'rahim, and its general
Of course, one can also easily argue that the Rambam was simply mistaken, and did the best he could do with the information he had.
But what of the representation on the Arch of Titus? The base is wrong and their are other problems as well. Rabbi Mandel answers by quoting Rabbi Daniel Sperber, whose book on minhagim (Jewish customs) is very well regarded:
… [T]he base is two giant hexagons, the top one larger than the lower one,
with decorations on the side panels. Examination of the panels of the
hexagons shows that the central one on the upper hexagon has a picture
of two eagles holding a (laurel?) crown. To its left and right are
panels showing a ketos, a aquatic monster usually with a serpent body
and the head of a bird or other animal. In the lower hexagon are three
panels with various kete (plural of ketos). A ketos is called drakon by
Hazal; in the Mishna Avodah Zara 3:3 it shows that a drakon was suspect
of being a symbol of AZ. How would that get into the Temple? Even worse,
the eagle was the symbol of Imperial Rome, and as such was an anathema
to Jews longing to be free of Roman rule.
However, the picture cannot be simply an invention of a Roman artist.
The arms are are equidistant from each other, and the distance equals
the width of the arms (another universal characteristic of Jewish
sources), they all go up to an equal height, and even the ratio of the
distance from the base to the lower arms to the rest of the height
matches the ratio given by Hazal. And there are clear g'vi'im, kaftorim
and p'rahim on the arms. This must be a representation of the Menorah of
the Hekhal. So how can we explain the base?
R. Daniel Sperber gives the correct answer, IMHO. He notes that usually
a ketos has a nymph perched on its back, and scales on its neck, and
shows pictures of a very similar from a Roman temple in Didyma with such
a nymph. In e), there is no nymph and no scales on the neck. He quotes
the g'moro AZ 43a that a drakon that is osur has scales on its neck, and
the Tosefta in AZ that says "if the neck was smooth, it is muttar." This
evidence, that the base was made showing the symbol of Imperial Rome and
avoiding AZ, matches Herod the Great. He was put in his position, after
Matitya Antigonos, by the Roman, and Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews
tells us that he erected a great golden eagle over the gates of the
Temple, an act that angered the Jews. OTOH, he always was careful to
portray himself as King of the Jews and avoided any outright AZ. So, R.
Sperber concludes, it must have been Herod who put on the base. Why
would he have monkeyed around with the Menorah? Probably because shortly
before his reign the Parthians entered Y'rushalayim and plundered it.
The Menorah may well have been broken at its weakest point, its small
base, at that time, and Herod, whose mark was large construction
projects many of which were for the benefit of the Jews while at the
same time reminding everyone of Roman sovereignty (as he did in his
reconstruction of the BhM), would naturally have made a large new base,
for the good of the Jewish Temple but with Roman symbols.
So it is extremely probable that [it] was actually drawn from someone who
saw the Menorah as it was paraded through Rome in 71 and perhaps later,
wherever it ended up. But some of the exact details, like the exact
number of kaftorim, or the exact curve of the arms, is wrong, because
the sculptor no longer had the Menorah in front of him.
My Chabad friend also pointed out that Rashi holds the menorah is like the Rambam's drawing. Rabbi Mandel attempts to deal with Rashi (who also had no coins or seals or wall paintings to look at) this way:
I would also argue that Rashi's statement of alakson [diagonal] could also fit the drawings Medieval Jewish sources … it is inconceivable to me that rabbonim drawing pictures of the Menorah in the 14th Century would not have noted that Rashi disagrees.
I would simply argue that Rashi is mistaken, except that Mandel has a stong point – no one ever drew a menorah that matches the Rebbe's understanding of Rashi. Therefore, the Rebbe's understanding is mistaken.
As Mandel points out, history is against the Rebbe:
In summary, all depictions of the Menorah in the Hekhal, from Jewish and
Roman sources from the time of the [Temple] and the following couple of
centuries (as well as medieval Jewish sources) show the Menorah with
rounded arms. …
In conclusion, I have argued that no one thought that the arms were
exactly straight; that the idea came into being only in the 20th Century
after the Rambam's drawing became common knowledge, but does not have a
basis in a careful reading of the Rambam and a comparison to Jewish
depictions ranging from the time of the Temple to centuries later.
Some have claimed the Rebbe set up the new Chabad menorah as a corporate symbol, for branding and messianic purposes. History would seem to support that claim.