The story of the Menorah

The Menorah — from the Bible to Modern Israel By Steven Fine Harvard University Press, £22.95


In 2004, a team of Israeli antiquities experts went at the request of the president on a mission to the Vatican. Their task was to locate any long-long artefacts from the Temple in the Pope’s vaults — but they found nothing.

According to Yeshiva University professor Steven Fine, the popular belief that the menorah taken by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple ended up in the possession of the Catholic Church is no more than an “urban legend”. It may have been destroyed in a fire in the Temple of Peace in Rome in the late second century and alternative stories have it plundered by the Visigoths or Vandals before being seized by the Byzantines and then hidden in a church in Jerusalem.

Professor Fine is a menorah maven who discovered that the famous relief on the Arch of Titus depicting the Roman capture of the Temple Menorah was originally in colour (through traces of ochre in the stone). His absorbing study traces the history and symbolism of an object which has served as an emblem of Judaism far longer than the Magen David, although the classical rabbis forbade its three-dimensional replication along with other Temple vessels.

Turned by Zionism into a sign of Jewish renaissance, it appeared on the cap pins of Vladimir Jabotinksy’s Jewish Legion after the First World War and was chosen for the seal of the new state of Israel, although the design sparked controversy. Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog objected that it followed the Titus Arch representation with a flat base —which also was carved with mythological creatures — rather than resting on a tripod. 

Fine also points out that Lubavitch have pointedly resisted the rounded branches of the state menorah and instead gone for linear branches on their public chanukiot, following a drawing  by Maimonides. All in all, an illuminating read.

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