“On Chanukah, the first dark night, Light yourself a candle bright …”
They come in every shape, size, and color and are best known for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. But the significance and symbolism of menorahs in Jewish life goes beyond the eight nights of this beloved winter holiday. Even the Hebrew word, menorah, has several meanings: candelabrum, candleholder, and lamp. The Chanukah menorah – or Hannukiah – with its nine branches recalls an ancient miracle. The first menorah, described in the Book of Exodus, had seven branches and was so important in Jewish history that its long lost light symbolically glows in every synagogue today. Designed to enlighten, both literally and spiritually, the menorah has provided comfort and inspiration to the Jewish people throughout the ages.
From ancient artists to contemporary craftsmen, the Chanukah menorah has been a source of endless creativity and fun. Whether designed to be an ornate silver jewel, a stained glass block, or even a funky replica of the New York City skyline, one rule is always followed. Every Hannukiah must hold nine candles; eight together and one set above or apart. The first eight candles represent the eight nights of Chanukah and the ninth, called the helper or shamash candle, is there to light the others.
What is the holiday of Chanukah?
Chanukah commemorates the victory of a small army of Jews, called the Maccabees, over the Greek emperor Antiochius the IV, in the second century BCE. An oppressive and cruel ruler, Antiochus prohibited the Jews from practicing their religion, forced them to change their culture, customs, and beliefs, and massacred thousands who would not follow his decrees. In a bitter and insulting blow, Antiochus’s soldiers even took over the Jewish Temple, plundering it and leaving it in ruins.
So why do we use menorahs to remember this event?
Lead by Judah Maccabee, the Jews rebelled against Antiochus and though greatly outnumbered, miraculously defeated his army. They returned to the Temple determined to clean and rededicate it as a Jewish house of worship. In fact, this is why we call the holiday Chanukah. In Hebrew, the word “chanukah” means dedication.
According to tradition, pure olive oil was needed to relight the Temple’s golden menorah. But amidst the destruction, the Jews could find only a tiny bit of oil – enough, they thought, to burn for just one day. Miraculously the oil burned steadily for eight days – giving the Maccabees enough time to make more oil to keep the sacred light shining.
To commemorate this ancient miracle, Jews light one candle for each of the eight nights of Chanukah. Celebrated during the darkest days of early winter, Chanukah is also known as the Festival of Lights. Lights that illuminate the past, remind us of a miracle and glow brighter every night with each additional, shining candle.
Although the Chanukah menorah may now be the best known, the first menorah is mentioned in the Book of Exodus as Moses led the Israelites out of ancient Egypt. Unlike the Hannukiah with nine branches, the biblical menorah was a seven branch oil lamp with a base, shaft, and flower-like cups that held the oil. The priests were instructed to ligh the menorah every evening and clean it each morning. According to tradition, this menorah was carried through the desert and later placed in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
However, after the Romans defeated the Jews in 70 C.E., this cherished candelabrum disappeared. What might have happened? Look closely at the photograph below taken of The Arch of Titus in Rome. Commemorating the emperor Titus’ victory over the Jews, the arch depicts the Roman army carting off the spoils from the Second Temple in Jerusalem. There, held high above their heads in triumph, is the seven branched, golden menorah.
Although the original menorah was lost forever, its light continues to symbolically shine in every synagogue around the world. The Ner Tamid, or eternal light, glows without pause above the arc in every sanctuary, recalling the light – and enlightenment – the original menorah provided. Its design has also remained a religious and cultural symbol for thousands of years. Its image decorates tombs, monuments, coins, and pottery dating to the 1st century and has been represented in synagogues and Jewish art throughout history. Ornamental menorahs also provide a link to the past. While some cast a modern, electric glow, menorahs like this one in the sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, remind worshipers of the Israelite’s arduous journey through the desert and the treasure they carried some 3,000 years ago.
- The menorah is one of the oldest Jewish symbols. Can you think of another symbol that has ancient origins? What story does that symbol tell?
- Menorah means candelabrum and Chanukah is also known as the Festival of Lights. What other cultures have a candelabra or lights as part of their cultural or religious celebrations?
- What does the right of religious freedom include? Why is it important?
- The Maccabees led an army of Jewish people to fight in the war against Antiochus IV’s powerful soldiers. Some Jewish people joined the Maccabee army but others did not. Would you have gone to war? Why or why not?
- As members of a minority community often living in religious and cultural isolation, Jews did not historically celebrate Chanukah as a major Jewish holiday. However, for many American-Jewish families it has become a much bigger occasion. Because it is celebrated close to Christmas, Chanukah is often seen as part of a shared holiday season. How do you think the significance and customs of Chanukah may have changed in America? Do you think these are positive changes? Why or why not?
- The Chanukah menorah represents the miracles of Chanukah and the Jewish victory over the Greek army and way of life. Think of something amazing that has happened, maybe something in your own life, and create a symbol that represents that story.
- Design your own Chanukah menorah using a variety of materials. Chanukah menorahs can be made out of anything. Suggested materials include, paper, reclables, wood, and cups. The only requirement is that there be nine lights. Generally, the shamash light has some distinction from the other eight lights to distinguish it (different height, material etc.).
- View menorahs from around the world in The Jewish Museum collection. Compare and contrast their design, materials, and themes.