‘Diagon Alley’ Parashat Teruma / Zachor 5781

Parashat Teruma contains requirements specifications for the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and most of its utensils. Perhaps the most intricate utensil was the candelabrum (menorah). The seven-branched menorah was beaten out of one solid piece of gold. Each branch was comprised of an assortment of accoutrements shaped like almond flowers, knobs, and blossoms, putting immense pressure on the artisan who was doing the chiselling.

The requirements specification for the menorah leaves a certain amount of room for interpretation, specifically regarding the shape of the branches [Shemot 25:32]: “Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the menorah and three branches from the other side of the menorah.” The most common understanding is that the branches of the menorah were circular. They exited the side of the middle branch at a ninety-degree angle and then arced upwards, eventually becoming parallel to the middle branch. The menorah on the official emblem of the State of Israel has circular branches. An alternative understanding is encountered in the commentary of Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century. Rashi writes that the branches were “on each side extending slantwise on high up to the level of… the middle branch. They came out from the middle branch, one above the other”. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as the Rambam, perhaps the most prolific scholar of all time, who lived in Spain and Egypt in the twelfth century, draws a diagram of the menorah in his Commentary to the Mishna [Tractate Menachot Chapter 3]. In the Rambam’s diagram, the branches of the menorah are straight, extending diagonally at about a sixty degree angle from the middle brfanch. Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam, in his commentary on the Torah, writes that the branches of the menorah “extend from the stem of the menorah to the top in a straight line, as my father of blessed memory drew, not in arc-shape as others have drawn”.

So what did the menorah really look like? To address this question, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the founder of the Temple Institute (Machon HaMikdash) penned an article called “The Arms of the Temple Menorah – Straight or Circular?[1]” Rabbi Ariel conclusively proves that the branches of the menorah were circular. The brunt of his proof comes from archaeological evidence, ancient coins and mosaics depicting a menorah with circular branches. The most famous piece of evidence is a depiction of the menorah on the Arch of Titus in Rome, an honorific arch commemorating the victory of the General Titus over the Jewish rebellion in Judea[2]. This menorah, carried by Roman Soldiers, has circular branches. Rabbi Ariel then shows with great rigour that archaeological evidence can be used to determine the normative halakha. As a result of his research, the gold-plated menorah made by the Temple Institute in preparation for the third Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) has circular branches[3].

With all due respect to Rabbi Ariel, who is admittedly a well-respected rabbi, the opinions of Rashi and the Rambam cannot just be brushed aside, even in face of archaeological evidence that they perhaps never saw. Rabbi Asher Wasserteil, who lived in Israel in the previous century, notes in his “Birkat Asher” that Rashi describes the menorah using the Hebrew word “alach’son”, translated above as “slantwise”. Rabbi Wasserteil asserts that the word “alach’son” means “slantwise” or “diagonal” only in the context of Euclidean geometry. He brings a number of verses that indicate that “alach’son” can also mean “jagged”. As for the Rambam, Rabbi Ariel suggests that his diagram should not be taken literally and that its purpose is only to indicate the relative positions of the almond flowers, knobs, and blossoms[4].

Perhaps a better question than “What did the menorah look like?” would be “Does it make a difference what the menorah looked like?”. That is to say, are there halachic ramifications of shape of the branches? Obviously, when we build a third Holy Temple, speedily in our days, we will have to build a menorah, but will it really make a difference what the branches look like? The answer is a resounding “no”. The Rambam discusses the laws of the future menorah in his Yad HaChazaka [Hilchot beit HaBechira Chapter 3]. He mentions only one mandatory requirement pertaining to the branches [Halacha 7]: “The seven branches of the menorah each impede each other”. That is to say, the menorah must have exactly seven branches. Apparently, their shape is irrelevant. Indeed, the story of Chanukah as told in Megillat Ta’anit, a chronicle from the time of the Second Temple, states that the menorah built by the Maccabees was made of seven iron rods rammed into the ground. Another area where the structure of the menorah has halachic ramifications concerns the laws of the Chanukah menorah. These laws, as they appear in the Shulchan Aruch [OH:671][5], are actually quite sparse. In fact, there are only two requirements: the eight lights of the menorah must reside on the same level[6] and they must be far enough apart so that they not look like a bonfire (medura).

I suggest that the laws pertaining to the structure of the menorah can shed some light on a philosophical conundrum. The Talmud in Tractate Menachot [29a] states that Moshe “had difficulties” with the menorah until G-d showed him a “menorah of fire”. When the Talmud states that Moshe “struggled with” something, it means that he struggled to understand its essence. Moshe’s difficulty with the menorah stemmed from an inherent contrast in its physical structure. On one hand, the menorah was sculpted out of one piece of gold. But on the other hand, it had seven individual lights. If it was made out of one piece of gold, shouldn’t it contain just one light?

An answer to this question lies in the way the menorah was lit. When G-d explains to Aharon how to light the menorah, He tells him [Bemidbar 8:2] “When you kindle the lamps, towards the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”  Rashi explains that the burning wicks were each turned towards the central stem of the menorah.  The wicks on the right side were turned to the left and those on the left side were turned to the right.  All of the lights were focused on one spot, on the centre lamp. Light represents our connection with G-d. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, teaches that the lights on the right side of the menorah represent those who pursue spiritual matters, and the lights on the left side represent those who pursue temporal activities. Together, the six lights on the sides of the menorah represent humanity.  The central light represents G-d. In order for G-d’s light to shine into our world, the light from all people must shine towards G-d. Only with a unified effort can we experience G-d’s light. When G-d showed Moshe a “menorah of fire”, He was showing Moshe that it is not the lights of the menorah that are important, but, rather, that it is the menorah itself that gives off light by unifying all of its individual components. The menorah originated in one piece of gold, which was divided into seven candles whose light fused back into one.

This idea reflects beautifully into the normative halakha. The menorah must have seven lights. It must represent each and every Jew. If even one is missing, then the menorah cannot fulfil its purpose. For the same reason, each lamp must be able to be counted separately. The lamps do not fuse, only their light does. And finally, each light must reside on the same level. Whether we take a circular path, a diagonal path, or any other path, no matter how jagged, we are all part of the same ineffable nation.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/vl/DanyHanuka/DanyHanuka07.pdf

[2] Since Rabbi Ariel wrote his article, another piece of evidence has surfaced. A menorah with circular branches was found etched on a stone in a synagogue in Magdala. This synagogue stood before the second Temple was destroyed, making it highly likely that the artisan had seen the menorah with his own eyes.

[3] This menorah is located on the way down from the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall plaza.

[4] The Rambam’s diagram contains only almond flowers, knobs, and blossoms, without any connecting tissue. This could be an indication that he was not trying to describe the shape of the branches. Nevertheless, the comment of his son, Abraham (“not in arc-shape as others have drawn”), cannot be explained away.

[5] The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law, was written by Rabbi Joseph Karo, in the 16th century.

[6] Strangely, in the Rambam’s drawing of the menorah, not all of the lamps are on the same level.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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