The symbol of the State of Israel is a Menorah, flanked on each side by an olive branch. This familiar image was adopted as the country’s official emblem by the Provisional Council of the State of Israel on February 10th, 1949. It was designed by Gabriel and Maxim Shamir, two brothers from Latvia who studied graphics and design in Berlin prior to making Aliyah, and were responsible for creating a number of emblems, medals, stamps, and currency for the young state.
It’s easy to understand why the emblem was adopted by the nascent nation. The Menorah has been an important Jewish symbol since antiquity. In addition to its role in the tabernacle, the Holy Temple, and the Hanukkah story, images of the Menorah have been found in synagogues, cemeteries, mosaics, and seals throughout Jewish history. The decision to surround it with olive branches is based on Zechariah’s vision of a Menorah flanked by olive branches (Zech., Chap. 4).
But the choice of the Menorah as Israel’s emblem was not without controversy.
Upon close inspection, the Menorah depicted on Israel’s national emblem is the very Menorah that appears on the Arch of Titus in Rome. Built ca. 81 CE by Emperor Domitian to commemorate the victories of his brother Titus – including his conquest of Jerusalem – the south panel of the Arch famously depicts Roman soldiers with celebratory wreaths on their heads parading vessels taken from the Holy Temple: The table, trumpets, fire pans, and at its center – the Menorah.
Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog strongly objected to the choice for Israel’s emblem, as he believed that the Menorah which appears on the Arch of Titus is not the Menorah which stood in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (See his article, “Tzurat ha-Menorah B’keshet Titus,” published in Scritti in Memoria di Sally Mayer, 1956, pp. 95-98).
For Rabbi Herzog, most revealing is the hexagonal base of the Menorah, which appears on the Arch. According to the Talmud (Menahot 28b) and Rashi to Exodus 25:31, the Temple Menorah had a three-legged base and not a hexagonal base. In fact, images of a three-legged Menorah appear in carvings on a number of ancient synagogues and graves, and in ancient mosaics throughout Israel.
Another concern for Rabbi Herzog were the dragons and other mythical beasts like griffins, lions, eagles, and sea creatures, depicted on the base of the Menorah which appears on the Arch of Titus. Rabbi Herzog felt that it is inconceivable that such idolatrous creatures could be depicted on a Menorah that stood in the Holy Temple. The use of objects ornamented with dragons is explicitly forbidden by Jewish law (See Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3). More evidence for Rabbi Herzog that the Menorah on the Arch of Titus is not the Temple Menorah.
Instead, Rabbi Herzog suggested that it is very possible something happened to the original base of the Menorah on the long journey from Jerusalem to Rome, and the Romans simply replaced the original base with the hexagonal base which appears on the Arch of Titus.
Rabbi Herzog wrote, “What emerges from this is that our government has not done well today when we have merited again the light of Zion symbolized by the Menorah, copying specifically the image of the Menorah on the Arch of Titus which was made by the hands of foreigners and not made in the purity of holiness according to the Torah of our teacher Moses, genius of geniuses, and from other sources derived by great Torah scholars. And not just that, but an expert archeologist testified before me that the Menorot depicted on the graves in the catacombs of Rome are all three-legged, as are all of the Menorot depicted in the mosaics of synagogue remains found in the Land of Israel.”
Rabbi Herzog was not the only one to question the identity of the Menorah that appears on the Arch of Titus. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe believed that the branches of the Temple Menorah were straight and not curved, based on an illustration of Maimonides which appears in the manuscript of his commentary on the Mishnah, as well the testimony of his son, Rabbi Avraham ben ha-Rambam. Accordingly, he did not believe the Menorah on the the Arch of Titus to be the Menorah from the Holy Temple.
It would appear as if the Shamir brothers anticipated the objection – at least the objectionable beasts on the Arch of Titus Menorah – and intentionally obscured these images in the emblem of Israel. Instead, they appear as unclear, squiggly lines in their design.
Given his objections, Rabbi Herzog advocated that the Provisional Council adopt one of the other submissions. But his opposition fell upon deaf ears. Other Religious Zionist rabbis did not voice an objection. And very quickly the controversial new emblem gained acceptance. In time for Israel’s first Independence Day, even the Religious Zionist newspaper ha-Zofeh chose the new emblem to grace the cover of one of its supplements.
For some, the choice of a Menorah plucked from the Arch of Titus in Rome for the newly created modern State of Israel was symbolic and meaningful. For centuries the Arch of Titus represented the destruction of the Holy Temple and Jerusalem. It represented the long and painful Exile. But following Israel’s independence, that very same image took on new life and new meaning. Now that they had built a state and returned home to Jerusalem, they viewed the image with a new found sense of hope and even victory. And the Menorah of the Arch of Titus, along with other images invoking the famous relief in Rome, began to appear on Jewish book covers, on monuments, and in religious art, following the founding of the State of Israel.
The emblem was adopted by the Jewish State and has since become a source of national pride.