My wife and I just returned home to Tel Aviv from Rome, where the sight of the famed menorah etched into the Arch of Titus made us feel unexpectedly emotional.
Jewish refugees/slaves as depicted on the Arch of Titus; carrying the Menorah, silver trumpets, fire pans, and the high priest’s table from Jerusalem to Rome.
We could see the pain etched in the faces of the exiled Jews on their way to Rome in the arch meant to glorify Titus’s great conquest of the year 70 CE. The arch was placed directly in front of the Colosseum which was built on the backs of these same Jewish slaves using the money from Jerusalem’s treasury.
The main road of the Roman Forum goes through the Arch of Titus leading straight to the Colosseum.
On Tisha B’av, we think about this arch in the context of national tragedy. Seeing the arch at Hanukkah time provides a different perspective, where the focus of Titus’s menorah reminisces about the period of an independent Jewish dynasty 2100 years ago, where the menorah served as its most important symbol. The menorah of the national symbol of the modern State of Israel is fashioned after Titus’s menorah, meant to evoke the feelings of both tragedy and of glory simultaneously.
The menorah of the Arch of Titus was once the earliest known image of the menorah, and thus was thought to be the most accurate. To this day, tourists in the Old City of Jerusalem marvel at the Temple Institute’s full scale recreation of the menorah, which is closely modelled after the menorah of Titus. But archaeologists have noted that the menorah of Titus has a base that looks curiously Roman. Its hexagonal base is laden with images of Roman mythological creatures, namely: a dragon, griffins, lions, eagles, and sea creatures.
The symbol of the state of Israel is almost identical to the menorah in the Arch of Titus, with the images on the base distinguishing the two apart.
These images more closely match those of the decorations of the palaces and chariots of Roman emperors. Gabriel and Maxim Shamir must have realized this when designing Israel’s national symbol menorah, and changed the images to those of peaceful animals. Josephus Flavius, the Jewish-Roman historian of the period, reported upon seeing the menorah in Rome: “… the menorah made also from gold was constructed according to other pattern than we use.” After presumably seeing the menorah with his own eyes in Jerusalem, Josephus seems surprised at its current look when it arrived to Rome. It was more than the images of the Roman creatures on the base that caused Josephus to do a double-take.
Carved into the limestone stand used for torah reading, is the earliest image found of the menorah
The most detailed and accurate image of the menorah was found in 2009 in the ancient synagogue of Magdalah, on the north-west corner of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Magdalah is the Jewish town that Mary Magdalene was possibly from and was destroyed in the Great Revolt, sometime around 70 CE. Here they found a table that was used to read the Torah from that has a four sided, 3D image of the Temple and the Holy of Holies. And its central image is the menorah. This image of the menorah was made during a time when the physical menorah was actually in use by people and therefore the designers would likely have seen it with their own eyes. Like other images found even before Magdalah and in the following centuries in the Galilee, throughout Israel, and on the arch of Titus, the menorah has seven branches of equal height and is always surrounded by other Temple objects. The difference lies in the base of the menorah. In all versions of the menorah designed by Jews, the base has three legs and is supported by a larger block below it. There is no hexagon and no images of animals like the Roman menorah.
The menorah from the mosaic in the synagogue of Tzippori in the Galilee is typical of the Byzantine period, with three legs surrounded by other images of objects from the Temple.
One accepted theory for the difference in the base is that the base of the menorah had been lost in transit to Rome – hence Josephus’ initial confusion at the sight of the menorah. Also, the Arch of Titus was only built in the year 82 CE (12 years after the destruction of the Temple), by Emperor Domitian – the emperor who followed his brother Titus. For all we know, by the time the arch was created, the gold had been melted down. The new Roman image for the base of the menorah, one without the three legs seen in Magdalah, further glorified the gods of Rome and its emperor and was no longer connected to the Jews that had fashioned it and were forced to carry it to Rome.
As we light our hanukiyot every night, and retell the legend of the lighting of the menorah, we can give the Hasmoneans and the Jews one extra victory. Instead of imagining the menorah to be the Roman image of Titus, let’s instead imagine the Jewish versions of the menorah. A menorah with three legs surrounded by trumpets blaring, not one with Roman images surrounded by pain and suffering.