Every year, in the early darkness of winter, Jews around the world light a Hanukkah Menorah to celebrate the Holiday of Light. The word "Menorah" is Hebrew for "lamp", and "Hanukkah" is Hebrew for "consecration". The holiday was named after the re-dedication of the sacred alter at the Jewish Temple, by the Hasmonean Maccabees, who took it back in 164 BC, during their successful rebellion against the Greeks.
We actually don't know of any famous biblical holidays taking place in the peak of winter (like in the case of Christmas), and some think that's because during that time period, nothing happens that bears any crucial consequences for the average farmer, as opposed to Passover for example, or Pentecost. But others claim that there actually was such a holiday, marking the season of the olive harvest, but it was overshadowed by the dramatic battle story, and finally forgotten.
We can read the story in the 2nd Book of Maccabees:
"Judas Maccabeus and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. They tore down the altars which foreigners had set up in the marketplace and destroyed the other places of worship that had been built. They purified the Temple and built a new altar. Then, with new fire started by striking flint, they offered sacrifice for the first time in two years, burned incense, lighted the lamps, and set out the sacred loaves. After they had done all this, they lay face down on the ground and prayed that the Lord would never again let such disasters strike them. They begged him to be merciful when he punished them for future sins and not hand them over any more to barbaric, pagan Gentiles. They rededicated the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the same day of the same month on which the Temple had been desecrated by the Gentiles. The happy celebration lasted eight days, like the Festival of Shelters, and the people remembered how only a short time before, they had spent the Festival of Shelters wandering like wild animals in the mountains and living in caves. But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple. Everyone agreed that the entire Jewish nation should celebrate this festival each year." - 2 Maccabees 10:1-9
We understand that the new holiday lasted 8 days because the Maccabees were eager to properly celebrate Tabernacles ("the Festival of Shelters") and its Eighth Day (Shemini Atzeret), after being busy fighting the war several weeks earlier, during the appropriate time. Later on the holiday came into its own to perpetuate this historical event.
The Eight Candles of the Hanukkah Menorah
The Jewish sages tell two stories about the origin of the Hanukkah Menorah ("Hanukkiah") and reason for its particular number of candles.
The first tells of eight metal rods that were found in the Temple, and since the original, biblical Menorah, was lost during the rebellion, these rods were used as a makeshift Menorah, before getting around to re-casting one out of gold. The other story tells of a small can of pure olive oil, the one and only remaining can that was not tainted by the Greeks. There was only enough oil in there to light the Menorah for one single day, but by some miracle, it lasted throughout all eight days of celebration.
It is clear that both these traditions center around the renewal of the lighting of the Menorah, and around pure olive oil.
We also know that following the destruction of the Temple and the loss of its Menorah, a couple of centuries later, it was forbidden to create any more Menorahs mimicking the ones that were lost. Therefor, the Hanukkah Menorah having 8 candles (plus a 9th, used to light all the rest) and not 7, means we can celebrate the events of the holiday and even mimic the actions of the Maccabees at the Temple, without actually breaking that taboo.
What did the Temple Menorah look like?
The original Menorah mentioned in the Bible was lost during the Hasmonean rebellion, so after the Maccabees took the Temple back and re-sanctified it, they also re-cast all of its holy items, including the Menorah. We have a reasonable guess as to the appearance of that version of the Menorah, based on Titus Gate in Rome, where it is shown being carried in triumph by the Roman army. There are problems with that depiction however, as the base of the Menorah is decorated with pagan imagery, and is a different shape than what appears in many archaeological depictions. This can be explained in several manners - either the base of the Menorah broke off, or maybe it was simply carried in a decorated box.
We also get a detailed account of the appearance of the original Menorah:
"And he made the candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work made he the candlestick, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knops, and its flowers, were of one piece with it. And there were six branches going out of the sides thereof: three branches of the candlestick out of the one side thereof, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side thereof; three cups made like almond-blossoms in one branch, a knop and a flower; and three cups made like almond-blossoms in the other branch, a knop and a flower. So for the six branches going out of the candlestick. And in the candlestick were four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knops thereof, and the flowers thereof; and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of it. Their knops and their branches were of one piece with it; the whole of it was one beaten work of pure gold. And he made the lamps thereof, seven, and the tongs thereof, and the snuffdishes thereof, of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold made he it, and all the vessels thereof." - Exodus 37:17-24
This detailed description mentions many natural elements. As a matter of fact, in the Land of Israel there is a common plant that looks very much like it, and also has medicinal properties, rendering it sacred among the region's ancient civilizations. In Latin it's called Salvia, based on "salvar" - "to save". The English name is Sage and in Arabic it's Maryameyee, which some scholars believe was based on the ancient Hebrew name of Moriah. Yes, like the name of the Holy Land and the name of its holiest mountain, Temple Mount.
The sage's joints, where a new branch grows out of an older branch, are always located at the base of the leaves. In the Menorah, these would be the "knops". The Jewish sages have likened these knops to "Apples of Crete". Crete actually does have a type of sage, which tends to grow galls (little growths caused be insect bites, that shelter their next generation). These galls are edible and apparently quite tasty, as they're actually nicknamed "apples".
That species has a close relative here in Israel, known as "Three Lobed Sage". It also grows edible galls, which is probably why its Latin name is Salvia fruticosa. Just like the Bible says, the sage's branch appears to lead into the gall and come out the other side. It's possible that the Menorah's knops were shaped after the galls, and when the Jewish sages - who in this case were located in Babylon - wanted to illustrate that idea, they named the much more famous Crete Sage.
A nice touch: the Biblical name for the Island of Crete is Kaphtor - which happens to be the Hebrew word for knop!
"Cups Made like Almond Blossoms"
Young almonds, just starting to swell under the still-attached petals, look a lot like goblets. This fits well with this Biblical description.
In the Book of Jeremiah, the almond is used to illustrate God intent to keep His word:
"Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying: ‘Jeremiah, what seest thou?’ And I said: ‘I see a rod of an almond-tree.’ Then said the LORD unto me: ‘Thou hast well seen; for I watch over My word to perform it." - Jeremiah 1:11-12
The almond is the very first tree to shake off winter and burst into a magnificent flurry of white flowers, before producing single green leaf. The Hebrew name for the almond - Shakéd - was aptly turned into a verb, describing diligence and hard work.
The almond's purpose wasn't just to physically embody the shape of the Menorah's cups, but also to allude to perseverance and hard work.
Light and Scent
The Menorah is always mentioned in conjunction with perfumes and incense:
"And Aaron shall burn thereon incense of sweet spices; every morning, when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at dusk, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations." - Exodus 30:7-8
All over the Land of Israel, when the sun burns bright, the sage plants and their relatives exude a perfumed scent for everyone to enjoy, as a result of the essential oils they contain . The Jewish sages have told that when the Torah was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, every Commandment came down from heaven accompanied with the scent of perfumes, and this resonates to this day in the Havdalah ceremony, where people bid farewell to the Sabbath by blessing the light of fire and the scented spices (in Hebrew: perfumes).
Olives for Light
The Temple Menorah was lit using "pure olive oil beaten for the light" (Exodus 27:20), made by workers who were ritually cleansed, especially for the purpose of lighting the Temple.
The significance of the olive in the ancient world is a topic I love to elaborate on during private tours with my clients. This tree illuminates the landscape - the leaves have a dark green side and a silvery side, and when the wind blows they move and seem to sparkle. It is no surprise that this is what Prophet Zechariah saw in his vision after the nation's return to Jerusalem from the exile in Babylon:
"And he said unto me: ‘What seest thou?’ And I said: ‘I have seen, and behold a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and its seven lamps thereon; there are seven pipes, yea, seven, to the lamps, which are upon the top thereof; and two olive-trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof.’ And I answered and spoke to the angel that spoke with me, saying: ‘What are these, my lord?’ Then the angel that spoke with me answered and said unto me: ‘Knowest thou not what these are?’ And I said: ‘No, my lord.’ Then he answered and spoke unto me, saying: ‘This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the LORD of hosts." - Zechariah 4:2-6
So the light of the Menorah was not just for the practical use of illuminating the Temple, and not just a symbol for the diligent prayer over the olive crops, but also the light of the olive tree itself.
This is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar based solely on historical events. Nevertheless, it is a reflection of the Land of Israel, in the Hanukkah Menorahs burning bright in Jewish homes worldwide.
In its image, the Temple Menorah carries the shape and scent of the sage plants that grow all over the land, and its light is the light of the olive trees. It brings together knops and flowers and cups made like almond blossoms, signifying the everyday quest for balance. This is the item that was placed at the center of the official symbol of the State of Israel, just as it appeared in Zechariah's vision, after having been brought back from exile to establish a life of peace and light.