The Origins of the Hanukkah Menorah

 

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 nothing happens during that time period, that bears any crucial consequences for the average farmer, as opposed to Passover for example, or Pentecost. But others claim that there was such a holiday, marking the season of the olive harvest, and that 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 wrapped up in the war during the appropriate time, several weeks earlier. Later on the holiday came into its own to perpetuate this historical event.

 

Shira Elazary - Israeli Tour Guide - Almond Blossom

 

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, they used those rods to improvise a substitude, before getting around to re-casting one out of gold. The other story tells of them finding a small can of pure olive oil, which was the only remaining one that was not tainted by the desecration caused by the Greeks. There was only enough oil there to last a single day of lighting the Menorah, but by some miracle, it lasted through all eight days of the holiday.

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 taking of its Menorah, which occurred a couple of centuries later, it was forbidden to create anymore Menorahs mimicking the ones that were lost. Therefor, the fact that the Hanukkah Menorah has 8 candles (plus a 9th, used to light all the rest) and not 7, means we can commemorate the events of the holiday and even mimic the actions of the Maccabees at the Temple, without actually breaking the taboo. 

 

 

 

Titus Gate, image from absfreepic.com

What did the Temple Menorah look like?

The original Menorah mentioned in the Bible was lost during the Hasmonean rebellion, so when the Maccabees took the Temple back, after re-sanctifying it they re-cast all the items used in its rituals, including the Menorah. We have a reasonable guess as to the appearance of that one from Titus Gate in Rome, where it is shown being carried in triumph by the Roman army. There are problems with this depiction however, because the base of the Menorah is decorated with pagan imagery, which is highly unlikely to have been the case in real life. 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. 

What we do know a lot about however, is 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 elements from the natural world, and as it turns out, the Land of Israel also has some very widespread plants that look very similar, and have medicinal qualities that have earned them a sanctified status among the region's ancient civilizations. They're called Salvia in Latin, based on the verb "salvar" - "to save". Their English name is Sage and in Arabic name it's Maryameyee, which some scholars believe was based on the ancient Hebrew name of Moriah. Yes, like the name of the Land and the name of its most important mountain, Temple Mount.

 

A flowering sage unfolds its stems, looking just like a Jewish Menorah

A flowering sage unfolds its stems, looking just like a Menorah (photo taken from "Nature and Landscape in Jewish Heritage", by Noga HaReuveny)

A gall at the end of a sage stem (photo taken from "Nature and Landscape in Jewish Heritage", by Noga HaReuveny)

Wherever a new branch grows out of an older branch, it's at the base of a leaf - on the Menorah, these would be the "knops". The Jewish sages have likened these knops to "Apples of Crete". There actually does exist a type of sage plant, that grows in Crete, which tends to grow galls - little growths caused be insect bites, that shelter their next generation. Those galls are edible and apparently quite tasty, so much so that 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 go into the gall and come out its other side. It's possible that the Menorah's knops imitated the shape of the galls, and when the Jewish sages - who in this case were located in Babylon - wanted to convey that, they used the much more famous Crete Sage.

A nice touch: the Biblical name for the Island of Crete is Kaphtor - which happens to be the very word in Hebrew for knop.

"Cups Made like Almond Blossoms"

Young almond fruit, 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 emphasize how much God intends to keep His word and make sure it comes true:

"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 that shakes off winter and puts forth a magnificent display of white flowers, before even growing one green leaf (those grow only some time later). The Hebrew name for the almond - Shakéd - was thus turned into a verb, describing diligent hard work.

As we can see, the almond wasn't only meaningful for the shape of the cups at the end of the Menorah's branches, but also for its symbolic meaning of perseverance and hard work. 

Young almonds crowned with dried petals

Young almonds crowned with dried petals (photo taken from "Nature and Landscape in Jewish Heritage", by Noga HaReuveny)

 

Light and Scent

The Menorah is always mentioned together 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 put out 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 the people bid farewell to the Sabbath by blessing over 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.

This is a type of tree that 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 sees 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

The significance of the olive in the ancient world is a fascinating topic I love to elaborate on during private tours with my clients. For now, suffice it to say that the light of the Menorah was not just the physical light 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.

 

 

 

 

Of Hanukkah

This is the only holiday in the Jewish calender, 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 country, and its light is the light of the olive trees. It brings together knops and flowers and cups made like almond blossoms, signifying the daily striving 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.

 

Mosaic of a white pelican feeding its young on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Calvary Hill Mosaics

(Click on any image to enlarge)

The church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most unique and impressive sites in Israel, with an appeal transcends any religious definitions. Most Christian denominations mark this place as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection, but even non-Christians find themselves marveling at the Escher-esque architecture and colorful stories from its long history.

 

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with light coming in from above

Upon entering the church, one immediately encounters the structure that covers Calvary Hill, the modest limestone mound on top of which Jesus was crucified. Atop the winding flight of stairs lie three (out of the fourteen) Stations of the Cross - stops along the path of that fateful day. This essay will focus on the intricate mosaics covering the ceiling of the 11th station, a small Catholic chapel dedicated to Jesus' nailing to the cross.

The mosaics were the creation of Antonio Barluzzi (1884–1960), an Italian Franciscan monk and architect, known as "the Architect of the Holy Land". Throughout the 1930's he designed many of the Catholic churches in the most important holy locations, always striving to connect with ancient relics found on site and stay true to their style. Here he based all of his work on this exceptional medallion, which has survived from the Crusader period (it is very rare to find such ancient ceilings still in tact).

Crusader ceiling mosaic with the inscription "Ascensio" on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

The arch leading into the chapel is decorated with two verses in Latin, taken not from the New Testament but from the Old, as if saying: if you want to understand what happened here, you must start at the very beginning. The first verse, where the words Ovis (lamb) and Occisionem (slaughter) can be seen, is taken from Isaiah 53:7 : "He was led as a lamb to the slaughter". The second, including the words Dolores Nostros (our suffering) is Isaiah 53:4 : "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted."

These two verses stress that the drama here arises not from victimization by some enemy but from voluntary self sacrifice. This is in accordance with the Nostra Aetate, the Vatican's declaration from 1965 on the relation of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions, stating among other things that the Jews should not be condemned for their role in bringing about the death of Jesus.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

Calvary Hill Mosaics

The arch leads to the first vaulted ceiling, depicting the four Old Testament prophets who have hinted at the eventual coming of Jesus, with quotes from their books that relate strongly to the topics of this chapel, the nailing in particular and the theme of sacrifice in general.

Calvary Hill mosaics

This is Isaiah, closest to the arch that bears his words, with a quote mentioning the word Oblatus (an offering). This is a different section from the same verse as the arch (53:7) : "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth.

Calvary Hill mosaics

Zechariah appears with a quote from his book, including the words aspicient ad me - look at me. "Then they will look on Me whom they pierced."  (12:10). The original reading is that the nation has paid a hefty price, and the Christian reading is that it was Jesus who paid.

Mosaic of Prophet Daniel on the dome of Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Daniel's apocalyptic book was very popular during the 2nd Temple period. The quote, the most prominent word of which is Christus (Christ), is taken from his Seventy Weeks prophecy, describing the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (9:26) : "And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off". In his consecration speech in 335AD, the great Eusebius quoted this prophecy, stating that this very church was the "new Jerusalem" it was foreseeing.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

King David is depicted here as one of the prophets, quoting Psalms 22:16 : "They pierced My hands and My feet". Easily identifiable are the words manus (hands) and pedes (feet). This is a lion, all tied up and surrounded with a pack of hungry dogs.

The four prophets are surrounded with circles, portraying relevant stories from the Old Testament, all springing from the roots of a rich, fruit laden vine (representing wine, a recurring symbol for Christ). 

The large mosaic on the wall (below to the left) depicts the Binding of Isaac. Like Jesus, this boy is lying quietly, allowing his own sacrifice. This story has always symbolized the boundless love between the Lord and mankind, but here the Lord wished to spare Abraham the pain of losing his beloved son for this love, and provided a ram to take his place - thus distinguishing Judaism from the pagan world at the time, in which child sacrifice was commonplace.

This connects us to the mosaic in the far end of the chapel (below to the right), showing Jesus, looking very similar to Isaac, being bound (with nails this time) to the cross. Note the small thorn bush in the back - but this time there is no ram caught in it. God does not spare himself the pain of sacrificing his own beloved son for his love of mankind.

Also in this mosaic we see Mary, mother of Jesus, standing in black above him. The woman crying over him is Mary Magdalene, who can always be identified by her unruly red hair, bursting out of her head cover, hinting at her strong personality and emotions.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

Mosaic of the nailing of Jesus to the Cross with Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

The adjoining wall is dominated by Mary Magdalene in her grief. Again her hair/emotions cannot be held back, with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Cleopas silent and reserved by her side. The man in red is John, Jesus' favorite disciple, whose beardless face show he must be very young here. According to tradition, the very same man grew up to write (among other things) the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelations, near the end of the 1st century. In the background we see the walled city of Jerusalem, reminding us that this place, now in the heart of the busy city, used to be an empty, wild wasteland.

Mosaic of grieving Mary Magdelene on Calvary Hill

As we advance to the next vaulted ceiling, we also advance in time into the New Testament. In the center there is a decorated circle. Inside are a Christogram, a combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ (in this case the letters chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ), the first two letters of "Christ" in Greek), and the letters alpha (A) and omega (ω), first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (mentioned in Revelations 22:13 : "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." ).

Dome covered in mosaics on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of Alpha and Omega with a christogram on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Saint Peter

Mosaic of Saint Peter on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

 Saint Paul

Mosaic of Saint Paul on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

This fruit laden vine is as rich and plentiful as the one depicted on the previous ceiling, but among the baskets of abundance hide other symbols: the cup of agony (below to the left) and a reed with a vinegar-soaked sponge next to a spear (below to the right), reminding us of the price that was paid. 

In the middle we see that the cross has became the tool by which Christ can redeem the world - an idea dubbed salus mundi. It is surrounded by 12 white doves, representing the apostles of course, but also the dozen tribes, signifying the universal nature of this idea.

Mosaic of vines, fruit and the Cup of Agony on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of a Salus Mundi style cross, with a face in the middle and 12 white doves on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of vines, fruit, a spear, two whips and a hammer, on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Thus ends the story of this little chapel, which has led us from the first sin and away from heaven's Tree of Life, through prophecies, failures and hopes of redemption, all the way to the cross on Calvary hill - literally a Tree of Death - by which all humanity can to be saved.

A view of Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David, all lit up with art installations that resemble a garden, at the Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival 2015

The Jerusalem light festival (a.k.a "Light in Jerusalem") is celebrated every June since 2009.

Every night for a whole week, parts of the Old city are turned into a glowing garden, with installations by local and international artists, street performers, music, all free of charge, and of course, stalls selling snacks and all manner of glowy  things.

This is a compilation of photos I took that night - click on the images to see a pop up of a large version.

This year I had the perfect chance - I was ascending to Jerusalem anyway for a full day of study in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (more on that in a future entry), so I recruited a good friend and we stayed in town until darkness set in. 

At 8pm sharp we exited the church to find that even though it wasn't quite dark yet, the Muristan fountain in the Christian quarter was already lit.

There was some wonderful music playing, and the view was completely different from every angle you looked.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Along the alleys2013-03-02-11.34.43.jpg there were glowing lines, denoting the different trails leading through the installations. In the photo above you can see we were on the blue trail, but soon left it to find the information center at Jaffa gate.

Before we actually got there though, we were stopped by some wonderful jellyfish.

 

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

When we got there, the place was swarming with crowds, and set up like a somewhat psychedelic Alice in Wonderland garden.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

We picked up some maps and decided to follow the green trail. 

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

The green trail hugged the outer walls, and after climbing along for a while I turned around to look back to see this view.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

There was a French installation here, called Fish Forest.  

I admit that to my clearly un-artistic eyes, it looked a bit more like fish shish-kebabs.

Then we arrived at the Field of Light Flowers, an Israeli piece that kept reacting to the music, and everything else was forgotten...

Jerusalem Light Festival

Along the trail there was also this Singaporean bench called C/Ͻ, where strangers could sit together and enjoy the changing colors.

We finally arrived at Damascus Gate, and sat down to enjoy the exhibition of drawings on the subject of gates. The work was done by children of all ages from schools around the country, and  projected on a most lovely canvass.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Also... Yes, this happened too.

Jerusalem Light Festival

From the gate we cut straight through the alleys of the Muslim quarter, to rejoin the blue trail inside the Cardo, where we saw this exhibition of shadow sculptures.

Jerusalem Light Festival

The Cardo kept going with two more installments: "Sea Level" by Brazillian artists, and the Japanese/French "Daydream".

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

I took a quick detour through the main plaza of the Jewish quarter, to check out the giant Pendulum (Netherlands) placed outside "The Ruin" synagogue. Click on the video to see it in action.

Jerusalem Light Festival

It was getting late so we decided to head out, picking up the white trail. Near Zion Gate we saw a live sand animation show...

Jerusalem Light Festival

... And another light & movement show, called Light Trickeries, performed by Pyromania Group.

Here we saw another favorite of mine: Dialogue in Color, by Israeli artists, so fitting to the region we live in.

Jerusalem Light Festival

The ramparts of David's Citadel were covered with a French installation, called Variations.

Jerusalem Light Festival

... And that was my experience in the Jerusalem Light Festival 2015. There were many more installations I didn't even visit and many I didn't photograph, lots of people, lots of music and lots of light. 

What a wonderful way to infuse these old, old stones with new life, color and joy.

Jerusalem Light Festival