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.

 

Brown sheep grazing in a sun-lit forest after the rains

What is the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey?

The phrase "A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey" appears in the bible more than 20 times, always in a very favorable context, as a land rich and nurturing beyond imagination.

"And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey..." - Exodus 3:8

"Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath promised unto thee—a land flowing with milk and honey." - Deuteronomy 6:3

 

Blossoming trees on a grassy, tarraced hillside

 

And then there's Isaiah. 

When he talks about an abundance of milk and honey, in his prophecy about the Assyrian attack on the Holy Land, it's clear that he's referencing this famous idiom, but the context is completely backwards:

"In that day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired in the parts beyond the River, even with the king of Assyria, the head and the hair of the feet; and it shall also sweep away the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall rear a young cow, and two sheep; and it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give, he shall eat curd; for curd and honey shall every one eat that is left in the midst of the land. And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, shall even be for briers and thorns. With arrows and with bow shall one come thither; because all the land shall become briers and thorns." - Isaiah 7:20-24

 

Fuzzy looking brown sheep looking calmly at camera

 

What kind of milk? What kind of honey?

To understand Isaiah's reference we must first understand these two products in biblical terms: both were naturally occurring and have been forming way before mankind realized it can regulate its manufacturing, and not just gather it when it's available.

When man realized he too can enjoy animal milk, he started to maintain herds, and to figure out the right conditions to make their milk flow abundantly, i.e. lush vegetation. Bees produce honey in order to nourish their next generation, and keep it in hives, hidden deep in the wild, in hollow trees and crevices. They also need to settle in the vicinity of some flowering plants, from which to collect nectar. In other words, the same conditions apply in areas that make both the milk and the honey flow: wild and rich in vegetation.

The Jewish sages from the first few centuries C.E. tell of bee-keeping, but in the Bible it's never mentioned, probably because people haven't figured it out yet. Back then, honey was considered a treat you might stumble upon, a kind of "finders keepers":

"Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it." - Proverbs 25:16

Or after Samson's fight with the lion: 

"And after a while he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and, behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. And he scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went, and he came to his father and mother, and gave unto them, and they did eat..." - Judges 14:8-9

These describe honey  as something that does not belong in well-manicured farms and fields but in the wild outdoors.

Bee vs. Date

There is an interesting question here, regarding the source of the honey. In several instances it seems more plausible that the Bible is referring to honey  made from dates, and not bee honey. Opinions differ to this day, both among modern researchers and the ancient sages. Rabbi Akiva for example, was certain that the "flowing honey" belonged to bees, but he had quite an opposition.

Deuteronomy 8:8 counts the seven native crops of the Promised Land: "a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey." Other than the first two grains, all the rest are fruit, and since these are all cultured crops and we know people weren't keeping any bees at the time, it makes sense the "honey" is also a fruit.

Another example is the report made by the tribal leaders Moses sent out to survey the Promised Land before entering:

"And they told him, and said: ‘We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it." - Numbers 13:27

The proximity of the words "honey" and "fruit" may suggest that they are in fact related.

 

 

Ripe yellow dates on a palm tree

 

One of the things I like most about text studies, is that you don't really need to come up with a definitive answer; both versions have value in telling a story. If indeed the "land flowing with milk and honey" was referring to goat milk and date honey, then it's a way of saying the land has both lush wild areas for shepherding AND areas that allow for agriculture. I like this reading very much, and in my personal opinion, the description of the seven crops indeed refers to dates.

However, if it were the case across the board, than why would Isaiah use a symbol of agriculture and prosperity to paint his prophecy of a land that "shall become briers and thorns."?

 

Dry yellow thorns mixed with star-shaped, bluish thorns

Forest vs. Civilization

If we go with bee honey, this makes more sense: Isaiah is talking about the destruction of civilizations as a result of the Assyrian invasion, and the subsequent takeover of wild vegetation. Other prophets have used this image as well:

"... And Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest." - Micah 3:12

"And I will lay waste her vines and her fig-trees, whereof she hath said: ‘These are my hire that my lovers have given me’; And I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall eat them." - Hosea 2:14

And also in a historic depiction in the Book of Maccabees, when the Jewish rebels discover what had happened to their temple:

"There they found the sanctuary deserted, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt down, and vegetation growing in the courts as it might in a wood or on some mountain, while the storerooms were in ruins." - 1 Maccabees 4:38

We see that as far as these prophets were concerned, a forest (the place we know to be flowing with animal milk and bee honey) is really a symbol of great destruction and the doom of civilization.

How does that settle with the magnificent descriptions of the Promised Land?

Let's take a closer look at the story of the tribal leaders Moses sent into the land to survey it. The report, as we have just seen, was full of amazement: finally, a green, lush land after 40 years of scarce desert thorns. But along with that came great fear: 

"The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature." - Numbers 13:32

Where did this creepy "land that eats up its inhabitants" come from? Actually it may well be a direct description, since we know the forests at the time were crawling with predators.

 

"...And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tore forty and two children of them." - 2 Kings 2:24

An impressive male lion looking alert

"My heritage is become unto me as a lion in the forest..." - Jeremiah 12:8

A wild boar with a bird on its back walking through tall grass

"The boar out of the wood doth ravage it…" - Psalms 80:13

Forest dwelling animals - bears, lions and boars - would occasionally come out to hunt, and a number of famous biblical figures have encountered them. The tribal leaders sent by Moses may have heard or even seen these animals, and felt as if the land might literally devour them, and that only giants might have a chance to survive in such a wild territory, a land flowing with milk and honey.

We must remember that in those days, the fertile valleys were already inhabited by pagans, so the area available for the Israelites to settle was the rough, wild mountain range. Eventually they established a flourishing agricultural society up there, and pushed the predators away.

 

Following the destruction, the Assyrians brought over foreigners, to settle the deserted Israelite cities:

"And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Avva, and from Hamath and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof. And so it was, at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them." - 2 Kings 17:24-25

After the Assyrians destroyed the towns and fields, and the land reverted to "briers and thorns", the predators returned and were able to pick off the occasional newcomer. No wonder Isaiah said in his vision that "With arrows and with bow shall one come thither" - for fear of the roaming predators.

And so, according to Isaiah, the land flowing with milk and honey is also the land that devours its inhabitants.

 

Dry thorns standing proudly in a clearing, surrounded by wild vegetation

  

Thick, mysterious-looking woods

A Note on Egypt

Another strange use of "a land flowing with milk and honey" appears during the long years in the desert, when the people complain to Moses:

"...is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness..." - Numbers 16:13

They are claiming that he has taken them AWAY from a land flowing with milk and honey, i.e. a land full of thick wild woods, but as we all know, Egypt, with its Nile and its delta, was the very embodiment of agriculture. 

The answer lies in the instructions Josef gave his brothers, when they came down from the famine-stricken Canaan to seek refuge in Egypt:

 "... when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation? that ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians." - Genesis 46:33-34

The Egyptians hated shepherds because of the damage their animals cause their fields, so it followed that the historically herd-owning Israelites would be allotted a place like Goshen - a distant piece of land, away from the fields, that would have plenty of natural vegetation for the animals; a land flowing with milk and honey.

 

Final Thoughts

The phrase "A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey" describes areas that are untended by man and covered in wild vegetation. So long as the Israelites made their living off of animal husbandry, it signified the promise of a rich, comfortable life. But once the forests were cleared and the people settled and started working the land, it became a dire warning.

 

 

Young goat with white-brown coat and pale blue eyes looking curiously at the camera with grass in its mouth