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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.