THE BLOG

What's in a Shape?

11/27/2013 10:47 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014
Werner Forman via Getty Images

Traditionally, a sanctuary environment contains a symbolic menorah or a pair, meant to recall the menorah that stood within the mishkan/tabernacle and ultimately in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a symbol of the direct connection between our modern-day sanctuaries and the ancient Temple. Similarly Chanukah, known as the Festival of Lights, uses a hybridized version of the original menorah -- eight cups instead of seven, to hearken back to the original as well as to commemorate the great miracle of the single cruise of oil lasting for eight days.

The customary shape and patterning of the Chanukah menorah generally conforms to one of two recognizable configurations. The classical rounded form is most notably associated with the Temple service and specifically depicted in the iconic image on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The relief sculpture on the arch shows the menorah and other objects being taken away from the Temple after the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The other form, equally ubiquitous during the celebration of Chanukah, is an angle-armed, triangular configuration espoused by no less than Rashi, the great medieval sage of Biblical exegesis, and later by Maimonides in the 12th century, who even sketched a picture illustrating his figurative interpretation. This configuration was subsequently adopted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and has since become synonymous with the Chabad movement. Thanks to the movement's monumental outreach programs, menorahs of this type are typically seen in major city squares the world over during Chanukah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was quite adamant in his directive concerning the proper shape of the menorah in accordance with the Maimonidean approach. He also reasoned that the pattern as depicted on the Arch of Titus was a symbol of pain and suffering for the Jews, and as such, should not be fostered.

By their very nature, symbols are complicated affairs, and as Joseph Campbell points out in his seminal essay "The Symbol Without Meaning": "a symbol, like everything else, shows a double aspect. We must distinguish therefore between the 'sense' and the 'meaning' of a symbol." Similarly, the rounded menorah subsumed a duality of meanings -- the first, of light and wisdom meant to illuminate the darkest corners of the world when standing in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the second, of exile and defeat, shame and ignominy, when paraded through the streets of Rome after the pillage and despoiling of Jerusalem.

In an ironic turn of events, this laden symbol was adopted by none other than the nascent state of Israel to be its coat of arms. Alongside the Magen David or Jewish star -- itself a symbol with a murky background but rising to deprecatory prominence during the Shoah as the Jews' 'badge of shame' -- the menorah became the symbol par-excellence of a people repealing and rescinding its exilic past.

Paradoxically, the Israelis, so hyper-sensitive to references and implications recalling the 2000-year-long Diaspora with all its concurrent ruination, decided to reclaim and repatriate this version of the symbol as its national emblem. At first blush, this seems incongruous with the fledgling state's total rejection of the "mummified state" of Jewish existence in the Diaspora. The carefully constructed ethos of the Israeli experience is as much a rebellion against its vulnerable and hazardous past as it is the guarantor for the prevention of another. As such, it is both natural and justified to reach back into history and recall a reference replete with historical, religious, and perhaps most importantly, geographic significance. For the early Zionists, the Maccabean revolution was a perfect fit. How strange then that having the choice, Israel didn't adopt -- as the Lubavitcher Rebbe did -- a perhaps lesser known configuration, but one not associated so directly with the pain of exile.

The Talmud relays a telling story concerning Moses, the greatest of the prophets, and the design of the menorah. There were apparently three things that God told Moses that even he could not fully envisage. One of them was the specific design of the menorah. Cast of solid gold, seven arms festooned with cups, flowers, almonds, a three-legged base, all perfectly coherent. But what did it look like exactly? What was its final articulation and appearance? Even Moses was unable to visualize it merely from God's description. In the end, it was miraculously forged from molten gold for Moses, as he was unable to create it himself.

Perplexing as the final form of the menorah was to Moses, and as it apparently remains, its ultimate purpose remains clear: That the luminosity of its lights which hearken back to the primordial light of creation, beckon toward a world suffused with universal truth and justice. This is why we are enjoined to publicly display the illuminated menorah, allowing the light and its powerful message to permeate our souls.