The menorah today has nine branches: one for each of the eight days of the Hanukkah miracle, and the central stem holding the shamash. The oldest known depictions of menorahs were different. They usually had six arms plus the central stem, and some rare ones have only four.
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There is no consensus on how today's nine-armed candelabrum used in commemorating Hannukkah emerged, especially given the divine directive to make menorahs with seven branches for other purposes entirely, but there are some intriguing ideas.
Hanukkah itself commemorates the purported miracle of one day's oil lasting eight days, at the height of the Maccabean revolution against Greek oppressors in the 2nd century B.C.E. Nowhere do Jewish sources dictate that a menorah be lit in commemoration, but that is the practice nowadays. As for menorahs themselves, one of the earliest-known depictions is from some 200 years later, and it's in Rome.
However, the oldest reference to a menorah is from a much earlier time, a time from which we have no archaeological evidence at all: the wandering of the Jews in the desert.
God directs: Six branches
Speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, according the bible, God handed down highly specific directions for his sanctuary and for the menorah that was to be placed inside (Exodus 25:31-40): it was to be made of hammered gold and have six branches, three on each side, with a central stem.
Indeed, seven-branched candelabra appear on ancient Jewish coins dating to the time of the Hasmonean ruler Antigonus II Mattathias (40–37 B.C.E). A menorah carved into a stone repurposed in the construction of a 1,400-year old Byzantine church in Abila, Jordan, also has six main arms (and is the earliest-known solid evidence of a Jewish presence in that city).
Indeed, most images of menorahs from antiquity show them with an elaborate base and six branches.
Yet evidently not everybody followed the divine dictate to make candelabra with three arms on each side. A crude menorah image found in an ancient drainage tunnel in Jerusalem, carved onto a stone and dating to at least 2,000 years ago, has only four main branches. This carving could be older or contemporary with the Second Temple menorah.
Whether or not God directed the menorah's design, the motif of branches emerging from a central stem was inspired by the aromatic sage plant (Salvia hierosolymitana), speculates the Israeli botanist Ephraim Hareuveni, in a book publicized by his son Nogah Reuveni. His theory is based solely on the appearance of the plant, locally known as moriah, which can look remarkably menorah-like.
The Roman-era Jewish historian Josephus has a very different explanation: that the seven branches of the Temple menorah symbolized the “seven planets”: "It was made with its knobs, and lilies, and pomegranates, and bowlsby which means the shaft elevated itself on high from a single base, and spread itself into as many branches as there are planets...", those being the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
Somebody has it wrong
Given the uncertain antecedents of the four-branched menorah image found in Jerusalem, it's impossible to say which depiction is the earliest. Or what the great menorah in the Second Temple really looked like.
For years the menorah shown on the Arch of Titus in Rome, commemorating the triumphal march of the Roman troops after crushing the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E., had been thought to be the oldest known depiction, and also to show the menorah as it really was (the Romans should have known, as they looted it from the Temple). Israel’s official emblem was even designed on its basis.
Then archaeologists excavating in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, after the Six-Day War, found the carved image of a menorah on the wall of a mansion that had apparently belonged to wealthy Jews in the 1st century C.E.
In other words, they may have lived contemporarily with the existence (and destruction) of the Second Temple, and should have known what the real thing looked like too.
But if both the menorah on the Arch and in the house were meant to depict the menorah in the Temple, somebody had it wrong.
The menorah shown on the Arch of Titus was carved in three dimensions. The menorah in the so-called “Herodian Mansion in Jerusalem is incised, almost like a line drawing, with more emphasis of the “buds and flowers” protrusions from the branches. One major difference is that the mansion's menorah has a simple triangular base, while Roman rendition had a stepped base carved in reliefs.
We do not know which, if either, is a faithful depiction of the menorah in the temple, and may never know. Whatever it actually looked like, the menorah the Romans looted from the Second Temple has gone missing.
The Vandals who sacked Rome in 455 C.E. are said to have brought the menorah to Carthage, and about 80 years later, the Byzantine Christian general Belasarius took it to Constantinople. Procopius, court historian to the sixth-century Byzantine Emperor Justinian, says his boss sent it and the other Temple implements back to Jerusalem after Jews warned him that terrible things would befall him if he didn’t.
If the Christians did bring the menorah back to Jerusalem, and if it survived the Persian assault on the city in 614 C.E., scholars surmise, it would probably have found a home in one of Jerusalem’s grandest churches, known as the Nea. The rediscovery of the Nea, near Zion Gate after the Six-Day War, launched a search for the elusive sacred illuminator. Alas, the menorah was not found; a playground now stands over church’s massive ruined vaults.
The image is banned – by the rabbis
Meanwhile, the emergence of menorah images with four and eight arms could have been due to a rabbinical ban.
After the Second Temple was destroyed following the collapse of the Jewish revolt in 70 C.E., the sages banned making any Temple implements, including seven-branched menorahs (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 24a) to avoid encouraging Temple practices while the great house of worship lay in ruin.
Scholars say the creation of a nine-branch candelabrum may have been a way of getting around the ban while still remembering the lost menorah in the Temple.
The first reference to an eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, apparently also comes from the Talmud. In tractate Avodah Zara (8a), the sages imagine Adam, presumably after his first autumn, surprised to discover the days growing shorter. He ascribed it to his sins, and feared that soon darkness would envelop him and earth’s first family: “And so he fasted for eight days". After the winter equinox, when the days lengthened, he believed God had answered his prayers “so he feasted for eight days.”
Experts say that the sages used the story to give the pagan Saturnalia, observed around what became Hanukkah, a theological heave-ho. Along came the much-beloved tale of the single cruse of consecrated oil and the eight-day miracle, also from the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) to give us our winter celebration of heroism.
Today Jerusalem is graced by another seven-branched candelabrum, but it isn't in the Temple, which hasn't existed for 2,000 years, or anywhere near its original site on Temple Mount. Located outside the Knesset, it towers 4.3 meters in height and was given to Israel by the people of Great Britain in 1956. On it is carved a biblical verse from the prophet Zechariah: “I see a lampstand all of gold with seven lampsby it are two olive trees’ He answered, 'Do you not know what these are?'" And he explained: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts" (Zecharia 4:1–6). It is a reference to the limitations of the human power in our legislature, versus the hope for God’s spirit to prevail.