What Are the Weird Scribbles on the State of Israel's Emblem?

They look startlingly like dragons and nymphs found at the temple of Apollo in Didyma, with allowances made for Jewish custom.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

It may just be me, but when I look at the base of the menorah on the Emblem of the State of Israel, I see two squirrels, a couple of elephants holding each other’s trunks, two pairs of ducks, and a page taken from the Kama Sutra. What are these scribbles, and what are they doing on the emblem?

Three weeks after the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the government issued a call to the young nation's graphic designers to submit designs for the country’s emblem. The committee responsible for the tender specified that the symbol should have the menorah as its main element.

Out of the hundreds of suggestions that arrived, the committee chose a design submitted by the brothers Gabriel and Maxim Shamir: a schematic menorah with seven six-pointed stars over it and an olive branch on each side. But the committee asked the brothers Shamir to make the menorah look more ancient, and to add Israel's name.

The result was the Emblem of the State of Israel, which the government approved on February 10, 1949.

A close-up of the base of the Menorah in the Emblem of the State of Israel.

The menorah that the Shamir brothers ultimately used on the symbol was a stylized version of the menorah carved in relief on Titus’ Arch in Rome. The arch was built in 83 CE to mark the victories of the deceased emperor – including the conquest of Jerusalem (Titus himself died in 81 CE).

Simply, those scribbles on the emblem are simplified versions of the ornamentation on the base of the menorah that is depicted on the arch.

The paint on the relief faded away centuries ago, and the stone engraving itself has worn over the ages. Yet we can still see that these designs portray a host of mythological creatures.

But the Ten Commandments state, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” Is it possible that a menorah with graven images really stood in the Temple? On this, researchers are divided.

The Arch of Titus, showing the "Spoils of Jerusalem" relief on the inside arch.Credit: Dnalor01, Wikimedia Commons

Grotesque in the eye of the beholder

On the one hand, some think it impossible for a menorah with such a base to have been used in the Temple. One theory has it that the base is an embellishment added by the Roman artist who carved the relief, for artistic purposes. But this is hard to believe, since the ratio between the menorah itself and its giant base would have seemed grotesque according to Roman aesthetic ideals.

Another theory is that the anonymous artist did draw what he had seen in the procession in which the menorah was brought to Rome, in 70 CE, but the base is not an integral part of the menorah.

Other depictions of the Temple menorah, etched on walls of synagogues and tombs from the first century CE and the centuries that followed, show it having no base at all, but as standing on three legs. According to this theory, the menorah was put in a box so that the Roman soldiers could carry it on their shoulders, and this box is what seems to be the base in the relief.

A closeup from the Arch of Titus, showing spoils - including a grand menorah - looted from the Second Temple.Credit: Dnalor01, Wikimedia Commons

Yet other scholars believe that the menorah on Titus’ Arch is a true depiction of the actual menorah carried away from Jerusalem.

For one thing, when the arch was being built, the menorah was on display in a pagan temple nearby, and the artist would probably have checked it out, for accuracy's sake. Furthermore, the Roman population and the Emperor Domitian, who paid for his brother Titus’ memorial, would probably have noticed if the menorah on the arch wasn’t accurate.

Jewish dragons and nymphs?

Other depictions of the Temple menorah are not particularly helpful. The most ancient image of it found to date is well known to Israelis - it appears on the "tails" side of the contemporary 10 agorot coin. That menorah is a copy of coins minted by King Antigonus II Mattathias, the last Hasmonean king, in 37 BCE, just over 100 years before the menorah arrived in Rome. The menorah in these coins does not have three legs but a base. However, that base is much smaller than the one on Titus’ Arch, having only one level, not two like the menorah shown on Titus’ Arch. Nor can any designs be seen adorning it.

The differences may be due to the medium: ancient coins are often highly symbolic representations of the original. But it could also mean that sometime between 37 BCE and 70 CE, the menorah, or at least its base, were changed.

Fourth century Menorah in Rehov stands on three legs, not a base.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The year that King Antigonus II Mattathias issued these coins was also his last.

Three years before, the Roman Senate had crowned Herod king of Judah. After a protracted war that Herod’s forces eventually won, King Antigonus II Mattathias was executed by the Romans and King Herod began ruling his kingdom in earnest.

King Herod was heavily influenced by Roman culture. If anyone was likely to have placed a menorah with a base adorned in the Roman style in the Temple, it was him. In fact, we know from the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus that Herod placed a golden eagle - symbol of Roman power - in the Temple, much to the dismay of the Jews.

The base of the menorah depicted on Titus’ Arch looks to have been influenced by Roman and Hellenistic art, and specifically, by artifacts found at the Temple of Apollo at Didyma (in modern-day Turkey).

The earliest known example of a hexagonal column base is found in this temple: both stories of the base of the menorah in Titus’ Arch are hexagonal. Also, designs nearly identical to those appearing on the base of the menorah also appear in the temple: The two pairs on the right and left of the bottom story of the base are of creatures with the body of a lion, a tail of a snake, wings and the head of a bird. Between these two pairs is a dragon - a sea monster with a long and corkscrew tail. On the second story, appearing on each side are monsters with the tail of a fish and the front end of some kind of mammal, and between these is a pair of eagles holding a horseshoe-shaped wreath.

Herod's reconstructed tomb, at the Israel Museum.Credit: Elie Posner

However, the designs at the menorah base differ from the images at Didyma and elsewhere in the Roman Empire in subtle ways . Dragons are usually depicted in Roman art with prongs radiating from their neck, but the dragon in the bottom center of the menorah's base, if that's what it is, doesn’t have these. This may not be a coincidence. The use of objects ornamented with dragons is forbidden by Jewish law (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3), but this rule has an exception if they don’t have prongs protruding from their neck (Tosefta Avodah Zarah 5:2).

Similarly, Sea monsters are usually depicted in the period’s art with nymphs riding on their backs, but the sea monsters in the menorah’s base have no nymphs, whose young woman-like appearance would have been anathema to the Jews. These apparent allowances to Jewish Law may indicate that the menorah shown on the arch and its base actually were present in the Temple.

King Herod may have changed the menorah, or perhaps just its base, after it was damaged or stolen when the Parthians sacked Jerusalem in 40 BCE. Or perhaps, he made the adjustment as part of his reconstruction of the Temple during his reign. We just don’t know.

So it seems that there are good arguments for the menorah on Titus’ Arch and on the Emblem of the State of Israel both being and not being in the Temple. The debate could really only be settled for sure if the menorah itself were to be discovered, but that is unlikely to ever happen. In 410 CE, the Vandals sacked Rome and carried away its treasures. The menorah, which had been sitting in a pagan temple since its arrival in Rome hundreds of years earlier, was probably taken by them, never to be seen again.



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