The Obscure Origins and Evolution of the Hanukkah Menorah

Ancient Jews also marked Hanukkah with fire, but the menorahs we know today are a modern innovation.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Hanukkah Menorah.
Hanukkah Menorah.Credit: Courtesy
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

On Hanukkah Jews the world over light a menorah to commemorate a miracle that occurred at the height of the Maccabean revolution against their Greek oppressors in the 2nd century BCE. But that is a postfact explanation for a tradition whose origins are shrouded in mystery.

When exactly Jews started lighting menorahs, today usually eight-branched candelabra with a ninth "shamash" candle, is unknown. There is no mention of menorahs in the earliest known account of Hanukkah, 1 Maccabees, which describes the rededication of the Second Temple after a Maccabean victory and the decree that the anniversary of that day would be a holiday - Hanukkah. Nor does the text say how Hanukkah should be celebrated, though in all likelihood, it was marked with animal sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple, as all other Jewish holidays at the time were celebrated.

So where did the tradition of the menorah come from? Conservative Jewish authorities would have been unlikely to create a new tradition with no biblical reference. The more likely explanation is that Jewish households adopted the practice from pagan ritual, following which the authorities gave the practice a "Jewish explanation" after the fact. The Zoroastrians of Persia for instance marked the Winter Solstice with a festival of fire, called Chaharshanbe Suri, which predated Hanukkah and fell at about the same time of year. That. or some pagan mid-winter tradition, influenced Jews into lighting fire on Hanukkah.

Enter Josephus, with a cryptic reference

The first to associate Hanukkah and fire is the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the late 1st century CE, some 250 years after the Maccabean Revolt. He calls the holiday "Lights", though admits that he doesn't know what the connection between light and the Maccabean victory is.

Nor does the all-important compendium of Jewish law - the Mishnah – written in the early 3rd century CE answer this question.

In fact the Mishnah barely mentions the holiday, and the first reference to a Hanukkah menorah itself is in a discussion regarding tort law: If a camel knocks over a lamp, causing a fire, the rabbis say the camel driver is responsible if the lamp is indoors; but if the lamp is outside a shop, the shopkeeper is liable. Rabbi Jehudah provides an exception to this rule: The shopkeeper isn’t liable if the lamp is a “Hanukkah lamp.”

Possibly, the Mishnah redactors chose to suppress the celebration of Hanukkah because the rabbis didn't want to mark the ultimately disastrous Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Romans in 136 CE. Alternatively, they may not have approved of the way Hanukkah was being celebrated, suspecting foreign influences, especially as the holiday had not been biblically ordained. Perhaps in Mishnaic times, the holiday was simply not considered that important. A completely different theory could be that it was so widely celebrated at the time that the rabbis saw little need to elaborate, but that seems less likely, as they saw fit to elaborate on seemingly esoteric issues, such as who pays if a camel knocks over a lamp.

In any case, several centuries later, the practice of lighting Hanukkah menorahs was firmly established in Jewish homes and, absent textual sources, it fell to the rabbis to interpret the tradition and regulate it. These interpretations and regulations are codified in the Talmud (redacted 500 CE).

Judas Maccabeus rededicates the Temple

It was in Talmudic times that the Hanukkah miracle appears in writing for the first time, as an explanation for why menorahs are lit: At the rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus, a one-day supply of oil miraculously lasted eight days, the Talmud explains (Shabbat 21b).

This also explained why the holiday is eight days long and why eight candles are lit.

At this time, the rabbis also enacted regulations concerning menorahs, listing permissible oils and the order in which the candles were to be lit. This had actually been a matter of contention between two rabbinical schools: the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel.

Shammai decreed that Jews should start Hanukkah by lighting eight candles, and each day light one less. Hillel went the other way, ruling that that Jews should light one candle on the first day, each day adding one until reaching eight on the last day of the holiday. As all Jews know from experience, Hillel prevailed.

The evolution of the menorah itself

Now that we've discussed the origin of the tradition, let us turn to the evolution of the menorah itself.

The earliest Hanukkah menorahs were lamps of clay or stone, with an opening on top to pour in olive oil, and a small spout in the front for a wick.

On Hanukkah, these lamps were placed at the entrance to the home on a specially constructed stand, in an increasing (or decreasing) number for each day of the holiday.

In Talmudic times, another model appeared: a smaller, mobile version of the lamp menorahs. It was a single lamp made of clay, stone, or, increasingly, metal - but it had eight wick spouts instead of just one.

Menorahs would further evolve in the Middle Ages: A new model appeared in the Jewish community of 13th century Spain (some centuries before the Inquisition) and spread from there to the rest of the Jewish world.

These menorahs, made of metal, had an ornate back wall (to affix the menorah to a wall), and a narrow tray on the bottom, with eight dimples for oil. It was in these menorahs that the shamash, an additional candle used to light the other ones, first appeared, and placed on a different plane so as to differentiate it from the others.

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