The Origin of the Hanukkah Menorah, Explained
Behold the menorah: This ritual candelabrum is considered to be both a religious and secular symbol—one that recalls a story of freedom won from persecution. During the season of Hanukkah, it is common to see them displayed in shops and neighbors' windows before being tucked away until next year. Surely releasing a menorah from its hiding place and displaying it year-round is as much a mitzvah, or good deed, as lighting it for the Jewish holiday.
In the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, God gives Moses instructions for a lamp in the Sanctuary following the Israelites escape from the slavery of Egypt. The passage in Exodus 25:31-40 describes a seven-lamped lampstand with a central lamp and six branches (three on each side). It was to be fashioned from one piece of pure gold. Other parts of the menorah would also be made of pure gold, including the snuff dishes and tongs. According to Exodus 27:20-21, the menorah was to be lit using pure olive oil and burn from evening until morning. Its light would thus "be a statute for ever throughout their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel" (v. 21). Menorahs would thus become an important fixture within the Tabernacle.
A similar lampstand is used in the celebration of Hanukkah. The original Hanukkah menorah dates to 164 B.C.E., when a band of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated its Syrian oppressors in a hard-fought battle. As the Jews reclaimed their temple and lit its golden candelabrum, their only supply of oil, which should have run out after one day, miraculously lasted for eight.
As a reminder of this tale, the menorah became a cherished possession in many Jewish homes. Assembling a collection of menorahs presents a timeline of artistic adaptations. Such a grouping also recalls Maimonides, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher, who wrote that it is desirable to light a multitude of candelabras and that each person should own not just a single menorah but one for each night of the holiday, eight in all. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century European immigrants stowed them among the few belongings they took to America. During the Second World War, Jews hid their menorahs and other valuables likely to be seized by the Nazis. European menorahs are hard to find, and valuable, because most of them were destroyed during wars and other upheavals. If you're lucky enough to discover such a rarity, have an expert look it over. Gauging a menorah's value is not an exact science, but clues such as a patina, maker's mark, and artistic style can help determine its age and quality. A gallery specializing in Judaica will appraise your piece for a fee and advise you on any restoration it may need.
Today, menorahs come in many shapes and sizes—including one you can make yourself: a menorah of glass votives and oil, a sturdy wooden-and-copper menorah built from supplies at the hardware store, or a manzanita menorah coated in wintry white chalk paint. Menorahs come in a variety of materials: metal (think silver, brass, and bronze), ceramic, and even glass. Many Jews believe olive oil, used for the biblical original, is the most authentic fuel for menorahs. However most families use taper candles and holders to accommodate the shamash candle (the middle one that lights the others) so it stands highest. Wick holders are made from brass or glass; a pitcher pours oil; scissors snip wicks. But the most valuable menorah in a personal collection is one that holds a piece of your own history. Study it closely: The reflections that peer back at you keep memories—and hope—alive.