The Menorah brings us back to the days of Israel delivered from slavery and being formed into a nation even as a generation wandered in the desert. A key element in unifying the Jewish people to become “one nation under God” was the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, with the golden seven-branched candelabra lighting the way (Num. 25:31-39).
Centuries later, it was the Menorah that became symbolic of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where it stood in the Holy Place, along with the incense altar and the table for the showbread. Each evening it was lit by one of the Levites.
In the days of the Maccabees (1st-2nd centuries BC), the Menorah became a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people. When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, the victors used the Menorah to parade their conquest of the Jewish people by setting it atop the Arch of Titus outside the Colosseum in Rome. The Destruction of the Temple, and the capture of the Menorah, ended Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel and ushered in a 1,900-year-long exile.
Then, some 2,000 years later, when the modern State of Israel was born, the Menorah was chosen to be the nation’s emblem as it symbolized the continuity from meager beginnings, and through history, of the Eternal Jewish People. Although some believe that until the Temple is restored, and the Menorah once again stands in the Holy Place with all Israel under God, there is no Restoration. Certainly, there is still a long way to go, but we can surely conclude that the establishment of modern Israel, and the impressive Knesset Menorah signaling the rebirth of a nation to its ancient homeland, is “the beginning of our Redemption.”
The Knesset Menorah stands about fifteen feet high just across from the main entrance to the Knesset, the seat of Israel’s government. The 29 engravings on the branches of the Menorah depict the spiritual struggles of the Jewish people, as well as key events in Jewish history, from Abraham to the birth of modern Israel.
The left branch of the Menorah illustrates the breadth of Jewish history from Isaiah’s prophecy of the End of Days to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai expounding the Oral Traditions of the Torah at Yavneh, which formed the basic practices of Judaism after the Second Temple was destroyed, the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, and the Babylonian Exile. Other branches include King David triumphantly displaying Goliath’s severed head, Ezekiel’s vision of the Dry Bones, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Jeremiah as he mourns the destruction of the First Temple and the secret immigration of Jews to Israel during the British Mandate.
One of the most significant etchings in the Menorah engraved across the bottom of the lowest branches is the Bible verse, “Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit, says the LORD of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). To appreciate the full impact of this verse, the old English “hosts,” translated from the Hebrew zevaot, means “armies.” In other words, the prophet is warning Israel not to depend solely on the strength of its military, but in Adonai Zevaot, the “LORD of Armies.” This verse comes in the context of the prophet’s vision of a menorah with olive branches on each side, symbolic of peace in the nation of Israel.
According to researchers at Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, the imagery of the stems, branches, flowers, blossoms of the Menorah comes from the Salvia Palaestina, a common plant that grows in the Negev and Sinai deserts. The shape of this coarse and ordinary plant most likely provided the model for the Menorah when it was conceived during Israel’s wilderness wanderings and serves as an ongoing reminder of the need to always return to our humble beginnings as the children of God, ever dependent on Him, even as a nation in our own land.