The Menorah

From the Bible to Modern Israel

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Steven Fine
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , November
     2016.
     280 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780674088795.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, Steven Fine traces the history of the golden seven-branched candelabrum from descriptions of it in the Hebrew Bible through its removal (twice) from the Jerusalem Temples, to its continued manifestations as a religious and national symbol today. The menorah may be the oldest religious symbol in Western culture and has already been subject to numerous studies (for example, Rachel Hachlili’s The Menorah: The Ancient Seven-Armed Candelabrum: Origin, Form, and Significance [Brill, 2001]), and yet Fine, the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, has provided us with a valuable new study, filled with fresh insight.

In seven chapters, one for each of the candelabrum’s branches, Fine tirelessly guides the reader through centuries of texts in a number of languages and artwork in an array of media. As one might expect from Fine, who has published broadly on the ancient world and early Jewish art in particular, the first portion of the book (chapter 1 and much of chapter 2) addresses the history of the menorah in antiquity, drawing upon Fine’s specialized studies and presenting his findings for a broader audience. Thereafter, the bulk of the book focuses on post-antiquity, tracing the reception history of the menorah from the middle ages to today. These include renderings as varied as sketches by traditional rabbinic commentators, to a neighborhood in Tel Aviv whose streets were laid out as a menorah, to the symbol’s adoption as the emblem of the state of Israel. Remarkably detailed and thoroughly researched, Fine mines even the least known writers and writings for insight on the topic (for example, Heinrich Strauss, 54). Fine critically and acutely analyzes not only the traditional historical sources, but also modern fantasies about the fate of the menorah (for example, that the menorah is housed in the Vatican’s storerooms). He studies these traditions and depictions about the menorah for what they are—reflective of the interests and values of the authors and artists and their day and age. Throughout, Fine demonstrates how the menorah has been used to convey broader social, political, and religious ideas.

The book focuses primarily on the “arch menorah,” shorthand for the menorah that is depicted in relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which was constructed some two thousand years ago as a monument to the empire’s victory over the Jewish rebels and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. One might quibble that the book tends to veer into a history of the arch menorah more so than the menorah in general. This, however, would surely be justified by the importance of the arch menorah, whose round branches and tiered, wedding cake-like base provided the most widely used template for artistic expressions of the candelabrum through the past two millennia. The arch menorah has fended off challenges from the traditional rabbinic menorah of Maimonides, with its straight branches, a design that has since been resurrected and promoted by Chabad Lubavitch as a more traditional or authentic form. This bout between the straight-branched “rabbinic” menorah and the arch menorah, Fine rightly notes, falls along the fault lines of the traditional bifurcation and opposition of “Judaism” and “Hellenism.”

An important takeaway from Fine’s study is the accidental nature of the arch menorah’s success. Fine demonstrates that there were surely multiple menorahs (menorot) in the Jerusalem Temple (both successively and simultaneously). The one depicted by the Roman artists was simply the one standing when the music stopped: that is, when the Jerusalem Temple was pillaged and set ablaze by Titus. Unlike other depictions contemporaneous with the “original” menorah (e.g., depictions discovered by archaeologists over the last century in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter and elsewhere), the arch menorah has been above ground, in the center of one of the West’s most prominent cities, and located only steps away from the renowned Coliseum. That the menorah was positioned on the arch just high enough to be out of reach, yet close enough to be visible from the ground, surely contributed to its visibility and preservation. For 2000 years, viewers would bring knowledge of the arch menorah back to their home countries. As such, the arch menorah has been seen as a close—or the closest—approximation of the original for two millennia. One also wonders if the Hebrew Bible’s descriptions (prescriptions?) of the menorah had been less opaque and easier to visualize whether humanity would have been so dependent on the arch menorah for a mental image of this relic from the biblical age.

A unique feature of Fine’s The Menorah is the way that the author inserts himself into the narrative, as in, for example, his Enochic-like ascent up scaffolding (constructed to study the relief’s polychromy) to touch the arch menorah. While Fine freely discusses his long-held affection for the menorah, he nevertheless interrogates the source material with necessary distance. His personal interventions are welcome in this format and do not detract from his more dispassionate arguments and findings.

Steven Fine has provided us with a thoughtful, illuminating, meticulously researched, and well-written history of the menorah and its reception. This book is also nicely illustrated, including color images, and Fine’s bibliographic essays are very valuable for pursuing further research. The Menorah is accessible and valuable for specialists and non-specialists alike, and essential reading for scholars of Judaism and late antiquity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gregg E. Gardner is associate professor and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven Fine is Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University.

Keywords: 

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