"Unveiling the Mystery: The Real Reason Behind Chabad's Straight Branch Menorah" by Terry Harman
Updated: Feb 18
Recognition of the Menorah
Worldwide, the Menorah is one of the most widely recognized religious symbols. The Menorah is the oldest symbol of Judaism, much older than the star of David (Magen David). The emblem of the state of Israel depicts the Menorah surrounded by an olive branch on each side and at the bottom the Hebrew word “Israel.” Since ancient times the Menorah has served as a symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people in both the Diaspora and the land of Israel.
Original design by Max and Gabriel Shamir; Tonyjeff, based on national symbol.,
public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Menorah: 6 Branches not 7?
In the book of Exodus 25:31-40, the use of hammered gold, the ornamental features of the base, shaft, cups, knobs, blossoms, lamps, weight, and the number of branches are described in great detail. Moses is instructed to make it according to the pattern shown to him on the mountain. Except for the Chanukah Menorahs, the Menorah is commonly referred to as a seven-branched lampstand. This is biblically incorrect. If you pay close attention to the biblical reference, you will notice the Menorah does not have seven branches! What are you saying? Are you crazy Terry? Yes, I may be a “little touched in the head,” but the description in Exodus 25 clearly states there was 1 shaft or stem with 3 pairs of branches issuing out from each side of the shaft. However, there are 7 lamps. Gotcha. Just had to do it.
Exodus 25:31-40 The Contemporary Torah, JPS 2006
31 You shall make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece. 32 Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand. 33 On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals; so all six branches issuing from the lampstand. 34 And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals: 35 a calyx, of one piece with it, under a pair of branches; and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the second pair of branches, and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the last pair of branches; so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand. 36 Their calyxes and their stems shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single hammered piece of pure gold. 37 Make it seven lamps – the lamps shall be so mounted as to give light on its front side – 38 and its tongs and fire pans of pure gold. 39 It shall be made, with all these furnishings, out of a talent of pure gold. 40 Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain.
Disagreement on the Shape of the Branches
I admit, there are other dissenting views from The Temple Institute, reputable scholars, and archeologists regarding the curved vs straight-branched menorah. However, I am not a lone voice crying out in the wilderness for straight branches on the menorah. Despite the number of historical and modern depictions of the Second Temple Menorah with rounded branches, most remarkably on the Arch of Titus in Rome and the national emblem of Israel, not all sources agree on whether the branches were curved or straight. Based upon four arguments, I will contend for the straight-branched design of the menorah
The Chabad Menorahs during Chanukah are designed with straight, diagonal branches. Why does Chabad continue to depict the straight-branched version of the Menorah? The simple answer is that the Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, of righteous memory, contended that the branches were straight and not curved. Although I do not represent Chabad, I will attempt to explain my reasoning for straight branches.
Source of Misconception: Arch of Titus
The Arch of Titus documents in stone the Roman triumphal march into the city of Rome celebrating the fall of Jerusalem and its desecration of the Temple in 70 C.E. Although time and the elements have not been friendly to the Arch, three spoils taken from the Second Temple can be identified – the menorah, the table of showbread, and two silver trumpets.
Original photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Four The Arguments for Straight Branch Menorah
The issue I have with the Arch of Titus’ representation of the Menorah is threefold. The Arch was erected by Emperor Titus Flavius Domitian to commemorate his late brother’s victory. “The Arch became a symbol of the Jewish exile, and eventually Pope Paul IV made it the place of a yearly oath of submission of the Jews” (Shurpin, 2022, Why Insist on Depicting a Straight-Branched Menorah? Chabad.org).
First, the Arch was constructed in 81 CE. This is a decade after the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Memories fade and victories are often embellished by the victors. The victory of Rome was the paramount theme not the historical accuracy of objects taken as spoils. There were other holy vessels associated with the Temple in Jerusalem. Namely, the Golden Altar of Incense and more specifically, the Ark of the Covenant which many scholars state was hidden away before the time of the destruction of the Second Temple.
Second, a closer look at the base of the Arch’s Menorah reveals pagan gods. Whether the images of pagan gods were deliberately displayed on the Menorah for further humility over the Jewish people and the looting of holy vessels, I have no way of knowing. Regardless, the base of the Menorah on the Arch is not consistent with the biblical texts and imagery of Judaism. Therefore, I do not trust the accuracy of the curved branches of the Menorah as depicted on the Arch.
There may be a misunderstanding of the Hebrew word translated into English as ‘branch.” Although the Torah describes the Menorah with specific features regarding its ornamentation, the Torah does not give any details as to whether the six branches were straight or curved. The only information we are given in Exodus 25:32 is,
“Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand.”
Third, the debate is settled for me by properly translating the Hebrew word, קָנֶה (kaw-neh’). Qaneh translated into English is used to describe a stalk of grain (Genesis 41:5, 22) or a water plant/reed (1 Kings 14:15, Isaiah 19:6; 35:7) or an aromatic reed (Exodus 30:23, Isaiah 43:24, Ezekiel 27:19). The stalks of these plants grow straight in nature rather than curved. Below notice the main shaft or stem of the Papyrus reeds.
Papyrus Reed – photos 2001 Terry Harman
Torah Scholars Support Straight Branches
The fourth reason for straight branches is the agreement between Rashi and Maimonides. As stated earlier, I am not a voice in the wilderness regarding the straight branches of the Menorah.
The earliest discussion on the shape of the branches of the Menorah comes from the medieval French Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 - 1105) generally known as Rashi who comments on how the branches came from out of the sides of the main shaft or stem. Rashi comments on Exodus 25:32:
From here and there [in each direction] diagonally, drawn upwards until [they reached] the height of the menorah, which is the middle stem. They came out of the middle stem, one higher than the others: the bottom one was longest, the one above it was shorter than it, and the highest one shorter than that, because the height of their ends [at their tops] was equal to the height of the seventh, middle stem, out of which the six branches extended.
Rashi agrees with the influential Torah scholar, rabbi, physician, astronomer, and philosopher Moses ben Maimon (1138 - 1204), commonly known as Maimonides and also referred to by the acronym Rambam. In his commentary on the Mishnah (Talmud, Menachot, chapter 3), Maimonides incorporates a hand-drawn design of the menorah. His drawing illustrates the branches as emerging diagonally from the stem of the menorah.
Temple Institute in Jerusalem
Although The Temple Institute in Jerusalem has reconstructed and currently displays the menorah with curved branches, their website illustrates both curved and straight branches. The interpretation of Rambam’s hand drawing of the menorah is challenged by the Institute’s website, it is argued that Rambam’s drawing of the menorah should not be taken literally. As we will learn near the close of this blog, Ramban’s son would disagree with the Temple Institute. The Institute’s website illustrates both versions of the menorah.
Adapted from History of the Holy Temple Menorah - Temple Institute for informational purposes only.
Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, founder of the Temple Institute, and the world’s foremost expert on the Holy Temple surmises that the Rambam didn’t intend for his simple drawing to be a literal representation of how the menorah should appear, but rather was a schematic drawing intended to clearly show how the different details of the menorah were laid out.
Although there are opposing viewpoints ((Eliezer Riqueti, Emmanuel Ricci,12th century and ibn Ezra, 17th century), the Rambam’s son, Rabbi Abraham ben Harambam, validates the straight branch interpretation of his father’s drawing. The following quote is adapted from Levertov, 2022, The Tzitz and Mesorah/Tradition, Sefari.org; Shurpin, 2022, Why Insist on Depicting a Straight-Branched Menorah? Chabad.org.
“Extend from the stem of the menorah to the top in a straight line,
as my father of blessed memory drew, not in arc-shape as others have drawn”
The Tabernacle Man's Straight Branch Menorah
For years I have used a curved branched menorah in teaching presentations. My interest in the shape of the branches grew over time. In the early summer of 2021, I commissioned my friends in India, to cast a straight-arm menorah. On December 24, 2022, I was invited by Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov, to present a brief study and presentation of the menorah at the Chabad center in Munster, Indiana. It was a great time for meeting old friends and dining on kosher Chinese food!
I admit, there are other dissenting views from The Temple Institute, reputable scholars, and archeologists regarding the curved vs straight-branched menorah. However, I am not a lone voice crying out in the wilderness for straight branches on the menorah. In my humble opinion the questionable pagan gods and dating of the Arch of Titus, the work of Rashi and Rambam, and the biblical evidence of the Hebrew word Qaneh in Exodus 25:32, lead me to believe the branches of the Menorah were straight and diagonal rather curved as commonly illustrated today.
In the end, it is a matter of preference. Whether the branches were straight or curved the purpose of the menorah from the period of the tabernacle through the Second Temple remains the same: a source of illumination physically and metaphorically. May your light shine brightly and pierce the darkness of this world and make it a better place.