According to Steven Fine, the menorah’s 3000-year history makes it “the longest continuously used religious symbol in Western culture.” Unlike the cross, the crescent, or the Star of David, which are each composed of a few clean lines, it’s a busy image. Images of the menorah, even minimalist ones, seem more like representations of an object out there in the real world than the abstract symbol of a people, its religion and its aspirations. How did the visually complex menorah come to be such a symbol?
For Fine, the answer is deeply entwined with the image of the menorah carved into the Arch of Titus two thousand years ago. Following Rome’s military victory over Judea in 70 C.E., the city honored its returning heroes with a triumphal procession, the highlights of which are depicted in bas-relief inside the arch. On one side, a panel running the length of the arch’s interior depicts the victorious general (and future emperor) Titus in his chariot, being crowned with a wreath by a winged god of victory, Nike. On the other side, Jewish humiliation is represented by the plundered vessels of the Jerusalem Temple carried into Rome on the shoulders of strapping Roman soldiers, who are likewise crowned with wreaths. The golden seven-branched candelabrum, jostling above the heads of the Roman soldiers, stands out among the Temple vessels.
No matter how lifelike or faithful to its model the arch menorah may have been, it is not a neutral or objective rendering of this celebrated Temple artifact. Etched into a monument memorializing the recently deceased Roman emperor, the arch celebrates Roman majesty by telling the story of a triumphal parade. Fine helpfully explains that the Romans would have understood the Temple vessels being carried in the triumphal processional as “cult images” of the God of Israel, brought to Rome to join other subjugated deities in the Roman pantheon. The arch menorah stands at the intersection of conqueror and conquered, exalting the triumphant Romans and laying low the vanquished Jews and their humiliated God.
Built to lift up one nation while laying low another, the arch requires its visitors to take a side. Will they exult with the triumphant Romans (as the Roman builders and artists intended) or will they sympathize with the Jews captured for all eternity at the moment of their defeat? As a 21st-century American Jew, Fine faces little to none of the humiliation endured by the Jewish slaves marched into captivity, but he is drawn—almost compulsively—to identify with their subjugation. He writes the following of his face-to-face encounter with the menorah while leading an international team of researchers there in 2012:
I stood, imagining the parade before me, with triumphal Romans, Jewish slaves—their mangled bodies and festering wounds hidden beneath fine Roman garments, and “our” holy vessels passing by.
A few pages later, Fine writes “I found myself fidgeting and thinking about the humiliations that my ancestors had felt here.” He contrasts this “flesh-and-blood” response to the cooler irony of the 19th-century Jewish visitor imagined by Percy Bysshe Shelley in a famous prose fragment. Shelley’s Jew sees the Arch of Titus “mouldering to its fall.” This “monument of the power of our destroyer’s family,” he wrote, is “now a mountain of ruins.”
For many years the arch menorah was inaccessible to the majority of the world’s Jews. It was in Rome, and they were elsewhere. But images of the menorah proliferated in the centuries following the arch’s construction. Visual representations of the menorah are found in synagogues, “on mosaic floors, wall paintings, lintels, ‘chancel’ screens, oil lamps, and fixtures for hanging glass lamps . . . Jewish tombs, Jewish jewelry and even household goods,” such as gold-decorated glass. The rise of the menorah in late antiquity, however, was not inevitable. During the late Second Temple period, several cult objects had been associated with the Temple. The menorah appears with the golden table that held the showbread on reverse sides of a Hasmonean coin, Josephus mentions the showbread table, the menorah, and the incense altar, and, of course, the showbread table, silver trumpets, and a Torah scroll are featured on the arch along with the menorah. Interestingly, coins minted during the Bar Kokhba revolt (60 years after the Temple’s destruction) depict the showbread table, but not the menorah.
But in late antiquity, the showbread table fades from view and the seven-branched menorah emerges as the premier symbol of the lost Temple. It’s hard to know exactly why. One wonders if it’s related to the familiar nine-branched candelabra of post-destruction Hanukkah celebrations. Fine doesn’t address this, but he supplements the visual record with literary depictions of the Temple menorah. The 6th-century poet and liturgist Yannai mourns the extinguished flames of the menorah, all the more so because the lights of Rome burn ever brighter:
The lamps of Edom [Rome] strengthened and increased.
The lamps of Zion were swallowed up and destroyed.
The lamps of Edom prevailed and glittered.
The lamps of Zion were crushed and extinguished.
The lamps of Edom prance over every pitfall.
The lamps of Zion receded.
The lamps of Edom their brightness shines.
The lamps of Zion were darker than soot.
The lamps of Edom were filled and they dripped [oil].
The lamps of Zion were lowered and broken.
Fine astutely notes that “the extinguished menorah represented far more than just the extinguished lamp of the Temple. It symbolized the Jews themselves.” Yannai’s liturgical menorah may have been conjured from the imagination, but it expresses many themes conveyed by the arch menorah, albeit from the perspective of the conquered rather than conqueror. Drawing on Yannai’s poem, we might speculate that the menorah draws interest in late antiquity because it recalls a glorious past that is no more.
One danger of a book like this is the temptation to include every menorah one has found in the course of one’s research. While interesting insights can be found throughout, at times the book takes on an encyclopedic quality as it catalogues one menorah after another. What is missing at those points is an absorbing narrative thread to pull the reader along. The book is at its strongest when Fine tells a story about his visual data. Especially helpful are the numerous illustrations and vivid color photographs, many taken by Fine himself or his research team. Positioned alongside the relevant prose, the images help the reader grasp Fine’s insightful interpretations of the evolving iconography.
The 19th century brought a wave of European tourists to the sites of classical civilization, among them the Arch of Titus. In this context, the menorah morphs from a nostalgia-evoking relic of the past to a nation-inspiring symbol pointing forward:
[V]isits to the arch are well documented from the late nineteenth century onward, and it seems that it was a standard stop on the Jewish pilgrimage route. . . . Jews ranging from Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, to noted rabbis, politicians, and simple Jews—Zionists, culturalists, Hassidim, and reformers—often made (and make) their way to the arch in a kind of ritual, reciting to themselves, one way or another, “Titus you are gone, but we are still here, the people of Israel lives.”
Foremost among modern Jewish reactions to this site was a resolve to transcend the degrading circumstances depicted there. The new Jewish take on the arch emphasized that, as Shelley had already noted in 1819, Rome stands in ruins, while the Jewish people endure. It was during this period that the “now well-known Jewish ‘tradition’ of not walking under the arch took hold—a kind of ritualized negation of the arch ‘so as not to give honor to Titus.’” The arch invites Jews to act out resistance to Rome’s overwhelming might (as well as that of Rome’s contemporary successors!).
The modern period witnessed an interesting reversal in interpretation of the arch’s marching figures. Modern Jewish viewers superimposed their own aspirations onto the figures carved into the panel. Where earlier viewers (like Yannai, if he had had an occasion to visit the arch) would have seen despair on history’s captive Jews, these viewers saw Jewish resilience. And lo and behold, the panel’s triumphant Roman soldiers, the ones bearing plundered Jewish gold, were transformed into unbroken Jewish captives carrying their national treasure into exile with pride. In a fascinating reversal of iconography, figures who were carved as Roman victors become symbols of Jewish resistance.
In the 20th century the arch became a locus of Jewish self-determination. A striking example involves using the arch as the site of two major demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of World War II. In one, in 1947, Roman Jews and Holocaust survivors from across Europe gathered at the arch to celebrate the United Nations vote in favor of the partition plan allowing for a Jewish state in Palestine. In a clever use of the arch’s iconography, the crowd marched through the arch from west to east, reversing the direction that the “Jewish captives” pictured on its wall had marched some 2,000 years ago. Another 20th-century expression of Jewish aspirations for autonomy involves depicting the long dormant flames of the arch menorah rekindled. The image of the relit arch menorah appears, for instance, as the hat insignia of the British Jewish Legion during World War I and in a 1923 children’s alphabet book illustrating the letter mem.
Fine’s book is filled with many more of history’s menorahs, those of Maimonides, Chabad, and Israel’s state seal, to name only the most well-known. And while I have focused here on the menorah as symbol, the book tells an equally fascinating story about the menorah as object. What was it made of? (Different materials at different times, bronze, silver, and gold depending on economic conditions.) What did it look like? (The curved branches of Second Temple depictions are more authentic than the straight branches that Maimonides posited.)
What can we learn from the biblical instructions for its construction? (Not much. Contemporary artisans would have understood the detailed technical specifications, but we don’t.) Why are there conflicting images of the menorah from the Second Temple period, especially the base, when it was accessible for all to see? (Exodus doesn’t provide instructions for the base, so successive generations constructed it in the image of contemporary Greek and Roman lamp bases.) Was there more than one menorah? (Yes! The idea that there was a single authentic menorah is a myth.) If so, how many? (At any given time, at least two, sometimes three, were in circulation; Josephus actually says that two (!) were exiled to Rome.)
What happened to the Jerusalem Temple’s menorahs after they were brought to Rome? One was on display at Vespasian’s Temple of Peace. The record runs dry after a major fire there in 192 C.E. If the menorah survived the fire, then it was likely melted down for its gold value during the Sack of Rome. In any event, it is long gone. It is not submerged in the sands of the Tiber River, nor is it sequestered in the Vatican basement. These myths are promulgated because of the very human fascination with relics. We want to be able to touch the past, to assure ourselves that it really happened. In the meantime, the menorah etched on the Arch of Titus will have to suffice. As Fine eloquently reminds us:
It is a tangible object—an ancient relic that has outlived the “real” menorahs of antiquity. Unlike the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail—the most significant “lost” artifacts of Western culture—it can be touched and measured, and has been for centuries. In the end, however, the arch menorah is just an approximation—so close to the original, but not it.
And we’ll have to be okay with that.
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