Despite a number of ancient depictions of the Temple menorah with rounded branches, most notably on the Arch of Titus, Chabad makes a point of depicting the menorah with straight, diagonal branches. What is this based on and why the insistence that it be depicted that way?


In short, the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, of righteous memory—insisted on straight branches not despite these depictions, but precisely because of them. But let’s start at the beginning.

Although it describes the design of the menorah in great detail, the Torah does not give any indication as to whether the shape of the branches were to be curved or straight. All it states is: “And six branches coming out of its sides: three menorah branches from its one side and three menorah branches from its second side.”1

There is no discussion in the Talmud or other early sources as to the proper shape of the menorah’s branches. The earliest commentator to discuss this is the great Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105), who comments on the words “coming out of its sides”:

From here and there in each direction diagonally (b’alachson), 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.2

Most read Rashi as stressing that the branches of the menorah were diagonally straight, and negating that they were rounded like an arch.

Sources for Rounded Menorah

There are two 17th-century rabbis, Rabbi Yosef Shalit ben Eliezer Riqueti in Chochmat haMishkan3 and Rabbi Emmanuel Ricci in Ma'aseh Choshev4 (more famous for his kabbalistic work Mishnat Chassidim), who describe the branches of the menorah as being rounded.

They both write that although their descriptions differ from Rashi’s, they chose to do so by virtue of the fact that Maimonides (as well as the simple reading of the Talmud) omits the word b'alachson (diagonal) when describing the branches, apparently implying that he thought them to be round. This nuance is highly relevant, as we shall see.

Additionally, to support the claim that the branches of the menorah were rounded, some have pointed to the opinion of one of the earlier biblical commentators, Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167), who writes in the name of the “kadmonim5 (the “ancients”) that the branches of the menorah were “rounded like a crown.”6 However, the simplest and most probable meaning of this description is that in Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra’s opinion, the branches surrounded the center candle in a half-circle, i.e., if you were to look down at the menorah from above, the candles weren’t in a straight line but rather in a half-moon shape.This is in line with what Rabbi Abraham Abele Gombiner (best known for his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the Magen Avraham) writes in his commentary to the Midrash, which seems to be the “kadmonim” cited by Rabbi Avraham the Ibn Ezra.7

However, as Rabbi Abraham Abele points out, this opinion contradicts the accepted, authoritative view of the Mishnah and Talmud that the branches of the menorah were aligned.8 As such, this third (and mostly rejected) opinion does not have much bearing on the general straight-vs.-rounded-branch debate discussed here.

Maimonides and the Oxford Manuscript

While Maimonides does not describe the shape of the branches in his Mishneh Torah, he does address the topic in a rare manuscript of his “Commentary to the Mishnah,”9 in which he hand-draws the design of the menorah. In this drawing, the branches are depicted as straight lines from the stem to the full height of the menorah.

An illustration of the Temple menorah drawn by Maimonides
An illustration of the Temple menorah drawn by Maimonides

Lest there be any confusion, Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Abraham ben Harambam, in his commentary to Exodus,10 writes that the branches “extend from the stem of the menorah to the top in a straight line (beyosher), as my father of blessed memory drew, not in arc-shape as others have drawn.

Maimonides’ manuscript was sold to the University of Oxford in 1693. While Rabbi Ricci, who passed away in 1743, apparently visited London on his travels, it is highly unlikely he would have visited Oxford, and even if he did, it is unlikely he would have been given permission to enter the Bodleian library, as openly practicing Jews were allowed entry into Oxford only in 1856. Additionally, even if he were to have gained entry, he probably would not have found the manuscript, since the Hebrew manuscripts only began to be catalogued in 1868, and the complete catalogue was published 18 years later in the year 1886.11

Had Rabbi Ricci and Rabbi Riqueti seen this manuscript with Maimonides’ own hand-drawn illustrations, they would not have deduced that Maimonides’ omission of the word “diagonal” in describing the shape of the branches meant they were rounded. They would have concluded that, like the Talmud, Maimonides had not purposely omitted the word “diagonal”; he simply did not describe the trajectory of the branches.12

In light of this, the Rebbe points out that there is really no earlier source than Rabbi Ricci and Rabbi Riqueti that describes the branches of the menorah as rounded.

Arch of Titus

Let’s return to your question about the Arch of Titus and other archaeological findings that depict a rounded menorah.

Image: Wiki/Steerpike
Image: Wiki/Steerpike

The Arch of Titus was constructed in the year 81 by the Emperor Domitian shortly after the death of his older brother Titus to commemorate Titus' victories, including the siege and plunder of Jerusalem just a few years earlier. The sculptural art inside the arch includes two panel reliefs commemorating the joint triumph celebrated by Titus and his father Vespasian. On one of the reliefs is the scene depicting the triumphal procession with the booty from the Temple in Jerusalem, including the sacred menorah.

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.

The menorah in the arch is depicted with circular branches. And it is based on this image that countless images of the menorah over the last 2,000 years have been circular, including the menorah symbol of modern-day Israel.

So if we are to claim that the branches of the menorah were indeed straight, then why would the Arch of Titus, which was built just a few years after the destruction and depicts the plunder of Jerusalem, depict the branches in a rounded fashion?

The Rebbe offers a number of possible explanations. Firstly, it should be noted that the design on the arch is not an exact replica of the menorah and is an artistic interpretation. For one, the Temple menorah had feet extending from its base, and the menorah on the Arch of Titus has no feet. Additionally, on the menorah’s shaft is the form of a sea dragon, one of the false dei­ties worshiped by the Romans and something that was certainly not on the Temple menorah. Accordingly, it cannot be relied on as an accurate source regarding the design of the menorah, particularly in regard to points where it contradicts the views of leading Torah authorities.

Secondly, in addition to “the” official Temple menorah, there were ten candelabras built by King Solomon. And although improbable, it is possible that these other menorahs were rounded. If this were to be the case, then both would be accurate— Rashi and Maimonides would be referring to the original menorah made by Moses, and the Arch of Titus would be depicting one of these other menorahs that was plundered by the Romans during the destruction of the Temple.

The Rebbe’s View

We can now appreciate the Rebbe’s stance on the depiction of the menorah.

The sages of the Talmud state that the menorah was a “testimony to all the inhabitants of the world that the Divine Presence rests within Israel.”13 This was due to a number of things, including the fact that the miraculous western lamp of the menorah was never extinguished. Thus, the menorah is a symbol of the connection between G‑d and His nation Israel.

It is for this reason that the Rebbe was so insistent that the menorah not be depicted to resemble that of the Arch of Titus. For even if that were indeed a representation of one of Solomon’s menorahs, it is still not the ideal menorah. Therefore, any depiction made now with a rounded menorah is essentially based on the image on the Arch of Titus. So rather than represent our closeness to G‑d, the rounded menorah symbolizes the very opposite—the exile of the Jews and the destruction of the Holy Temple at the hands of the Roman conquerors!

This year, may we merit to light the Chanukah menorah in the Holy Temple!

Much of this article is based on Likutei Sichot, vol. 21, p. 168.