The Temple Menorah (“lamp”) was a 7-branched golden candelabra G‑d mandated to be placed in the Tabernacle (and later the Holy Temple in Jerusalem).1 It was lit every day, using wicks placed into seven cups of the finest olive oil.2

The Position of the Menorah

The Menorah stood in the Heichal (sanctuary), in the outer room (the Kodesh), which led to the inner chamber (Kodesh Hakodashim) and the Holy Ark. The Menorah was placed in the south of the room, to the left when entering from the main door on the east.

The orientation of the Menorah is debated in the Talmud.3 Rabbi Judah the Prince (Rebbi) argues that it ran the length of the temple, from east to west, whereas Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Shimon says it ran the width of the temple, from north to south, a view codified by Maimonides.4 5 6

The Menorah Lighting

Each morning,7 in the Temple in Jerusalem, a priest8 started the process of kindling the Menorah’s 7 lamps9 using wicks and a half-log measurement of high-quality olive oil in each cup.10 This was enough to last through the longest winter night until the next morning.

The lamps were lit from wick to wick. The kohen would take a wick that was lit and place it next to the next lamp to light it11. The process would start from the western Candle, the Ner Hamaaravi.

A procedure known as hatavah was done each morning, 12 but exactly what this service consisted of is subject to debate.

According to Maimonides hatavah includes kindling: 13 “Of the 7 lamps, the kohen would clean and kindle 5 of the lamps in the morning. Afterward, the priest would perform another service, after which he would return and kindle the remaining 2 lamps. This was done to elongate the process and give it more prominence.”14

Others15 teach that Hatavah only involves preparing the lamps, but does not include the lighting. Thus, in the morning, the kohen would extinguish 6 of the 7 lamps. The kohen would then clean 6 lamps and add new oil but not light them. Thus there was one candle (called the “western lamp,” whose identity we shall address) that remained lit. He would leave this candle lit and add oil to it. In the afternoon, he would return, light the 6 flames from the western flame, and then the western candle would be cleaned, filled with new oil, and then relit.

The Western Lamp

The Talmud teaches: “The western lamp should have the same amount of oil as its neighbors. With it you should light the others, and with it you shall finish.”16

Accordingly, this lamp was already burning when it was time to light the other candles, and it was only extinguished, prepared, and relit after the rest of the lamps were lit for the day.

Which one was “the western lamp”?

Maimonides (in Yad Hachazakah) explains that the Menorah was placed from north to south, which means no flame was closer to the west than the others. He, therefore, attributes the designation to the central flame, as it was the only wick which was made to face the Holy of Holies in the west.17 18

Accordingly, if the western lamp was the central flame, the Ner Maaravi would be included in the 5 that were cleaned and lit in the morning. It was called the western flame because it was used to light all the other lamps.

Conversely, according to those who opine that the menorah was set from east to west, the western lamp would therefore be either:

  • The westernmost lamp19
  • The second to the east, which is the first lamp that is west of another.20

The western lamp was to be kept burning at all times. If it were ever extinguished, it was relit from the continuous fire on the sacrificial altar. According to Rashi, it was possible that they brought coals to the Menorah from the altar.21

The Design of the Menorah

Although the Torah specifies that the menorah be made of gold, other metals were also acceptable.22 When made of gold (although not when using other materials23 ), it was required to conform to all the specifications listed in Exodus.

With all 7 seven branches protruding from a single stem, the Menorah had a total of 42 adornments: 22 goblets, 9 flowers, and 11 bulbs.

Rashi24 and Maimonides25 both explain that the six branches extending from the central stem were straight, not curved, as is often depicted in common culture. This can be seen from the following images drawn by Maimonides's own hand:

Maimonides' famous drawing in of the Temple Menorah, courtesy of the Bodleian Libary, Oxford.
Maimonides' famous drawing in of the Temple Menorah, courtesy of the Bodleian Libary, Oxford.

Since the Menorah was 18 tefachim (handbreadths) tall, the height of a man on a chariot,26 there was a stand with three steps that the person kindling the Menorah would ascend.27

The Meaning of the Menorah

Rabbeinu Bechaye tells a parable of a minister who was asked to prepare a feast in his home by the king himself. Moments before the king’s arrival, the minister was overcome with embarrassment. His feast and wares could not compare to the splendor of the palace. The king thus arrived at a barren house!

In response to the king’s probing, the minister explained that he was embarrassed to prepare the feast, given his residence’s pitiful smallness.

Replied the king: “Indeed, I have left all of my vessels and candelabras to use your light.”28

What is it that G‑d so desires, more than what He has in his heavenly palace?

Torah and Mitzvot

The third Rebbe of Chabad, the Tzemach Tzedek, writes29 that the menorah represents a fusing of the two primary ways we serve G‑d: learning Torah and doing mitzvot:

  • The 6 branches represent Torah, as there are 6 orders of the Mishnah, the central text of the Oral Torah.
  • The upright stem represents mitzvot, which connect mundane objects with the loftiest spiritual planes.

Torah study and mitzvah observance represent two paths: Torah study means living in a Divine reality, fully immersed in Divine wisdom. Mitzvot engages the darkness of this world and brings light to places shrouded in shadow.

The Menorah’s light was more brilliant than both combined and it was thus able to unify the two trajectories.

The light of the menorah was reflective of the light of Moshiach, which will be the ultimate union of G‑d’s transcendent light into our finite world.

A Design Replete With Symbolism

As mentioned, the Menorah had a total of 42 adornments, which correspond to the 42 words in the first paragraph of Shema, in which we are enjoined to learn Torah to the point that we are empowered to serve G‑d “with all our might.”30

Serving G‑d with all our might is a wondrous accomplishment, corresponding to the Kabbalistic 50th gate of wisdom. How do we reach the number 50?

If we take these 42 adornments and add the 7 branches of the Menorah, we get to 49.31 This represents the 49 levels of wisdom which we are to climb, after which the 50th is bestowed upon us from Above. 32

The Menorah Forever

Rabbeinu Bechaya says that the mitzvah of the Menorah is ledorot, “for [all] generations.” How can this be true, when we have not lit the Menorah since the destruction of the Holy Temple?

Some say that the Chanukah lights33 contain dimensions of the Menorah.

Others suggest that the 7 branches represent the 7 heavenly orbs or the 7 days of the week, both of which remain constant.34

Perhaps a deeper understanding of the meaning can be gleaned from an interesting Rashi:

After the Tabernacle was built, it was erected and dismantled daily, for 8 days, culminating on the first of Nisan.35 On that day, Moses set up everything in the Tabernacle, including the Menorah. Nachshon, Prince of Judah, then brought an offering, and it was considered as if he had inaugurated the Mishkan.

Aaron felt left out. G‑d, therefore, promised Aaron that his lighting of the Menorah would also be part of the inauguration, going so far as to say, “Your service is greater.”36

What is the hidden meaning here? The Rebbe37 says that Aharon’s unique ability was to light up souls with love for G‑d.

The Alter Rebbe38 explains that the inauguration was powerful and dramatic, but the kind of thing that would naturally fade with time. The moment that the princes of each tribe brought up their inauguration sacrifices, it was a unique boost for their tribe’s Divine service.

It was, however, temporary.

Aaron’s service, however, which represented the continual inspiration of every type of Jew on his or her level, is constant and eternal. Thus G‑d fortified it with a promise that it would defy the passage of time and the winds of change.