From the Wall Street Journal, courtesy my friend Bill Kappel:
The menorah—“lamp stand” in Hebrew—has been the pre-eminent symbol of Jews and Judaism for millennia. It is the oldest continuously used religious symbol in Western civilization. Yet at this time of year, many people—Jews and non-Jews alike—find themselves puzzled about it. Why is there a nine-branched menorah for Hanukkah (which begins this year on the evening of Dec. 24) rather than the more familiar seven-branched one, as in the seal of the State of Israel?
Since biblical times, the seven-branched menorah has symbolized Judaism. It first appears in Exodus, as a lighting fixture within the Tabernacle, a sort of portable temple used by the Israelites during their desert wanderings. The menorah is described in Exodus in minute detail, based on a heavenly prototype.
For many Jews in antiquity, the menorah’s seven branches represented the five visible planets, plus the sun and the moon, and its rounded branches suggested their trajectories across the heavens. One ancient Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria, compared the “harmony” of the menorah’s branches to “an instrument of music, truly divine.” Others noted that seven is a key number in Judaism—one need only mention the biblically ordained week.
So the seven-branched menorah evolved into the most important “branding” icon of Judaism. It was stamped on coins, engraved on tombs and inscribed on sundials, jewelry and synagogue furnishings. The Romans considered the menorah so recognizable a Jewish symbol that they depicted it on the Arch of Titus in Rome to illustrate the spoils that they had carried away after conquering Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
So why nine branches for the observance of Hanukkah? The holiday’s menorahs come in all shapes and sizes and may be lighted with either olive oil or wax candles (both of which burn pure flames). The defining characteristic of a Hanukkah menorah is eight lights in a row, with a ninth lamp off to the side or above, separated from the other eight. The ninth lamp is called a shamash, a “servator,” and it symbolically differentiates the eight holy flames from other, mundane light sources. It is usually used to light the other eight.
Each night of Hanukkah, an additional lamp is lighted—one the first night, two the second and so on until all eight are ablaze on the holiday’s final night. The eight (plus one) lamps of the Hanukkah menorah represent a tradition that dates all the way back to the earliest history of this minor, albeit richly symbolic, Jewish festival.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus called Hanukkah the “Festival of Lights.” It commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem during a Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks in 164 B.C. The Temple, the holiest site in the world for Jews, was restored and the seven-branched menorah lighted. This event occurred on the winter solstice, in late December—making the lighting of festive lamps a natural way to celebrate the shortest day of the year.
The Maccabees designed the festival of Hanukkah (Hebrew for “dedication”) as an eight-day celebration modeled on earlier temple-dedication ceremonies—first by Moses after the completion of the Tabernacle and then by King Solomon, who dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem just after 1000 B.C.
The most famous explanation for the eight-day festival appears in the Babylonian Talmud, which infuses the Maccabees’ victory with divine purpose. The Talmud says that although the victorious Maccabees had only enough sacred olive oil available to burn for a single night, it miraculously lasted for eight.
I had also heard that the seven-branched candelabrum of the Temple was so sacred that using one outside of this context was considered blasphemous – thus does the Hanukkah Menorah have nine lights to differentiate it. I’m glad that Dr. Fine acknowledges that the story of the miraculous oil was a later invention.
I’m curious to read these paragraphs from the Wikipedia article. Sounds like the Temple Menorah may have survived for some time following the Siege of Jerusalem:
The fate of the menorah used in the Second Temple is recorded by Josephus, who states that it was brought to Rome and carried along during the triumph of Vespasian and Titus. The menorah was deposited afterwards in the Temple of Peace in Rome. The relief on the wall at the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts a scene of Roman soldiers carrying away the spoils of the Second Temple, in particular, the seven-branched menorah, or candelabrum.
Most likely, the menorah was looted by the Vandals in the sacking of Rome in 455 CE, and taken to their capital, Carthage. The Byzantine army under General Belisarius might have removed it in 533 and brought it to Constantinople. According to Procopius, it was carried through the streets of Constantinople during Belisarius’ triumphal procession. Procopius adds that the object was later sent back to Jerusalem where there is no record of it, although it could have been destroyed when Jerusalem was pillaged by the Persians in 614.