The light of the Menorah is a symbol, but of what?
In the Talmud, b. Shabbat 21b, we find the famous but very briefly retold story of the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid oppressors:
מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the Menorah] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.
In this telling of the story, the “main” miracle, that the Jews successfully best the greater army of the Seleucid Greek King (Antiochus IV Epiphanes), has a second more supernatural miracle attached to it: that an insufficient quantity of pure oil lit in the Temple’s Menorah burned for eight days, beginning on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev.
(Many others have discussed this Talmudic passage and explained it in a great variety of different ways. I am not going to review any of them here, for lack of space and time.)
However one chooses to explain this, it seems clear that the light of the Menorah is a symbol. God added a symbolic miracle to the military one to show us something; there was no practical tactical brilliance involved in this miracle of the oil – only a literal brilliance of light.
This use of the light of the Menorah as a symbol is similar to the depiction of the Menorah in the haftarah we read on shabbat Chanuka, from the prophet Zechariah (2:14–4:7). There the Menorah is also a symbol – a symbol of the idea expressed in that prophetic vision: “This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” (4:6)
Furthermore, we find elsewhere in the Talmud that the miracle celebrated on Chanuka was “less of” a miracle, in some way, than others – and that it was the last (overt) miracle:
מסכת יומא דף כט,א
א”ר אסי למה נמשלה אסתר לשחר לומר לך מה שחר סוף כל הלילה אף אסתר סוף כל הנסים והא איכא חנוכה ניתנה לכתוב קא אמרינן
b. Yoma 29a
Assi said: Why was Esther compared to the dawn? To tell you that just as the dawn is the end of the whole night, so is the story of Esther the end of all the miracles. But there is Hanukkah? — We refer to those meant to be written.
It is interesting that this analogy likens the period after the end of miracles to the daylight, and the last miracle(s) to the dawn. One might have presumed the opposite; that the era of overt miracles would be like the day and vice versa, but R. Assi says otherwise.
Now, let’s try to add a bit of physics to our understanding of this symbol of light…
There is an interesting similarity between the shape and numbers of the Menorah in the Temple and… a Rainbow. Both include seven “lights”: the Menorah has seven branches each with a lamp on top and a rainbow has seven colors of light (at least according to the classic mnemonic ROYGBIV: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.)
Both are shaped in semi-circles; the Menorah with round arcs facing upwards, the rainbow an arc of light facing downwards. Now, there are a couple of caveats to that statement: There are different opinions as to the general shape of the Menorah. The “semi-circular” image, however, is found on ancient contemporary depictions, including most famously, the Arch of Titus. Nevertheless, some other traditional sources disagree and say it was more of a triangular shape.
The rainbow too, is not exactly really a semi-circle necessarily either; just the part of it that is typically visible. Every rainbow is actually a full circle, but the lower half would be below the ground or horizon, so you would have to be in an airplane to see it. (A pilot friend of mine has affirmed that he sees circular rainbows all the time…)
Rainbows are created when sunlight is refracted by raindrops in the air, functioning similar to little prisms. The “white” sunlight is reflected within each raindrop and spread out into a spectrum of individual colors (i.e. wavelengths of light).
Refraction occurs at a boundary when light passes from one medium to another. Different frequencies (or colors, or wavelengths) of light bend at slightly different angles, thus spreading out the colors from “white” light. Raindrops also (partially) reflect the light internally and it is refracted twice, on entry and exit from the droplet.
Each droplet alone, would create a circular pattern of concentric colors at slightly different angles from the center. But viewed from a distance, the observer’s eyes will only be in the right position to see one color – from a given raindrop. A large number of droplets at varying locations (but fairly close to each other) show the various colors together at their various angles.
(For a more detailed explanation, see http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/refrn/Lesson-4/Rainbow-Formation)
Now, you might be thinking that this similarity of the Temple Menorah and rainbows is a fairly spurious connection. In fact, so did I when I first came up with this idea. So I tabled it and did not use it for a Chanuka d’var torah. But then, I subsequently discovered a further connection, which made me “un-table” it…
I was studying Sefer HaToda’ah – the Book of Our Heritage – (by Eliyahu Kitov) where he points to an interesting fact: The original rainbow in in the story of Noah occurred in Kislev – just like Chanuka:
The first rainbow observed after the Flood was also seen in Kislev. “And God said: “This is the sign of the covenant, which I set between Me and yourselves, and between every living being that is with you, unto eternal generations. I have given my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the Earth. [etc. see Genesis 9:…] This passage was spoken to Noah at the beginning of the month of Kislev.
It follows that God also gave the first Laws to Noah at that time, the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach – the Seven Noachide Commandments – the which are the “first laws of the Torah”, that is incumbent on all humanity.
Also Kitov points out that “keshet” – “the bow” – is the “sign” of the month of Kislev. (Curiously, this line or two is omitted from the English translation, even though it leads directly into the above quotation!) While this is often understood as an archer’s bow, corresponding to the Zodiacal constellation Sagittarius, he identifies it with the rainbow instead, presumably due the aforementioned biblical/historical connection.
This discovery in Kitov’s book made me think that this is not merely a “drasha” connection based on spurious similarities, but an actual connection hinted at in traditional sources!
(Note that the talmudic rabbis have two competing understandings of the numbering of the months in the chronology of the Genesis Flood narrative, so the Biblical text alone might not be sufficient to hint at this connection.)
So what does the light of the Menorah symbolize? Based on the rainbow similarity, I would suggest that it is a symbol of a covenant.
The rainbow is obviously a symbol of the covenant; God expressly says so:
אֶת קַשְׁתִּי נָתַתִּי בֶּעָנָן וְהָיְתָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית בֵּינִי וּבֵין הָאָרֶץ
My rainbow I have placed in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Myself and the earth. (Genesis 9:13)
In fact, the rainbow (roughly) fits a form of covenant making in other biblical stories, such as Abraham’s Brit Bein Habetarim – the Covenant Between the Pieces – in Genesis 15, or the covenant at Sinai, in Exodus 24. The parties to the covenant “pass between” two halves of something, thus representing the unification of the partners in the covenant. Of course, God does not “pass through” in any physical sense, but is “there with” the partner(s) of His covenant in the middle of the two halves, speaking anthropomorphically. So too with the rainbow: the two ends of the rainbow (and the arc above) “enclose” the partners together.
While the rainbow covenant is with all living things, and includes Torah laws for all humanity, in the context of the “Chanuka story” at least, the Menorah seems to be a symbol of the covenant of The Torah between God and the Jewish people.
But more specifically than that, it represents Torah She’Ba’al Peh – the Oral Torah. Just as a rainbow is produced when “white” light is diffracted to reveal the hidden combination of colors within it, so the Torah She’Ba’al Peh is revealed from the study of the Written Torah, and reveals a multiplicity of opinions and explanations. In fact, the beginning of the era of the flourishing of the Torah She’B’a’al Peh began with the revolt of the Hasmoneans against Antiochus. See, for example, Pirkei Avot – the Chapters of the Fathers; the earliest rabbis named are roughly from that period.
This is, to some extent, a maturation of the Covenant of the Torah. The entire Written Torah – the Bible – is complete. God is entrusting us with the Torah. With no further direct prophetic revelations, God is handing over the further development of the Oral Torah to us – to humans who study it, live it, love and – as in the time of the Hasmoneans – were willing to fight and die for it.
Concurrently, as we saw above, the “Chanuka episode” signals the end of an era of overt miracles, and is itself on the “boundary” between these eras – like the boundaries of water droplets that create the refraction of light that produces a rainbow!
The upward and downward facing arcs of the Menorah and rainbow also hint at this idea. The initial covenant of Torah with Noah (i.e. all mankind) is divinely initiated and represented by a symbolic arc facing downwards (i.e. from the Heavens). The covenant symbolized by the Menorah is represented by an arc facing upwards – because its focus is the human-developed Oral Torah.
The lighting of the Menorah then is a symbol that even if we live in an era in which we don’t see overt miracles like those in the Bible, God’s Covenant of the Torah is still going strong – and even flourishing more than ever – in the growth and shining of the many lights of the Torah She’ba’al Peh.