The Menorah and Planets

I recently came across this interesting midrash about the Menorah and planets. Chanukah seemed like an opportune time to share it with everyone, especially today because it pertains to the Torah reading for the eighth day of Chanukah. So here it is…

Midrash Tanchuma, Behaalotcha 5 (also Bmidbar Rabbah 15:7):

דָּבָר אַחֵר, אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, שֶׁלֹּא תִּהְיוּ מְבַזִּין עַל הַמְּנוֹרָה. הֱוֵי שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כִּי מִי בַז לְיוֹם קְטַנּוֹת וְשָׂמְחוּ וְרָאוּ אֶת הָאֶבֶן הַבְּדִיל בְּיַד זְרֻבָּבֶל שִׁבְעָה אֵלֶּה עֵינֵי ה’ הֵמָּה מְשׁוֹטְטִים בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ (זכריה ד, י), זוֹ הַמְּנוֹרָה. וּמַהוּ שִׁבְעָה. אֵלֶּה שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת כְּנֶגֶד שִׁבְעָה כֹּכָבִים שֶׁמְּשׁוֹטְטִים בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ, כָּךְ חֲבִיבִין הֵם לְפָנַי, שֶׁלֹּא תִּהְיוּ מְבַזִּין עָלֶיהָ. לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר: אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת, 

Another interpretation (of Numb. 8:2 cont.), “in front of the menorah.” So that you will not despise the menorah. It is so stated (in Zech. 4:10), “Does anyone scorn a day of small beginnings? When they see the stone of distinction in the hand of Zerubbabel, they shall rejoice. Those seven are the eyes of the LORD, roam over the whole earth.” This is the menorah. And what are “[these] seven?” These are the seven lamps corresponding to the seven planets that “roam over the whole earth.”  These seven likewise are dear to Me. Thus you may not despise them. It is therefore written (in Numb. 8:2:) “let the seven lamps give their light in front of the menorah.” 

First, let’s ask a fairly obvious question: Why would anyone think the Menorah is worthy of “despising”?

In the context of the immediately preceding midrashic passage, Aaron was upset (and feeling guilty) that his tribe was not included in the 12 days of sacrifices at the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). God addressed Aaron’s feelings by means of the lighting of the Menorah:

לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר: דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּהַעֲלוֹתְךָ. הַקָּרְבָּנוֹת, כָּל זְמַן שֶׁבֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ קַיָּם הֵן נוֹהֲגִין. אֲבָל הַנֵּרוֹת, לְעוֹלָם, אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה

It is therefore written (in Numb. 8:2), “Speak unto Aaron […], ‘When you are raised.’” The offerings remain in force as long as the Temple exists, but the lamps are forever, “in front of the menorah.” 

In this approach, the simple meaning of this midrash seems to be saying that one should not belittle the Menorah lighting mitzvah of Aaron even though the twelve leaders of the other Tribes made such extended and impressive dedicatory sacrifices, the optics of which may seem much “bigger and better” than the mere lighting of seven lamps.

Many understand this statement in the midrash an allusion to Chanukah. Although the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial service ceased, the menorah lighting of the Maccabean rededication continues to be celebrated and mimicked beyond the era of the Temple, forever, via the lighting and celebration of Chanukah (=” הַנֵּרוֹת”, “the lamps” or “candles”). The Hasmoneans were kohanim, Aaron’s descendants, thus he should be consoled by the (future) fact that the lighting of the Menorah would “last forever” – longer than the sacrifices (brought by the other tribes.)

In the subsequent/continuing paragraph, there’s another possible reason someone might “despise” the Menorah: it seems either foolish or heretical (or both) that God would want lamps in His own Sanctuary:

שֶׁמָּא יַטְעֶה אוֹתְךָ יִצְרְךָ לוֹמַר, שֶׁהוּא צָרִיךְ אוֹרָהּ. מַה כְּתִיב בַּחַלּוֹנוֹת בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, וְחַלּוֹנוֹת אֲטֻמוֹת אֶל הַתָּאִים … שֶׁהָיוּ רְחָבוֹת מִבַּחוּץ וְצָרוֹת מִבִּפְנִים, כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּהוּ מוֹצִיאִים אוֹרָהּ לַחוּץ. אָמַר רַבִּי בְּרֶכְיָה הַכֹּהֵן, הַבָּרָק הַזֶּה תּוֹלְדוֹת הָאֵשׁ שֶׁל מַעְלָה הוּא, וְהוּא יוֹצֵא וּמַבְהִיק אֶת כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ, …  וַאֲנִי צָרִיךְ לָאוֹר שֶׁלָּכֶם. וְלָמָּה אָמַרְתִּי לָכֶם. אֶלָּא כְּדֵי לְהַעֲלוֹתְכֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: בְּהַעֲלוֹתְךָ

Lest your [evil inclination] drive lead you astray into saying that He has need of light, [see] what is written about the windows of the Temple (in Ezek. 40:16, 25), “Now there were narrow windows into the cells … they were wide on the outside and narrow on the inside in order to send forth light to the outside.  Above, Numb. 3:2. R. Berekhyah the Priest said, “This lightning is the result of fire from on high. When it goes forth it brightens up the whole world, …  And I would need your light? [So] why did I tell to you? Simply in order to elevate you (ha’alotekha) [Numbers 8:2] when you set up the lamps (ha‘alotekha).” 

The answer or reason is that the Menorah’s lighting is for “you” – for the benefit of humans; perhaps for Aaron’s feelings, perhaps symbolizing that the light of God’s sanctuary and laws should shine forth to enlighten the rest of the world.

Now, on to the astronomical part of this midrash.

What is the idea behind the idea of “the seven lamps corresponding to the seven planets that ‘roam over the whole earth.’  These seven likewise are dear to Me”? 

What does the Menorah have to do with planets? 

And which seven planets?

The ancient understanding of “planets” was more limited than our modern astronomical knowledge of the topic. The ancients did not have telescopes and only five planets (not including Earth) were/are visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. 

The five visible (with the naked eye) planets all visible in the sky at one time

Also the planets were only “noticed” as different from stars because of their unusual paths around the sky (and perhaps their exceptional brightness as compared with most stars). Unlike stars, planets do not have a simple annual period of motion, and they exhibit an occasional “zig-zag” known as retrograde motion. 

A time lapse image of retrograde motion over many nights
A time lapse image of Mars in retrograde motion over many nights from apod.nasa.gov

Retrograde motion is observed due to the Earth’s orbit being shorter than that of farther out planets. Let’s explain by analogy, the Earth is like a runner on an inner lane of a racetrack: as you catch up to an “outer lane” runner, you see then running forward, then you pass them and they seem to be moving back from you, and then once you are far enough ahead you see them running forward again (behind you).

Diagram explaining retrograde motion from actual orbital positions to appearances on the sky (from Wikipedia )

Thus these strangely moving “stars” were called  πλάνητες – “planetes” – by the Greeks which means “wanderers” and similarly “kochvei lechet” in Hebrew.

Hence they are referred to in the verse above as “roaming” over the earth, implying a less than typical stellar path.

So why seven not five? We must assume that the count of seven is completed by including the Sun and Moon as well as the five visible planets. This would be in keeping with the (incorrect) ancient geocentric Aristotelian and Ptolemaic model of celestial motion which had each of those bodies revolving around the Earth in a “heavenly sphere”. This model was fully developed in the Greco-Roman world by roughly the 2nd century CE, and widely accepted until the Copernican Revolution in the 16-17th centuries.

Diagram of the Geocentric Ptolemaic Model of The Universe by Oronce Fine : c. 1549

Hence there were a total of seven astronomical objects that were not “just like the background stars” (although we now know that the Sun is more like other stars than the planets!)

It is not hard to see the special astronomical features of these “seven planets” being viewed by the ancients, in the times of both Zechariah and the midrash, as a sign of special “dearness” to God. Hence the dearness of the Menorah being compared to the dearness of these seven, and also as a sign of Divine favor at the beginning of the rebuilding of the Temple in the prophecy of Zechariah.

But beyond just being a grouping of seven lights is there some other connection to the menorah?

One interesting insight on this midrash from an astronomical point of view relates to the understanding of the verse “אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת” – “the seven lamps shine their light [literally] opposite the face of the menorah.” Commentaries explain what exactly that phrase means, and among them is the idea that six of the lamps faced towards the central lamp, which sat directly atop the central column and base of the Menorah.

Since in this midrash the lamps of the Menorah correspond to the “seven planets” then this phrase, to some extent, could be seen as reflecting astronomical reality: All planets (in the Solar System) only shine when they are facing the Sun, because they shine due to their reflecting sunlight. If we posit that the central lamp of the Menorah corresponds to the Sun, then the other lamps being required to face their “shining” in its direction mimics astronomical reality.

This fact was known by ancients regarding the Moon (Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, 499-428 BCE) but not about the other planets. (Phases of Venus as viewed from Earth – analogous to phases of the Moon – were only first observed by Galileo with his early telescopic observations.)

Another modern astronomical thought is that the Menorah corresponding to the “seven planets”  kind of makes it resemble an (inaccurate) orrery – a (rotating) model of the planets in the Solar System.

An orrery made by Robert Brettell Bate, circa 1812. (see here)

Here is another similar astronomically focused midrash about the Mishkan:

Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 1:3

כך אמר הב”ה למשה, משה אם אתה עושה מה של מעלה למטה אני מניח סנקליטין שלי של מעלן ויורד ומצמצם שכינתי ביניכם למטן. מה למעלה, שרפים עומדים (ישעיה ו:ב), אף למטן, עצי שטים עומדים (שמות כו:טו). מה למעלה ככבים אף למטה קרסים. א”ר חייא בר אבא מלמד שהיו קרסי זהב נראין במשכן ככוכבים הקבועין ברקיע

Thus the Holy One Blessed be He to Moses: Moses, if you make what is above below, I will leave My councilors (Jastrow: σύγκλητος; senators, councilors) above and descend to contract My Presence among you below. Just as above, there are Serafim standing (Isaiah 6:2) so below, acacia wood standing (Ex. 26:15). Just as above there are stars, so below there are clasps [or buttons]. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said: This teaches that the golden clasps appeared in the Tabernacle like stars set in the heavens.

Here we have another part of the Mishkan being like – or representing – another astronomical feature, stars! This midrash seems to be saying that a crucial feature of the Mishkan is that it (somehow) mimics or replicates the heavens.

Indeed, as this midrash says, from the vantage point of a person inside the Mishkan, the golden clasps would be a string of shiny golden circles stretching overhead – roughly situated over the menorah – from one side to the other (and also downwards from the tent-top towards the ground on either side, but that was hidden behind the beams) resembling a line of stars.

The function of the Tabernacle or Ohel Moed – Tent of Meeting – is that it brings us to “meet” God (kiviyachol.) In these midrashim, that function is related to the heavenly bodies. The Menorah – which when it is lit “elevates” those who light it – corresponds to the “seven planets”. The “stars” on the ceiling of the Tabernacle create for God a place to which He “descends” from above. And in that elevation and descent bring us together for a “meeting”. So it works in the Tent of Meeting. 

The idea that seems to be expressed in these midrashim is that a focus on astronomical observations – even when standing in the middle of the Mishkan – will have the effect of bringing us closer to God. 

However,  if we reverse the idea and “back it out”, perhaps we will see that the “original natural” components – the actual stars and planets – can also help us have a spiritual encounter with God. In our awe and wonder (and gratitude) when we observe the heavenly bodies – and other parts of God’s awesome universe in general – we can feel a natural inclination to draw closer to God.

Perhaps this too is a part of the answer to those who would scorn the Menorah by “saying that He has need of light” (above). The function of the Menorah – or the Mishkan in general – is not for God but for us to draw closer to God, and these seven lights help us to be “elevated” and be drawn closer to God as does a focus on the astronomy they represent.

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