The Meno­rah: From the Bible to Mod­ern Israel

Steven Fine

  • Review
By – December 13, 2016

The Meno­rah: From the Bible to Mod­ern Israel traces the his­to­ry of one of Judaism’s, and per­haps humanity’s, most sig­nif­i­cant reli­gious sym­bols. Steven Fine, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, explains how the image of the meno­rah has been inter­pret­ed, rein­ter­pret­ed, appro­pri­at­ed, and mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ed through his­to­ry. The book also includes illus­tra­tions through­out that sup­port Fine’s well writ­ten text.

Begin­ning with writ­ings from antiq­ui­ty, includ­ing the Bible and Jose­phus, Fine explores both the form and the fate of the orig­i­nal meno­rah, which was tak­en by the Romans dur­ing the destruc­tion of Jerusalem. In the search for the orig­i­nal, he con­cludes with the recog­ni­tion that it is a his­to­ry writ­ten in texts and in arti­facts, with many, many holes in our knowl­edge along the way”; the repro­duc­tion of the meno­rah on the Arch of Titus and its dis­play in Ves­pasian’s Tem­ple of Peace is where the trail runs cold.

The sec­ond chap­ter, which cov­ers the peri­od between Fla­vian Rome and the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, dis­cuss­es how the Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian, and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties incor­po­rat­ed the meno­rah into their iconog­ra­phy. For exam­ple, the Jews uti­lized the image of the meno­rah in syn­a­gogue mosaics and Jew­ish rit­u­al objects, while Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties often fab­ri­cat­ed a like­ness of the meno­rah for church­es across Europe, using the meno­rah as a means of val­i­dat­ing Chris­tian­i­ty in con­nect­ing it to its Jew­ish beginnings.

The third and fourth chap­ters of The Meno­rah con­sid­er the use of the meno­rah in the Mod­ern Peri­od, serv­ing the Jew­ish body politic in Pales­tine and inter­na­tion­al­ly.” Exam­ples include the menorah’s incor­po­ra­tion into the work of Beza­lel artists, the insignia worn by sol­diers of the Jew­ish Legion, and the Zion­ist movement’s rhetoric, art, and lit­er­a­ture both pre- and post- World War II and in the estab­lish­ment of the State of Israel.

A Jew­ish Holy Grail,” the fifth chap­ter, traces the time­less quest to recov­er the lost arti­facts of the Tem­ple in Jerusalem, and the meno­rah in par­tic­u­lar. Fine’s dis­cus­sion traces this quest from its bib­li­cal ori­gins to moder­ni­ty, and includes exam­ples from lit­er­a­ture and film. The meno­rah, the pre­em­i­nent sym­bol of Judaism turned sym­bol of an old-new Jew­ish moder­ni­ty, enlight­en­ment, and, ulti­mate­ly, the Jew­ish state, con­tin­ues to inspire the imag­i­na­tion and the desire for phys­i­cal con­tact with bib­li­cal real­i­ty,” writes Fine. Chap­ters six and sev­en con­sid­er the myth that the meno­rah is still hid­den in the Vat­i­can and how it has been used as a sym­bol of the apoc­a­lypse, of protest, and of Mes­sian­ism to the present day.

Con­clud­ing on a per­son­al note, the author shares that this has been a per­son­al his­to­ry — the his­to­ry of my own search to under­stand the meno­rah, and my attempt at using the tools of my dis­ci­pline to make sense of my beloved lamp­stand for our own com­pli­cat­ed times.” While the aver­age read­er will be famil­iar with some of the menorah’s trans­fig­u­ra­tions over the mil­len­nia, Fine sheds lights on the nuances of these trans­for­ma­tions and illu­mi­nates us with his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes that both edu­cate and enter­tain. The Meno­rah is a valu­able read for his­to­ri­an and lay read­er alike.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions