Evidence for The Temple Menorah

A dig in Jerusalem has revealed artifacts from the time of the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. A sword still in it's leather scabbard was one of the interesting finds, as was this graffito of the Temple Menorah. It's particularly important as there are few images from the time of the Temple, and this one was found close to it (in a "drainage channel between the City of David and the Jerusalem Archaeological Garden") both geographically and temporally.

Artifacts breathe new life into the destruction of the Temple - Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
A stone object adorned with a rare engraving of a menorah was found in the soil beneath the street, on the side of the drainage channel. According to Shukron and Professor Reich, "Interestingly, even though we are dealing with a depiction of the seven-branched candelabrum, only five branches appear here. The portrayal of the menorah's base is extremely important because it clarifies what the base of the original menorah looked like, which was apparently tripod shaped".
The fact that the stone object was found at the closest proximity to the Temple Mount to date is also important. The researchers suppose a passerby who saw the menorah with his own eyes and was amazed by its beauty incised his impressions on a stone and afterwards tossed his scrawling to the side of the road, without imagining that his creation would be found 2,000 years later.
The best known contemporary depiction of the Temple Menorah was as part of his triumph on the Arch of Titus.

Jews will debate most things, since 'learning' is highly regarded, so it's not surprising that the shape of the lost Temple Menorah was debated by leading rabbis. Most felt that the seven branches of the Temple Menorah were semi-circular, as shown on the Arch of Titus, but others, such as Rashi and Maimonides (his drawing from Perush Hamishnayot at Menachot 3:7 is below), felt that they were straight:

If the new graffito is accurate - and it shows five branches not seven - the Temple Menorah had a tripod base of three legs. It is important, but it's not the only pictorial evidence we have for the form of the Temple Menorah and it's seven branches.

This coin (see also) was issued by the last Hasmonean Antigonus II Mattathias (d. 37 BC) around 40 BC showing the Menorah and the Bread Table (above) and the Menorah (below, which names the High Priest Matisyahu and shows the Bread Table on the reverse).

These coins pre-date the destruction of the Temple, but one has to be careful when using such tiny schematised images as evidence. The first coin may possibly have a tripod base. Both coins show branches that are more 'upright' than semi-circular, particularly the first one.

This fragmentary depiction incised into plaster also pre-dates the destruction of the Temple, since it comes from one of the Herodian homes destroyed in AD 70 about 150 m west of the Temple (source):

The graffito is now in the Israel Museum and it shows the base as tripod.

Another depiction of the Menorah was found at Migdal, which seems to be the oldest structure securely dated as a synagogue by the Israel Antiquities Authority with a Menorah from the Second Temple period (50 BC to AD 100) (here):

We have a lengthy description of the Menorah from Exodus 25, with God's instructions to Moses concerning its design:

31 And you must make a lampstand of pure gold. Of hammered work the lampstand is to be made. Its base, its branches, its cups, its knobs and its blossoms are to proceed out from it.  
32 And six branches are running out from its sides, three branches of the lampstand from its one side and three branches of the lampstand from its other side.  
33 Three cups shaped like flowers of almond are on the one set of branches, with knobs and blossoms alternating, and three cups shaped like flowers of almond on the other set of branches, with knobs and blossoms alternating. This is the way it is with the six branches running out from the lampstand.  
34 And on the lampstand are four cups shaped like flowers of almond, with its knobs and its blossoms alternating. 
35 And the knob under two branches is out of it and the knob under the two other branches is out of it and the knob under two more branches is out of it, for the six branches running out from the lampstand. 
36 Their knobs and their branches are to proceed out from it. All of it is one piece of hammered work, of pure gold.  
37 And you must make seven lamps for it; and the lamps must be lit up, and they must shine upon the area in front of it.  
38 And its snuffers and its fire holders are of pure gold.  
39 Of a talent of pure gold he should make it with all these utensils of it.  
40 And see that you make them after their pattern that was shown to you in the mountain
The problem is that this was the Menorah in Solomon's Temple, which was carried off to Babylon - and although the Jews returned, most scholars believe that the Treasure in Herod's Temple was a later re-creation of the lost originals (it was one thing for Cyrus to let the Jews go, another for him to let them return with the booty the Persians had won off them).

When Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed in AD 70, the Treasure was taken to Rome to be paraded in Titus' triumph, but the real treasures of Judaism, its rabbis, were not. Shimon bar Yochai fled to Peki'in in the Upper Galilee (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 33b), and during excavations of the synagogue there in the 1920s a relief of the Menorah was excavated (below, source). The synagogue was re-built in the Late Antique period, but the one the relief comes from is said to have been erected by Joshua ben Hananiah (d. AD 131). A second relief was found depicting the Holy of Holies.

There is considerable debate about whether there were synagogues before the destruction of the Temple. There were briefly Temples at Elephantine and Leontopolis, but ... archaeologists still dispute whether the synagogues were synagogues or not. The Delos Synagogue is linked by inscriptions to the Samaritans and Jews, and it was probably a meeting place originally for them rather than a place of worship.  The foundations of the Ostia Synagogue are earlier, but we're not sure when the building became a synagogue. This depiction of the Menorah from it dates to its use after the destruction of the Temple (source):

There certainly were many synagogues built after the destruction of the Temple, since places to congregate and worship were needed. Many of these included depictions of a Menorah (JSTOR). I assume that many of them copied a now lost depiction of the Temple Menorah, although they have considerable variations.

The basalt lintel from Kokhav ha-Yarden (source):

The stone door from Kfar Yasir, probably from the so-called Tomb of El-Khader (source):

This relief came from the 3rd century synagogue at Ashkelon, and was re-used in the mosque there (source):

Another from a 4th century synagogue at Eshtemoa (source), one of four door lintels carved with the Menorah there:

Once we get to the Byzantine period, many mosaics in synagogues in Israel depicted the Menorah, as well as other objects. The Hammat Tiberius synagogue had both a mosaic and a relief depiction, and is dated by an inscription to the later 4th century (source):

The mosaic in the Khirbet Susiya is again 4th century, and interesting as it shows tripod bases (source):

As did the synagogue at Beth-shean (Scythopolis - source):

The 3rd - 4th century synagogue at Sha’ Alvim had simplified depictions. The inscriptions make it clear that this was a Samaritan synagogue, but one is a plea for the "Restoration of the place of prayer" (source):

There is also 5th century painted tombstone found at Zoar near the Dead Sea. From the text we know that Hannah died on the eve of Passover in AD 438 (source):

The Menorah was also depicted on a chancel screen in a Byzantine church in Israel (here).

Jews living outside Israel also depicted the Menorah. These 4th century gold-glass bases of bowls were found embedded in the Catacombs at Rome (source):

The Jewish Villa Torlonia Catacombs in Rome from the 2nd - 3rd century also depicted the Menorah (source):

The Menorah was regularly carved onto the tombs of Jews: several tomb slabs from Italy in the Jewish Museum of New York - Roman here and Byzantine here - both showing the Menorah with tripod bases, a sarcophagus fragment (here); the slab of Ammias (here) and Pomponius (here) from the catacombs of Monteverde; the slab of Primitiva and her nephew Euphrenon (here); a slab from Merida (here).

Numerous smaller objects depicted the Menorah, for example oil lamps (here) and this Byzantine bronze seal (source):

Probably the best preserved depictions come from the Dura Europos Synagogue, which we know from an Aramaic inscription was renovate around AD 244 (the city was destroyed in AD 256-7, and so very well preserved for archaeologists). Good images can be found here.

Scene of Moses in the Wilderness:

Scene of the Temple of Aaron:

This page from the Jewish Encyclopedia shows various other depictions of the Menorah and hypothetical reconstructions:

Julian the Apostate started to rebuild the Temple (Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, 23.1.2–3, see also here). Alypius of Antioch was in charge of the project, but after Julian's death and the earthquake of AD 363 the project was abandoned. For more on Julian and the Jews see JSTOR.

Although a very small number of Jews today would like to see the Temple re-built, most would not - for if there were a Third Temple, we would in theory have to return to making animal sacrifices there, as shown in this fresco from Dura Europas ...

But if someone does want to re-create the Temple Menorah, Rashi and Maimonides were right in that the branches were probably straight, according to the archaeological evidence. And the base was probably a tripod, not the octagonal base shown on the Arch of Titus.

Update - those with JSTOR might like to read this article about the Hasmonean menorah (JSTOR).

I also found this bronze ring supposedly dated to the Second Temple period with a menorah at the Living Torah Museum:


  1. I was only recently made aware of your blog and I have spent the past few days reading through your older posts. You have one of the best blogs on the internet and I thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  2. Thank you - that's very kind. I'm just posting some research at the moment, as I thought it would be fun to share

  3. Excellent posting. why do resolve in conclusion that the arms are straight when virtually all the evidence is for curved?

    Never heard of Julian's rebuilding plans.. which are fascinating... he was such a wonderful stirrer...

  4. Well they didn't go straight up as in the Mainonides drawing ... but nor were the branches semi-circular as in the Arch of Titus relief - all the evidence suggests a rounded bottom to each candle stick but that the stick rose straighter and further than the semi-circle it made with its 'pair' on the opposite side.

  5. Thanks for a nice explanation, but I don't agree with you on this point:
    "although a very small number of Jews today would like to see the Temple re-built, most would not - for if there were a Third Temple, we would in theory have to return to making animal sacrifices there."
    If we would take Jews that know what temple is, them most of them want the Temple rebuild and make sacrifices.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Where can I buy a Jewish Menorah good price online English site


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