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21 Dec 2008

The Menorah and the Moriah

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menorah

Chanuka’s here and I have something to share. About a year ago, I participated in a Shabbaton in Milwaukee. It has remained one of the highlights of my travels. Whilst there, I met Maida Silverman, an illustrator, author and craftswoman. Here’s an article she sent me about a plant that resembles the Menorah. The drawing at left is hers too.  Thanks Maida. I found it intriguing. And I loved your book, “A City Herbal: Love, Legend and Uses of Common Weeds.”

The Menorah and the Moriah

By Maida Silverman

“…He (Bezalel) made the Menorah of pure gold, he made the Menorah hammered out…its base and its shaft, its cups and knobs…Six branches emerged from its sides, three branches of the Menorah from its side and three branches of the Menorah from its second side…”

Exodus: 37:17-18

The menorah has been a symbol of the Jewish people for more than three thousand years.  As they wandered in the Sinai Desert, the Children of Israel carried the menorah with them.  Its lamps were lit in the Sanctuary that accompanied them wherever they went.  The menorah’s light illuminated the first and Second Temples in Jerusalem until the Second Temple was destroyed by Titus, a Roman general.

The Temple and its precious menorah were gone.  But the lights of the menorah were not.  Never extinguished, these lights – faithful beacons of faith – reminded the Jewish people, no matter how scattered and dispersed they were throughout the world, they would someday return to Zion.

After the miracle of Chanuka, when one jar of oil miraculously burned for eight days, menorahs – with an additional branch commemorating the miracle – were lit wherever Jews lived.

The detailed description of the menorah of the Sanctuary is noted for its use of words from the plant world.  Exodus 37:17-34 describes its “almond-shaped calyxes, flowers and branches.”  But it is the branches that emerge from the central shaft that define the structure of the candelabra.

Centuries later, this description aroused the interest of renowned Israeli botanist, Dr. Ephraim Hareuveni.  He was particularly intrigued by the description of the branches.  Bezalel had fashioned the menorah when the Jews were wandering in the desert.  Was it possible that plants grew there whose shape resembled the menorah?  Dr. Hareuveni and his wife Hannah decided to search for them.

Moriah Plant_Maida SilvermanHe and his wife discovered that such a plant does indeed exist.  Throughout Israel, from the mountains of Lebanon to the Sinai desert, a plant grows wild whose shape illustrates the verse in Exodus that describes the menorah.  It is a member of a plant group called salvia, which includes peppermint, spearmint and sage.  The particular plant the Hareuvenis found is called the moriah.

Many people are familiar with the menorah whose branches are curved outwards in semi-circular fashion from the central stem.  However, in his commentary on the Torah, Rashi writes that the branches of the menorah extended upward in a diagonal.  Indeed the Hebrew word the Torah uses to describe the branches is ohbe which implies a straight line.

In his “Commentary on the Mishna” and his Mishna Torah, the Rambam provided drawings of the Menorah, showing the branches as extending diagonally in straight lines.  And in the Torah commentary written by his son, Rabbeinu Avraham, we read, “The six branches …extend upwards from the center shaft of the menorah in a straight line, as depicted by my father, and not in a semi-circle as depicted by others.”

The moriah plant grows to be eighteen inches tall.  The delicate flowers may be white or pink.  The leaves and flowers are very fragrant.  When crushed they emit a refreshing minty-sage aroma.  The central stem grows from a leafy rosette of large, ruffled leaves.

The central stem and straight branches of the moriah plant are square shaped, not rounded.  They grow opposite each other – four branches (sometimes more) opposite each other on either side of the main stem, and at an angle to it.  The resemblance of the moriah plant to the menorah drawn by the Rambam nearly 900 years ago and to the Menorah of Lubavitcher Chassidim is striking.

Maida Silverman is an illustrator, author and craftswoman. She is the author of “A City Herbal: Love, Legend and Uses of Common Weeds.” Her illustrations include those for “The Poetry of Chaim Nachman Bialik” which was voted one of the fifty Best Books of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1973. Her stitchery projects and writings have appeared in “Family Circle” and “Seventeen” magazines.

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