One of the cool things about the new school year is that my daughters are bringing home some really interesting books, like my oldest daughter’s art history book. It includes a photograph of a frieze from the Arch of Titus in Rome, pictured above. My youngest daughter said that when one of her day school classes came across a photo of the frieze in class a few years ago, the teacher didn’t want to discuss it because it depicts one of the saddest episodes in Jewish history. It does depict one of the saddest episodes in Jewish history: the destruction of The Second Temple by the Romans and the Roman army carrying off the Temple’s contents. The image is made sadder by the fact that this frieze was carved not by Jewish artisans to commemorate their loss, but by Romans to celebrate their victory.
But let’s talk about the frieze, especially those of us who sew and design Judaica, because it includes what might be the most accurate representation of the Temple menorah, which is a central symbol in Jewish design.
There’s the menorah, on the upper left side. Notice that this isn’t the nine-branched style menorah that we light on Hanukkah. This is the seven-branched menorah that stood in the Temple and was lit every evening by the priests. But this is the menorah that features in the Hanukkah story. It was this menorah that the people of Israel restored after the Maccabbees recaptured the Temple from the Seleucid Empire. As you recall in the Hanukkah story, when the Temple restoration began, there was only enough oil for one day, but it miraculously lasted for eight days while the priests prepared more. The nine branches of a Hanukkah menorah we use today –also called a Hanukkiah– include one for each of the eight nights plus one branch from which to light the other eight.
The Romans deposited the actual menorah, along with other items pillaged from the Second Temple, in Rome’s Temple of Peace. Historians speculate that it was moved around the region by a succession of conquering armies, but we don’t have any contemporaneous representations of the menorah dated after the Arch of Titus.
Does the fact that the frieze on the Arch of Titus was made within a few years of the Temple destruction mean that the representation of the menorah is accurate? Maybe. It’s probably more likely to be accurate than representations created centuries later. But we don’t know if the artisan who carved the frieze saw the actual menorah or benefited from drawings by someone who did.
Here is a description of the menorah written by someone who actually saw it, the Jewish historian Flavious Josephus:
“…fixed upon a pedestal was a central shaft, from which there extended slender branches arranged trident-fashion, a wrought lamp being attached to the extremity of each branch. These lamps were in number seven, and represented the dignity of the number seven among the Jews.” (Jewish War 7.5.5 149-150)
How well does the Titus menorah’s appearance conform to the instructions given in the Torah for making it? From Exodus:
Make a menorah out of pure gold. The menorah shall be formed by hammering it. It’s base, stem, and [decorative] cups, spheres and flowers must be hammered out of a [single piece of gold].
Six branches shall extend from its sides, three branches on one side of the menorah and three branches on the other side.
There shall be three embossed cups, as well as a sphere and a flower on each and every one of the branches. All six branches extending from the menorah’s [stem] must be the same in this respect.
The [shaft] of the menorah shall have four embossed cups along with its spheres and flowers. As sphere shall serve as a base for each pair of branches extending from [the shaft]. This shall be true for all six branches extending from the [stem] of the menorah. The spheres and branches shall be an integral part of [the menorah]. They shall all be hammered out of a single piece of pure gold.
Make seven lamps on [the menorah]. Its lamps shall be lit so that they shine [primarily] toward its center. (Exodus 102: 31-37, This translation is from The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan)
Although the detail on the frieze is a bit tough to make out, its menorah doesn’t seem inconsistent with Josephus’ description or the Torah’s instructions. But not all Jewish scholars believed the Temple menorah was made in the shape depicted on the Arch of Titus. The medieval scholar Maimonides deduced that the branches of the menorah were straight rather than curved, so that it looked more like a capital letter Y with five more branches reaching upward. Through the years, Jewish designers have created innumerable variations on both of these shapes.
The shape of the menorah on the Arch of Titus, however, with its arched branches punctuated by bulbs, became an iconic Jewish motif. It appears in synagogue architecture and decor, vases, candelabrum, paper cuttings, headstones, and illuminated manuscripts. One of the most widely-recognized examples today is an illustration from the Cervera Bible, created in Spain in 1300, which Claudia Rodin chose for the cover of her Book of Jewish Food.
And let’s talk about it some more. Here’s a collection of examples to inspire you:
[Photos: Arch of Titus “Arch of titus relief 2” by Anthony M. from Rome, Italy – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons | Byzantine mosaic synagogue floor, Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons | Chevet de la Synagogue de Mulhouse, France, 2006 via Wikimedia Commons |Menorah from the Main Synagogue of Barcelona, photo by Chumchum14 via Wikimedia Commons | Diagrams from the Jewish Encylopedia via Wikimedia Commons]