Oxford’s Maimonides manuscript disputes the design of the Temple Menorah

Thursday, 23 February, 2012 - 6:04 pm

Rambam.jpgOxford’s Bodleian library is known for its rare collection of Hebrew manuscripts including some of the most important manuscripts of the great Jewish legalist and philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or by his Hebrew acronym Rambam (1138-1204). One of these Oxford manuscripts includes Maimonides’ rare and invaluable own handwritten work of his Commentary to the Mishnah, known in Hebrew as Pirush Hamishnayot, written in Judea Arabic (MSS 1655).


This manuscript was brought to Oxford by the great collector of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts in the East, Professor Edward Pocock, who was born and passed away in Oxford (1604-1691). Prof. Pocock was appointed to the professorship of Hebrew at Oxford in 1647 and had a valuable collection of 420 oriental manuscripts, which was bought by Oxford University in 1693 for £600. Some of his printed books were acquired by the Bodleian in 1822, by bequest from the Rev. C. Francis of Brasenose.


Pocock.jpgThe manuscript of Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah was purchased by Prof. Pocock between 1630 and 1635 after he was appointed to the chaplaincy to the English 'Turkey Merchants' at Aleppo in 1629, where he resided for over five years. During this time, he made himself master of Arabic, which he not only read but spoke fluently, studied Hebrew, Samaritan, Syriac and Ethiopic, and associated on friendly terms with learned Muslims and Jews, who helped him in collecting manuscripts. In his view, this was one of the chief reasons why he accepted the post, and in which he seems to have been extremely successful.


In this essay we will look at some unique aspects of this manuscript of Maimonides relating to the shape and design of one of the most familiar Jewish symbols, the Jerusalem Temple Menorah candelabra that can be find in synagogues and homes around the world. This Oxford manuscript features in an important dispute regarding two aspects of the Menorah: the shape and position of the goblets that were designed to be positioned on the six branches and the shape of the branches of the candelabra itself, whether they were round or diagonal.


We will explore in this essay the debate surrounding the design and position of the Menorah goblets and attempt to explain the view of Maimonides on this subject.


The principle text outlining the design of the Menorah candelabra is found in the Book of Exodus (25:31-40). It sates:


And you shall make a menorah of pure gold. The menorah shall be made of hammered work; its base and its stem, its goblets, its knobs, and its flowers shall all be one piece with it. And six branches coming out of its sides: three menorah branches from its one side and three menorah branches from its second side.  Three decorated goblets on one branch, a knob and a flower, and three decorated goblets on one branch, a knob and a flower; so for the six branches that come out of the menorah. And on the stem of the menorah shall be four decorated goblets, its knobs and its flowers.  And a knob under the two branches from it, and a knob under the two branches from it, and a knob under the two branches from it; so for the six branches that come out of the menorah.  Their knobs and their branches shall all be one piece with it; all of it shall be one hammered mass of pure gold. And you shall make its lamps seven, and he shall kindle its lamps so that they shed light toward its face. And its tongs and its scoops shall be of pure gold. He shall make it of a talent of pure gold, with all these implements. Now see and make according to their pattern, which you are shown on the mountain.”


The Biblical text does not however explain the precise design or shape of the goblets.


The Talmud (Menachot 28b) states: “to what are these goblets similar in terms of their design? They are akin to Alexandrian cups”.


11th century Biblical and Talmud commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105) explains in his commentary on the above Talmud that “these cups were manufactured in Alexandria, Egypt, and that they were long and narrow”. He uses the Old French term maderins, which is believed to have meant in his day long stemmed goblets.


Maimonides, in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Menachot 3), clarifies “the goblets were narrow at the bottom.” This would mean they were similar to the top part of a modern day cocktail glass.


Maimonides, in his legal code Mishneh Torah, similarly interprets the Talmud description of Alexandrian cups (Beit Hab’chirah 3:9): “The goblets resembled Alexandrine chalices. They had wide mouths and narrow bases”


Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah and Rashi in his commentaries, however, remain silent how these goblets with their narrow base and wide top are meant to be positioned on the Menorah itself. Are they supposed to be facing up or down? The Biblical text certainly doesn’t seem to answer this question, and neither does the Talmud.


Rambam Menorah.jpgIn the Oxford manuscript of Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah, however, there is a rare hand drawn picture of the Menorah, by Maimonides himself, in which he surprisingly describes the goblets as triangular shaped and positioned not upright but upside down with the narrow end above and the wide part below.


This opinion of Maimonides seems to be unique and indeed astonishing.


Medieval Jewish philosopher and Talmudist, Gersonides (1288–1344), known as the Ralbag, an acronym of his Hebrew name Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, in fact, argues with Maimonides and states that the mouth of the goblets were on top.


This seems to be also the view of 13th century Biblical exegete Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as Hizkuni, of France, as is also the view of 12th century French tosafist, exegete, and poet, Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor of Orleans.


Their position is compounded by the reason they give for their view. They explain the reason that the goblet should be positioned upright is so that if the oil in the lamps overflows it will be caught in the goblets below. However, this would not be possible according to Maimonides.


To be sure, Maimonides in his Commentary to the Mishnah himself qualifies his drawing of the Menorah by stating that his drawing is not meant to be an accurate design of the Menorah but rather a rough sketch merely to show the number of goblets and their location. However, it’s hard to assume from the above statement that he would have placed the goblets upside down had Maimonides not opined that this is in fact the design the Biblical text intended for the Menorah.


An important commentator on the works of Maimonides is his son Rabbi Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon, known as Rabbeinu Avraham ben Ha-Rambam (1186 - 1237), who succeeded his father as Nagid (head) of the Egyptian Jewish community. It is not clear whether he sides with his father in the above dispute or Gersonides. In his commentary to the Mishnah he only writes that the goblets were wide on top and narrow below, similar to Gersonides. He could however be relating to the shape of the goblet but not its position on the Menorah.


We have thus an important practical dispute about the design of the Temple Menorah reflected in the drawing found in the Oxford manuscript of Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah.


It’s not however understood why from a philosophical point of view Maimonides would differ from the obvious rational position of Gersonides that the goblets were positioned on the Menorah in their natural form, the right way up?


Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, known as the Rebbe, argues in his work Likkutei Sichot (vol. 21 p. 165) that Maimonides views the Temple with a double purpose. On one hand it is a place for the Divine presence to rest, as it states in the book of Exodus (25:8) “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst”.


Another element is to illuminate the world outside the Temple with the presence of the Divine. This is reflected in the statement of the Talmud (Menachot 86b) that “the design of the Menorah shows that G-d does not need its light but rather it is a testimony for all mankind that the Divine presence dwells with Israel in the Tabernacle.”


This is indicated, according to the Talmud, by the fact that the windows in the Temple were wide on the outside and narrow on the inside, based on the verse (Kings I 6:4), “He made for the house windows that were wide and narrow.”


The mid 13th century Rabbi Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa, also known as Rabbeinu Behaye, applies this idea also to the goblets of the Menorah. He writes in his Biblical commentary (Exodus 25:31) that the concept of the goblets was not practical for the overflow of the oil but a symbol of the spiritual function of the Menorah itself, indicating the receiving of the Divine presence and its pouring forth out to the world and mankind.


It is in line with this concept of the Menorah, the Rebbe argues, why the goblets were positioned in an overturned arrangement.





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