Maimonides' View on the Shape of the Branches of the Menorah according to Oxford's rare Manuscript

Thursday, 5 December, 2013 - 6:46 pm

Bodleian.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 (1138-1204). One such manuscript is Maimonides’ unique own handwritten work in Judeo Arabic of his 'Commentary to the Mishnah' (MSS 1655) or in Hebrew 'Pirush Hamishnayot' on the 3rd century Jewish legal work of the 'Mishnah'.


This rare manuscript was brought to Oxford by the collector of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts in the East, Professor Edward Pococke, 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 collection of 420 oriental manuscripts, which was eventually 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.


Pococke.jpgThe manuscript of the 'Commentary to the Mishnah' by Maimonides was purchased by Prof. Pococke 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 became a master of Arabic, which he read and 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 this essay we will look at this manuscript of Maimonides relating to the shape of one of the most familiar Jewish symbols, the Jerusalem Temple Menorah candelabra that can be found in synagogues and homes around the world and is the basis for the eight branched Menorah that is lit on the holiday of Chanukah. The description of the Menorah in the Oxford manuscript stimulates an important debate regarding the authentic shape of the branches of the Temple Menorah: were they circular or diagonal? We will explore in this essay the debate surrounding the design of the Temple Menorah branches and attempt to explain the view of Maimonides on this subject.


Ambiguous text



(Picture of Mosaic of ancient synagogue - Maon)

The origin of the concept of the Menorah is from the book of Exodus:

“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."

(Exodus, 25:32-40)


The above text states: “And six branches coming out of its sides: three menorah branches from its one side and three menorah branches from its second side” (ibid) but does not give any indication to the shape of the branches, whether they were round or straight.


Maimonides in his legal work 'Mishneh Torah' elaborates to describe the structure of the Menorah but, as the Biblical text, does not give an indication as to the shape of the branches. He writes:


“The Menorah was eighteen handbreadths high: Its feet, base, and bottommost flower were three handbreadths high, There were two empty handbreadths, The next handbreadth included a goblet, a bulb, and a flower, Two empty handbreadths followed, A handbreadth with a bulb and two branches extending outward from it, one to one side and one to the other,  extending outward and ascending until reaching the full height of the Menorah, An empty handbreadth, A handbreadth with a bulb and two branches extending outward from it, one to one side and one to the other, extending outward and ascending until they reached the full height of the Menorah, An empty handbreadth, A handbreadth with a bulb and two branches extending outward from it, one to one side and one to the other, extending outward and ascending, until they reached the full height of the Menorah, and two empty handbreadths Thus, three handbreadths remained, with three goblets, a bulb, and a flower. A stone with three steps was placed before the Menorah. The priest stood on it and kindled the lamps. Also, he placed the containers of oil, the tongs, and the ash-scoops upon it while kindling it.”

(Maimonides, Mishneh TorahBeit Habechira 3:10)


While Maimonides expands on the details of the design of the Menorah and clarifies that the branches must all reach full height of the candelabra, he omits to clarify whether the branches themselves should be straight or round.




A source for this ambiguity is the 'Talmud' (Menachot 28b), where it describes the structure and design of the Menorah but chooses to omit the shape of the branches, whether they should be round or straight. It seems obvious from the text of the 'Talmud' that Maimonides, who almost quotes the text of the Talmud verbatim, follows the same omission pertaining to the shape of the branches.




The only medieval scholar to comment on the shape of the branches appears to be the great Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105). He quotes the verse in Exodus, where is says “coming out of its sides” and comments: 


from here and there in each direction diagonally (b’alachson), drawn upwards until they reached the height of the Menorah, which is the middle stem. They came out of the middle stem, one higher than the others: the bottom one was longest, the one above it was shorter than it, and the highest one shorter than that, because the height of their ends at their tops was equal to the height of the seventh, middle stem, out of which the six branches extended.

(Rashi, Exodus, 25:32) 


It would appear that Rashi is negating the interpretation that the branches of the Menorah should be in the shape of an arc but rather diagonal. This interpretation of Rashi is emphasized by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn (1902-1994) in his work 'Likutei Sichot' (vol. 21. p. 168), as supporting the notion that the shape of the branches of the Biblical Menorah should be diagonal. 


Aque against evil eye. 5th c. Limestone, Hebrew university inst. of archaeology collection..JPG

(Picture of plaque against evil eye. 5th c. Limestone, Hebrew University Inst. of Archaeology collection

This interpretation of Rashi, based on the meaning of the Hebrew word b’alachson - diagonal, is however complicated by a rare Oxford manuscript of early 13th century of Rashi’s commentary found at the Bodleian library. The manuscript predates the current format of Rashi's commentary, which is now always found alongside the Biblical text. This manuscript is of Rashi's commentary by itself in its own book without the accompanying Biblical text. The manuscript offers only a quotation of the relevant precise Biblical words that Rashi is addressing followed by his comment. In this case, Rashi quotes the Biblical words coming out of its sidesand comments from here and there diagonally – b’alachson - drawn upwards until the height…. On the margin however the missing words have been added of the Menorah, which is the middle stem…”, as is found in the printed editions.


What is important for our discussion is that inside this manuscript on the page itself there is a diagram of the Menorah to illustrate the Menorah that Rashi is describing in his commentary. In this drawing the branches of the Menorah can be seen as not in a straight line but rather somewhat round. This would seem to contradict the text itself that implies that the branches were diagonal.


To view this copyrighted manuscript visit:


One may suggest that as the manuscript is not in Rashi’s own handwriting but rather an early copy, one cannot be sure of the accuracy of the drawing, particularly, as the drawing did not make its way into any of the printed editions. It’s possible therefore to say that the drawing is merely to give a general overview of how the Menorah should be structured according to the general comment of Rashi with all the branches lining up on the top of the Menorah in one line but for some reason the artist was not particular about the shape of the branches themselves. As this is open question, it would leave the view of Rashi in regard to the shape of the Menorah branches as inconclusive.


Rabbi Emmanuel Chai Ricci (1687-1743)


Sephardic Rabbi Emmanuel Ricci, born in Ferrara, Italy, and murdered by robbers in 1743 on one of his travels, wrote a commentary on the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle built in the desert, called 'Ma'ase Chosheb' (Venice, 1716). He writes (ch. 7) in this work that the branches of the Menorah were in fact round (B'igul). Surrounding the text is printed his supercommentary where he explains this point further. He writes that the view of Rashi is clearly different thank his own, as Rashi writes that the branches of the Menorah were diagonal (B'alachson). However, he continues, the view of Maimonides, as well as the simple reading of the 'Talmud', omitting the word B'alachson (diagonal), reflects a concurrnace with Rabbi Ricci's view that the branches were indeed round.


Rabbi Joseph Shalit ben Eliezer Riqueti, author of 'Ḥokmat ha-Mishkan', who lived in the second half of the 17th century at Verona, also writes, as quoted by Rabbi Ricci, that the view of Maimonides, by his ommision of the word b'alachson, is that the branches of the Menorah were slightly round (k'mat b'igul).


Rationale for round branches


Rabbi Ricci further explains in his work that the rationale for the supposed round branches of the Menorah is that the seven branches of the Menorah correspond to the heaven that is made up of seven cellestial bodies (Talmud Shabbat 129b, Rashi comm.), including the sun, the moon and the five planets that are visible to the naked eye: mercury, venus, mars, saturn and jupiter. As the cellestial bodies are round (gilgulei rakia), so would be the branches of the Menorah.


The idea that roundness in the physical world can be a reflection of higher beings can be found also in Kabbalistic and Chassidic works. Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1860-1920) writes in his work 'B'sha'a Shehikdimu' (ch. 62) that the all- encompassing light of the Divine (Makifim) that surrounds all the spriritual worlds is reflected in the vessels (Keilim) that contain the Divine eminating light (Ohr) rather that in the eminating light itself. Quoting Kabbalistic works, he writes that this is reflected in the interesting fact that most containing vessels in the physical world are indeed round.




The main historic reason for the confusion about the shape of the branches is from two further contradictory sources pertaining to the shape of the Menorah branches. One source is from the carvings in the Arch of Titus, providing for the shape of numerous historic mosaics, carvings and manuscripts and another from the Oxford copy of the 'Commentary on the Mishnah' by Maimonides.


Arch of Titus



The oldest depiction of the Temple Menorah that exists is from what would seem to be an authentic refection of the Temple Menorah in the Arch of Titus, a 1st-century honorific arch located on the Via Sacra, Rome, just to the south-east of the Roman Forum. The Arch was constructed in c. 82 AD by the Roman Emperor Domitian shortly after the death of his older brother Titus to commemorate Titus' conquest of Judea, which ended the Jewish Wars, including the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.


The soffit of the axial archway is deeply coffered with a relief of the apotheosis of Titus at the centre. The sculptural art also includes two panel reliefs lining the passageway within the arch - both commemorate the joint triumph celebrated by Titus and his father Vespasian in the summer of 71. On one of the reliefs is the scene depicting the triumphal procession with the booty from the Temple in Jerusalem, including the sacred Menorah, the Table of the Showbread shown at an angle, and the silver trumpets.


Thus, the Arch provides one of the few contemporary depictions of Temple period artefacts, as the seven- branched menorah and trumpets are clearly depicted. As it became a symbol of the Jewish Diaspora, in a later era, Pope Paul IV made it the place of a yearly oath of submission of the Jews.


It is evident in the depiction of the Menorah in the Arch that the Menorah was circular. Based on this image, countless images of the Menorah over the last two thousand years have been circular, including the Menorah symbol of modern day Israel.


Survey of Temple Menorah depictions


Ancient Synagogue at Dura & other historic carvings and mosaics



(Picture of Mosaic of ancient synagogue - Hammat, Israel)

One of the world’s oldest synagogues, discovered in 1932, is the 3rd century synagogue at Dura-Europos which was found with extensive Biblical figurative wall-paintings intact and was located on the Euphrates River, some 250 miles north of the great Babylonian Jewish Academy of Nehardea. The synagogue contains a forecourt and house of assembly with painted walls depicting people and animals, and a Torah ark in the western wall facing Jerusalem. The scenes depicted are drawn from the Torah and include many narrative scenes, including the Sacrifice of Isaac, Moses receiving the Tablets, the Exodus, the visions of Ezekiel, and many others. One of these paintings is of the Menorah, which is clearly depicted as circular.


Other historic carvings of depictions of the Menorah as circular include: a carved stone with a Menorah at the ancient city of Beth Shearim in the Galilee, Israel, 3rd century; a carved image of a Menorah found in the ancient Synagogue in Hammat, Tiberius, discovered during excavations in 1921; a floor Mosaic in Maon synagogue, Israel, dating back to c. 530 c.e. (Israel Museum Jerusalem); a marble sarcophagus with a Menorah found in Rome, late 3rd century (Museo Nazionale Rome); a plaque against the evil eye on limestone, 5th century (Institute of Archaeology collection, Hebrew University); a gold-glass base of a vessel used as a Roman catacomb from 4th century (Israel Museum), found in Rome perhaps to identify those entombed there.


Manuscripts with drawings of the Menorah


Beth shearim Israel 3rd c. Carved stone.JPG

(Picture of Menorah carved stone in Beth shearim, Israel 3rd c.

The earliest known manuscript with an illustration of the Menorah is a Hebrew Bible of Solomon Ben Raphael, from Perpignan, Aragon, 1299. This is apparently the earliest known example of the tradition to illustrate themes of the Bible in manuscripts, which began in Spain (National Library Paris, Ms. Heb. 7 12v, 13r.). Other manuscripts include a manuscript from Northern France late 13th c. with a picture of Aaron, the Temple High Priest, pouring oil into one of the lamps of the Menorah. The Menorah in this manuscript has the branches at a right angle and is of various colours (British Library Add. Ms. 11639 fol. 114r.).


There is a Pentateuch Manuscript of the Duke of Sussex, South Germany, c. 1300 (British library ms. 15282 fol. 238v.) with a picture of the Menorah, an early 14th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with a depiction of the Menorah with goblets and flowers, from Castile, Spain (Bodleian Library), and a beautiful illustration of the Temple Menorah with the Biblical goblets and flowers by Valentin Schuler (1650-1720), Frankfurt am Main, late 17th century.


Christian scholars


Gold-glass base of vessel. Roman catacombs. 4th c. Israel museum. Found in rome perhaps to identify those entombed there..JPG

(Picture of Gold-glass base of vessel. Roman catacombs. 4th c. Israel museum. Found in rome perhaps to identify those entombed there

In addition to the above mentioned Hebrew Jewish Manuscripts, Christian scholars also attempted to clarify the shape of the Menorah according to their understanding. Franciscan scholar Nicholas of Lyra used a series of comparative illustrations to show how Christian and Jewish readings of the biblical text differed. In his late 14th century commentary to the Book of Exodus he draws comparative diagrams of the Menorah and the Table of Showbread (Bodleian). In all these drawings he follows the view that the Temple Menorah was circular shape.


Other historic artefacts with the illustration of a round-branched Menorah include a Torah crown from Venice 1752 (Comunita Israelitica Florence), and a curtain of the Torah Ark from Padua, Italy, 1550 (Comunita Ebraica, Padua).


One of the only Menorah drawings with straight diagonal branches can be found in a wedding poem from the Netherlands c. 1670 on parchment gouache belonging to the Gross family collection together with portraits of the bride and groom. The Menorah is made out of the words of the poem, which might explain the desire to simplify the drawing with straight branches.


Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah with straight-branched Menorah


As mentioned above, in the Jewish legal work 'Mishneh Torah' (Beit Hab’chirah 3:10) of Maimonides, he describes at length the structure of the Menorah and its design, however he omits to indicate the actual shape of the branches themselves. Based on this textual omision, Rabbi Ricci and Rabbi Riqueti reached their conclusion that the view of Maimonides is that the branches would have been round. 


In the Oxford manuscript of 'Commentary to the Mishnah' (Menachot ch. 3), however, Maimonides draws in his own handwriting the design of the Menorah and in this drawing the branches are depicted as straight lines from the stem to the full height of the Menorah. This would seem to be the only manuscript that categorically depicts the Menorah’s branches diagonally rather than running in an arc shape.


The son of Maimonides further clarifies and supports this view of his father. Rabbi Abraham ben Harambam in his commentary to Exodus (25:32) writes that the branches “extend from the stem of the Menorah to the top in a straight line – Beyosher – as my father of blessed memory drew, not in a arc shape as others besides him have drawn”.  This clarification of Maimonides’ view by his son leaves no room for the possibility that Maimonides was not deliberate and merely drew it in the easiest way possible.



Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn argues (Likkutei Sichot ibid) that this Oxford manuscript with a hand drawn illustration of a straight-branched Menorah by Maimonides contradicts the view of Rabbi Ricci and Rabbi Riqueti regarding the opinion of Maimonides pertaining to the shape of the branches of the Menorah. Evidently, they had not seen this manuscript by Maimonides for otherwise they would have concluded otherwise. Instead of deducing from the omission of the word 'diagonal' in describing the shape of the branches to mean that they would have been round, Rabbi Ricci and Riqueti would have used the illustration as an indication that the omission means they were simply straight. 

Furthermore, as mentioned above, this manuscript of Maimonides was purchased by Edward Pococke and sold to the University of Oxford in 1693. While Rabbi Ricci, who passed away in 1743, apparently visited London on his travels, it is highly unlikley he would have visited Oxford, and even if he did, it is unlikley he would have been given permission to enter the Bodleian library as openly practising Jews were allowed entry into Oxford only in 1856.

Adolf_Neubauer.jpgIn addition, Adolf Neubauer (born in Bittse, Hungary, 1831), was only hired by the University of Oxford for the task of cataloguing the Hebrew manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in 1868. The catalogue appeared in 1886, after eighteen years' preparation. The volume includes more than 2,500 entries, and is accompanied by a portfolio with forty facsimiles. In 1884 a readership in Rabbinic Hebrew was founded at Oxford, and Neubauer was appointed to the post, which he held for sixteen years, until failing eyesight compelled his resignation in May, 1900.

It would have likely been difficult to find access to particular Hebrew manuscripts before they were catalogued in a proper order, which took place over a hundred years after Rabbi Ricci's visit to England.


Why is the shape of the Menorah on Arch of Titus round?


Sarcophagus with menorah. Rome. Late 3rd c. Marble. Museo Nazionale Romano felled Terme, Tome..JPG

(Picture of sarcophagus with menorah. Rome. Late 3rd c. Marble. Museo Nazionale Romano) 

The difficulty regarding the opinion of Maimonides is not just that it is different from all the ancient carvings in synagogues in Northern Israel and manuscripts, including an early manuscript drawing of Rashi, but that the Temple Menorah and other utensils that were taken by Titus upon the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce are depicted as having round shaped branches. This would surely be proof that the shape of the Menorah that stood in the Temple had round branches!


There are a number of answers to this question, which we will explore in this essay to justify the view of Maimonides. Firstly, it is important to note that the Menorah on the Arch of Titus is not precise in other details and therefore not reliable as a source for the accurate shape of the Temple Menorah. This is evident by the shape of the base of the Menorah, which according to all opinions should have three feet, as it states in the 'Talmud' (Menachot 28b). The Menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus has a solid base. Interestingly, this aspect of the Menorah is correctly drawn in many of the carvings and manuscripts mentioned above.


In Josephus (ch. 95) it mentions that Solomon made ten Menorahs. This would suggest that it was possible that the active Temple Menorah would have been a shape like Maimonides while the shape depicted on the Arch of Titus was one of the other ten Menorah of Solomon and had branches with a round shape, which would have been also valid, as long as all the branches reached the same height as the top of the middle branch of the Menorah.


Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn (Likkutei Sichot ibid) suggests there is the possibility that the Menorah that was in Solomon’s Temple was not the same shape as the Menorah that was designed by Moses. Thus, Maimonides would have been describing the shape of the Menorah that Moses built, with straight branches, whereas the Menorah of the Second Temple followed Solomon’s design with round branches.




According to the above, it would appear that both the shape of the branches of the Menorah of Maimonides, as found in the Oxford manuscript of his 'Commentary on the Mishnah', and of the Menorah depicted on Titus’ Arch would have been authentic. It is interesting however that while all the carvings and manuscripts follow the model of the Menorah as depicted on the Arch of Titus, Maimonides chooses to draw the Menorah differently, possibly, as mentioned, desiring to reconnect the image of the Menorah with the original shape as was communicated and shown (Exodus 25:34) by G-d to Moses.


In conclusion, while both shapes of the Menorah may be valid, as mentioned, it would be plausible to argue, as Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn writes in his essay on this subject (Likkutei Sichot ibid), that once the round shape of the Menorah had become a symbol of the captivity of the Jews by Rome, it would be more appropriate if for no other reason that a protest, to follow the view of Maimonides to shape the Menorah where relevant and for the holiday of Chanukah in the shape as found in the Oxford edition of the 'Commentary to the Mishnah with straight branches rather than round.



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