Maimonides and the Menorah: Insights into an Oxford Manuscript

Friday, 25 March, 2016 - 8:54 am

Menorah_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 Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (1138-1204). One such manuscript is Maimonides’ original handwritten manuscript in Judeo Arabic of his Commentary to the Mishnah[1], known as Pirush Hamishnayot, on the 3rd century Jewish legal work of the Mishnah.Menorah_Rambam.jpg


This rare manuscript was brought to Oxford by the collector of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts in the East, Professor Edward Pococke (1604-1691), who was born and passed away in Oxford. Pococke was appointed to the professorship of Hebrew at Oxford in 1648 and had a collection of 420 oriental manuscripts, which was eventually bought by Oxford University in 1693 for £600. The Bodleian Library acquired some of his printed books in 1822 by bequest from the Rev. C. Francis of Brasenose.


Pococke purchased the manuscript of the Commentary to the Mishnah by Maimonides between 1630 and 1635 after he was appointed in 1629 to the chaplaincy to the English Turkey Merchants at Aleppo, 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 fellow English Hebraist John Seldon and learned Muslims and Jews, who helped him in collecting manuscripts.


Commentary to the Mishnah


The Commentary to the Mishnah was completed by Maimonides in Judeo Arabic in 1168 and was subsequently translated into Hebrew and other languages. The original title of the commentary was "The Book of the Lamp" or "Kitab al-Siraj" in Arabic, occasionally designated as "Sefer Ha-Ma'or" in Hebrew. It is aimed at those unfamiliar with the study of the Talmud so they would be able to understand the Mishnah without having to navigate the many opinions and conflicting arguments in the Talmud. In general, Maimonides mostly adheres to the explanations given in the Talmud and attaches special weight to the opinion of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103), one of the most respected Spanish codifiers.


The challenge of writing this monumental work and what might be seen as uncertainty as to its absolute accuracy can be seen by Maimonides’ own appendix to the commentary. He writes:


I have now finished this work in accordance with my promise, and I fervently beseech the Almighty to save us from error. If there be one who shall discover an inaccuracy in this Commentary or shall have a better explanation to offer, let my attention be directed unto it; and let me be exonerated by the fact that I have worked with far greater application than any one who writes for the sake of pay and profit, and that I have worked under the most trying circumstances. For Heaven had ordained that we be exiled, and we were therefore driven about from place to place; I was thus compelled to work at the Commentary while travelling by land, or crossing the sea. It might have sufficed to mention that during that time I, in addition, was engaged in other studies, but I preferred to give the above explanation in order to encourage those who wish to criticise or annotate the Commentary, and at the same time to account for the slow progress of this work. I, Moses, the son of Maimon, commenced it when I was twenty-three years old, and finished it in Egypt, at the age of thirty years, in the year 1168.


Despite the young age and the admittance to the lack of certainty of its accuracy, this cannot be used as a simplified premise to dismiss the views in his commentary when faced with challenges. Thus, the aim of this essay is an attempt to explain Maimonides’ unique views in his Commentary to the Mishnah, particularly, as expressed in his hand drawn depiction of the Menorah and Temple sanctuary in the Oxford Pococke manuscript[2].




There are two drawings in the Pococke manuscript that I will focus on in this essay: the Menorah and the plan of the Temple. There are two aspects of the Menorah that is the focus of the first two parts of this essay: the shape of the branches and the goblets. The third part is an analysis of the unique plan of the Temple, according to Maimonides. In all these cases, Maimonides presents a view that is different than what is the conventional view on these subjects. In the case of the branches, Maimonides presents straight branches, as opposed to arc shaped branches; in the case of the goblets, Maimonides presents them as up side down, as opposed to upright; and in the case of the Temple plan, Maimonides depicts the sanctuary as square, as opposed to the wide-spread depiction of the sanctuary as T shaped. In these three cases, Maimonides stands almost alone in his views, many times against forceful opponents. The aim of this essay is to present a cogent argument in defence of Maimonides that have come to light since the discovery of this Pococke manuscript in the Bodleian Library.


The shape of the Menorah


The Menorah is one of the most familiar symbols in Judaism, based on the Jerusalem Temple Menorah (candelabra). This Menorah also serves as the basis for the eight-branched Menorah that is lit annually on the holiday of Chanukah commemorating the rededication of the Temple and the resumption of the lighting of the Temple Menorah after the Hasmonean revolt in the second century BCE. The description of a diagonally branched Menorah in the Oxford Pococke manuscript therefore stimulates an important deliberation regarding the authentic shape of the branches of the Temple Menorah: was it semi-circular or diagonal? We will explore this debate in detail and attempt to explain and defend the view of Maimonides on this subject.


Ambiguous text


The concept of the Biblical Menorah is from the book of Exodus[3]:


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.


While the 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”, it does not give any indication as to the shape of the branches, whether they were rounded or straight.


Maimonides in his legal work Mishneh Torah elaborates further on the structure of the Menorah but, similar to the Biblical text, does not give an indication as to the shape of the branches. Maimonides writes[4]:


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 thus expands on the details of the design of the Menorah and clarifies the important aspect that the branches must all reach the full height of the candelabra, but he fails to clarify whether the branches themselves should be straight or rounded.




Another text with this ambiguity of the shape of the Menorah branches is the Talmud[5] where it describes the structure and design of the Menorah but omits to describe the shape of the branches. It seems from the text of the Talmud that Maimonides in the 13th century is following the Talmud by not clarifying the shape of the branches.


Rashi - diagonal


The first medieval scholar to comment on the shape of the branches is the great French Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105). He quotes in his commentary on Exodus the verse “six branches coming out of its sides[6]” and comments[7]: 


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.


By adding the word ‘diagonal’, not found in the Bible or the Talmud, Rashi appears to be negating the view that the branches of the Menorah were arc shaped but rather a more simple design consisting of straight branches[8].


Oxford’s Rashi manuscript illustration - round


The interpretation of Rashi regarding the shape of the Menorah branches is however complicated by a rare early 13th century Oxford manuscript of Rashi’s commentary on Exodus[9]. The manuscript is a stand-alone work of Rashi’s commentary that predates its current format, commonly found alongside the Hebrew Biblical text. In the middle of the manuscript, surrounded by the text of the above commentary, detailing the shape of the Menorah branches as diagonal (b’alachson), there is an illustration of the Menorah where the branches of the Menorah can be seen not in a straight line but rather somewhat rounded. This would seem to contradict the text itself that states the branches were diagonal.


One may suggest that as the manuscript is not in Rashi’s own handwriting but rather an early copy, one cannot vouch for the accuracy of the drawing, particularly, as the drawing did not make its way into any of the printed editions. It is possible to argue that the drawing is merely to give a general overview of how the Menorah should be structured according to the general comment of Rashi that the branches should line up on the top of the Menorah in a straight line; the artist was not particular about the shape of the branches themselves. Due to the contradiction between the drawing and the text in the Rashi manuscript, and in light of the omission of any indication in the earlier work of the Talmud, the view of Rashi regarding the shape of the Menorah branches remains somewhat inconclusive.


Ibn Ezra


Ibn Ezra in his commentary to Exodus writes that the branches were in fact long, rounded and hollow.


Rabbi Emmanuel Chai Ricci – round


Rabbi Emmanuel Ricci (1688-1743), who was born in Ferrara, Italy, and died tragically at the hand of robbers on one of his travels, wrote a commentary on the building of the Tabernacle, Ma'ase Choshev (Venice, 1716), in which he argues, like Ibn Ezra, that the branches of the Menorah were round shaped (b'igul). Surrounding the text is a supercommentary where he points out that the view of Rashi is clearly different than his own since Rashi writes the branches of the Menorah were diagonal (b'alachson). He argues further that the view of Maimonides, as well as the simple reading of the Talmud, omitting the word b'alachson (diagonal), reflects a concurrence with Rabbi Ricci's own view that the branches were in fact rounded. This view is supported also by Rabbi Joseph Shalit ben Eliezer Riqueti, born in Safed and lived in the second half of the 17th century in Verona, Italy[10].


Rationale for rounded branches


Rabbi Ricci goes as far as to rationalise the reason for the rounded branches of the Menorah. He explains that the seven branches of the Menorah correspond to the heavens that consist of seven celestial bodies[11]: the sun, the moon and the five planets that are visible to the naked eye - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. As the celestial bodies are round (gilgulei rakia), he writes, so are the branches of the Menorah[12].


Thus, according to Rabbi Ricci, the view of the Talmud and Maimonides is that the branches were rounded, whereas Rashi’s view is they were straight. Despite Rashi’s view, almost all depictions of the Menorah in carvings, manuscripts and published works followed the view that the Temple Menorah was arc shaped.


Arch of Titus - round


The oldest depiction of the Temple Menorah that exists is from what seems to be an authentic replication 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[13].


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 arc-shaped. Based on this image, countless images of the Menorah over the last two thousand years have been arc-shaped, including the Menorah symbol of modern day Israel.


Survey of Menorah carvings and manuscripts


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[14]. 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 vision of Ezekiel, and many others. One of these paintings is of the Menorah, which is clearly depicted as arc-shaped.


Other historic carvings of depictions of the Menorah as arc-shaped include: a 3rd century carved stone depicting a man’s head supporting a Menorah at the ancient city of Beth Shearim in the Galilee, Israel, founded by the Hasmonean kings sometime after 161 BCE[15]; a carved image of a Menorah found in the ancient Synagogue in Hammat, Tiberius, discovered during excavations in 1921[16]; a floor Mosaic in Maon Synagogue, Israel, dating back to c. 530 CE with the image of the Menorah flanked by lions, a shofar, palm tree and Etrog[17]; a marble sarcophagus with a Menorah, found in Rome, late 3rd century[18]; a plaque with two images of a straight branched Menorah to protect against the evil eye, on limestone, 5th century[19]; a gold-glass base of a vessel used as a Roman catacomb from 4th century[20], found in Rome perhaps to identify those entombed there.


In all the above depictions of the Menorah, the Menorah has rounded shaped branches, besides the plaque with two images of the Menorah to protect against an evil eye, carved on limestone, 5th century. The image of the left of this stone has straight branches while the image of the right have slightly curved branches[21].


Manuscripts with drawings of the Menorah


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[22]. Other manuscripts include a manuscript from Northern France, c. 1280, with a picture of Aaron the High Priest pouring oil into one of the lamps of the Menorah. The Menorah in this manuscript has the branches protruding at a right angle before rising to the height of the Menorah[23].


There is a manuscript of the Pentateuch called the Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, South Germany, c. 1300 with a picture of the Menorah surrounded by an overhanging olive tree on each side, filling two bowls with olives that in turn feed a middle bowl with oil that appears to overflow, thereby filling the lamps of the Menorah with oil[24]; 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.


In addition to the above 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[25]. In all these drawings he follows the view that the Temple Menorah was arc-shaped.


Other historic artefacts with the illustration of a round-branched Menorah include a Torah crown from Venice 1752[26], and a curtain of the Torah Ark from Padua, Italy, 1550[27]. A drawing of the Menorah 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[28]. 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


This pervasive view of the depiction of the Menorah as arc shaped is, however, disputed by an illustration of the Menorah found in the Oxford manuscript of the Commentary on the Mishnah by Maimonides in his own handwriting.


As mentioned above, in Maimonides’ legal work Mishneh Torah[29], Maimonides describes at length the structure of the Menorah and its design, but omits to indicate the actual shape of the branches themselves. Based on this textual omission, Rabbi Ricci and Rabbi Riqueti reached their conclusion that the view of Maimonides is that the branches would have been arc-shaped. 


In the Oxford manuscript of Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah[30], Maimonides however clearly draws alongside his commentary an image of the Menorah in his own handwriting and in this drawing the branches are depicted as protruding in a straight line from the stem to the full height of the Menorah. This would seem to be the only manuscript, besides Rashi’s text, that categorically depicts the Menorah’s branches diagonally, as oppose to arc shape.


The son of Maimonides further clarifies and supports this view of his father. Rabbi Abraham ben Harambam in his commentary to Exodus[31] writes that the branches “extend from the stem of the Menorah to the top in a straight line – B’yosher – as my father of blessed memory drew, not in an 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 for himself.


The pronouncement of Maimonides’ view of the Menorah branches as straight, evidently refutes the view of Rabbi Ricci and Rabbi Riqueti regarding his opinion that they were rounded[32]; clearly, they had not seen this illustration 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 rounded, Rabbi Ricci and Riqueti would have utilised the illustration to argue that the omission of the word “rounded” implies they were straight. 


Could Rabbi Ricci have seen the Oxford manuscript?


It is interesting to speculate whether Rabbi Ricci could have possibly seen the Maimonides Commentary to the Mishnah manuscript with the illustration of the straight-branched Menorah. As mentioned above, this manuscript of Maimonides was purchased by Edward Pococke and sold to the University of Oxford in 1693. Based on a simple timeline of Rabbi Ricci’s life, it is not feasible that Rabbi Ricci could have seen the manuscript in Oxford before the publication of his work on the Tabernacle Ma'ase Choshev, in which he argues the Menorah according to Maimonides was round-shaped.


Rabbi Ricci was born in 1688; from 1708 he began his work as a travelling teacher, until he was ordained as a rabbi in Trieste in 1717. He subsequently moved to Israel but was forced to return to Livorno, Italy, due to a famine. It was after this time that he travelled to Smyrna, Salonika, Constantinople, and London. He spent two years in Aleppo in 1735 and in 1737 he arrived in Jerusalem, where he stayed for three years. In 1741 he returned to Livorno to settle business matters connected with his books. While on one of his trips in 1743 he was murdered by robbers.


The publication of Rabbi Ricci’s work on the Tabernacle Ma'ase Choshev was however in Venice, 1716, which was before he was known to have visited London and possibly Oxford. Also, his visit to Constantinople sometime after 1717 would not have brought him into contact with the manuscript, where it may have originated, as it was archived in the Bodleian library years earlier in 1693.


In addition, Oxford was inhospitable to Jews until 1856, when Jews were allowed to study at Oxford, though they would have permitted viewings of the Hebrew manuscripts.


Furthermore, Adolf Neubauer, born in Bittse, Hungary, 1831, was 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 of 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 therefore have been difficult to find access to particular Hebrew manuscripts before they were officially catalogued, over a hundred years after Rabbi Ricci's visit to England.


Difficulty of Maimonides’ view


The difficulty regarding the opinion of Maimonides is therefore twofold: firstly, it is different from all the ancient carvings in synagogues in Northern Israel and early manuscripts, including an early manuscript of Rashi’s commentary of the 13th century. Secondly, the Temple Menorah that was taken by Titus upon the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, together with other utensils, is depicted as having rounded branches. This should surely be proof that the shape of the Menorah that stood in the Temple had rounded branches!


Reasons for Maimonides’s shape of the Menorah branches


There are three possible answers to this challenge to Maimonides’ depiction of the Temple Menorah, which will enable us to justify his view. Firstly, it is important to note that the Menorah on the Arch of Titus is not precise in all its details and therefore not a reliable source for the accurate shape of the Temple Menorah. This is evident from the shape of the base of the Menorah, which according to all opinions should have three feet, according to the Talmud[33], as oppose to its depiction on the Arch of Titus with a solid base. This aspect of the Menorah is in fact correctly drawn in many of the carvings and manuscripts mentioned above, despite the depiction on the Arch of Titus.


Secondly, in Josephus[34] it states that Solomon made ten Menorahs. This would suggest that it was possible that the active Temple Menorah could have been shaped according to Maimonides’ view, while the shape depicted on the Arch of Titus was one of the other ten Menorahs that may have had rounded branches. This would have also been a valid shape for the Menorah, as long as all the branches reach the same height in line with the middle branch of the Menorah.


A third possible answer[35] is that 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 rounded branches.


According to the above, both depictions of the Menorah, as drawn in the Oxford manuscript of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah with straight branches, and the Menorah as depicted on the Arch of Titus with rounded branches would have been valid according to Jewish law – as long as the branches are in a straight line on the top of the Menorah. Nevertheless, from the above discussion, one may conclude that while all the carvings and manuscripts of the Menorah follow the model of the Menorah as depicted on the Arch of Titus, Maimonides draws the Menorah with straight branches, in accordance with the likely original shape that was communicated[36] according to Jewish tradition by Moses[37].






This Oxford manuscript of Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah features another important dispute regarding the design of the Menorah: the shape and position of the twenty-two goblets that were arranged on the seven branches of the Menorah. This includes three on each of the six branches and four on the middle branch. The three of the middle branch are near the top, as with the other six branches, and there is a fourth goblet toward the stem of the Menorah. We will explore the discussion surrounding the design of these goblets and present Maimonides’ unique view on this subject based on the Oxford manuscript. We will conclude by trying to explain a possible reason for his view.


The principle text outlining the existence of goblets on the Menorah is found in Exodus[38]:


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.


Alexandrian cups


The Biblical text does not explain the precise design or shape of the goblets. The Talmud however adds some specifications[39]: “To what are these goblets similar in terms of their design? They are akin to Alexandrian cups”. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, explains in his commentary on the above Talmudic text: “These cups were manufactured in Alexandria, Egypt, and they were long and narrow”. He uses the Old French term ‘maderins’, which in his day is believed to have meant long stemmed goblets.


Maimonides, in his Commentary to the Mishnah[40], clarifies the design of the cups further “the goblets were narrow at the bottom.” This would mean they were similar to modern day cocktail glasses with a narrow bottom and wide on top. In his legal code Mishneh Torah[41], Maimonides interprets the Talmudic description of Alexandrian cups similar to his Commentary to the Mishnah: “The goblets resembled Alexandrine chalices. They had wide mouths and narrow bases”.


Upright or upside down?


Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah and Rashi in his commentaries, however, remain silent regarding how these goblets with their narrow base and wide mouth were positioned on the Menorah. Were they supposed to have been facing upwards or downward?


In the Oxford manuscript of Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah, alongside his unique drawing of the diagonal branches of the Menorah, Maimonides surprisingly draws the goblets triangular shaped positioned not in an upright position but rather upside down with the narrow end above and wide mouth below. This opinion of Maimonides seems astonishing!


Gersonides & Chizkuni


Medieval Jewish philosopher and Talmudist, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, known as Gersonides or by his Hebrew acronym Ralbag (1288–1344), argues with Maimonides and states that the mouth of the goblets were in fact on top. This view is also the opinion of 13th century Biblical exegete Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as Chizkuni of France[42], as is also the view of 12th century French Tosafist, exegete and poet, Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor of Orleans. According to Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, there is a practical reason for the goblets: to catch the oil that may spill from the lamps. When oil overflows from the lamps, it will fall into the first goblet, drain into the second goblet and then the third goblet. It will then drain to the lower goblet near the stem of the Menorah. Although, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah does not explicitly say the goblets were upright, it is obvious from his commentary that this is his opinion.


This function would obviously not make sense according to the view of Maimonides that says the goblets were wide below and narrow on top.


Approximate drawing?


Maimonides in his Commentary to the Mishnah appears to resolve this dilemma when he qualifies his depiction of the Menorah by saying that his drawing is not meant to be an accurate design of the Menorah but rather a rough sketch to show the number of goblets and their location. To complicate the view of Maimonides further, his son Rabbi Abraham ben Ha-Rambam (1186 - 1237), who succeeded his father as leader of the Egyptian Jewish community, writes that the goblets were wide on top and narrow below. However, it is not clear whether he is merely describing the shape of the goblet or referring also to how the goblets were positioned on the Menorah.


In the final analysis, both the statement by Maimonides about the approximation of his drawing and the apparent view of his son, Rabbi Abraham, would be insufficient to explain the hand drawn Menorah by Maimonides placing the goblets upside down as opposed to upright; it would seem obvious that this was in fact the design of the Biblical Menorah according to Maimonides. 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[43].


Survey of images of the Menorah


Just as the survey of the history of the image of the Menorah above presents the shape of the branches of the Menorah different to Maimonides, similarly, the way the goblets are depicted is also different to his opinion. In the 1280 French manuscript, the goblets are clearly upright[44]; a 13th century British Library manuscript also depicts the goblets as upright and goes on to show further how it is possible for the oil to overflow, as explained by Rabbi Chizkuni ben Manoah. Most of the carvings and manuscripts of the Menorah, however, don’t have the detail of the goblets depicted. The Menorah of the Arch of Titus also doesn’t seem to have the image of the goblets sufficiently depicted to be able to decipher what its image might suggest.


Why upside goblets?


What would be the possible rationale why Maimonides would differ from the more obvious view of Gersonides and Rabbi Chizkuni ben Manoah that describes the goblets on the Menorah in their natural and more functional upward position?


A possible reason for the upside shape of the Menorah may be derived from another reason given for the purpose of the goblets. As stated previously, Rabbi Chizkuni ben Monah offers a practical purpose to catch the oil. Rashi argues[45] the purpose of the goblets is ornamental. According to Rashi, it would be unimportant which way up the goblets were positioned. Spanish exegete, Rabbi Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa (1255-1340), offers a third purpose for the goblets. In his commentary to Exodus, he writes[46] that the concept of the goblets was a symbol that reflects the receiving of the Divine presence and its transference to the outside world beyond the Temple.


Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn argues[47] that Maimonides’ appears to be following a reasoning that is similar to Rabbi Bahye regarding the purpose of the goblets. The purpose was not ornamental or practical but to serve as a symbol of the emanation of the Divine light beyond the Temple. This is symbolized, according to this reasoning, by an upside down goblet. Maimonides’ view of the purpose of the Temple is then twofold: inward and outward. The main purpose of the Temple is inward – to serve as a place for the Divine presence to rest amongst Israel, as it states in Exodus[48]: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst”. Another purpose is outward - to illuminate the world outside the Temple with the Divine presence. This outward concept is reflected in the statement of the Talmud[49]: “the Menorah shows that G-d does not need its light but rather is a testimony for all humankind that the Divine presence dwells with Israel in the Tabernacle.”


A further indication of this outward purpose, according to the Talmud, is the fact that the windows in the Temple were designed wide on the outside and narrowing toward the inside (halonei shekufim atumim)[50].The purpose was to emit radiance to the world[51]. Based on this spiritual and outward purpose of the Temple, it is possible to adequately explain Maimonides’ unique drawing of the Menorah with the overturned goblets.





[1] Neubauer MS 404; Pococke 295. Illustrating Maimonides comments on Menachot 3:7. Reproduced in Y. Kafih's edition, Jerusalem, 1967, vol 3 p 79. The manuscript of the Commentary on the Mishnah by Maimonides that is the subject of this essay consists of the Mishnaic Order of Nezikin (Damages), beginning with the 8th chapter of tractate Bava Kama, and the Order of Kodashim (Holy Things). The manuscript includes also marginal corrections. In the tractate of Menachot in the Order of Kodashim, folio 295a, one can find the hand drawn illustration of the plan of the Temple.

[2] Oxford’s Bodleian Library has a significant collection of manuscripts and early printed works of Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah. This includes seventeen in Judeo Arabic (Neubauer catalogue Numbers 394 - 407:1, 552:2 on Horayot, 2423:8 part of Eruvin, and 2522:5 fragment of Negaim); ten in Hebrew translation (Neub.  409:2 on Zeraim - translation of Harizi, 919 extracts from Demai, 408:2 Kodashim, 409:1 Kodashim, 850:6 Preface of Kodashim, 408:1 Nezikin, 1272:3a Nezikin, 1272:3b Nashim, 408:3 Tohorot, 1319:8); four copies of the Commentary to the Mishnah on Avot in Judeo Arabic (120:2, 380:1, 407:2, 2497 C. Notes); seven in Hebrew translation by Samuel ibn Thabbon (376:3, 408:1, 409:3, 714:2, 1254:2, 2282:3, 670 fragment).

[3] Exodus, 25:32-40

[4] Mishneh TorahBeit Habechira 3:10

[5] Menachot 28b

[6] Exodus 25:32

[7] Rashi on Exodus, 25:32

[8] 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 were diagonal. 

[9] Oppenheimer collection, Bodleian library, University of Oxford;

[10] Quoted by Rabbi Ricci from Rabbi Shalit’s commentary on the Tabernacle okmat ha-Mishkan, in which he writes the branches were k’mat b’igul (a little rounded).

[11] Talmud Shabbat 129b, Rashi commentary. Chezkuni al HaTorah (Exodus 25:31) gives two reasons for the Menorah having seven branches: corresponding to the seven days of the week and the seven Mazalot that illuminate the world: chamah, nogah, kochav, levana, shabtai, tzedek, ma’adim.

[12] The idea that the roundedness of an item in the physical world can be a reflection of a concept in the Divine can be found also in the writing of Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1860-1920) who writes in B'sha'a Shehikdimu' (ch. 62) that the all - encompassing light of the Divine (Ohr Makifim) that surrounds all the spiritual worlds is reflected in the lower level - the vessels (Keilim) - that receive the Divine light (Ohr), as opposed to the higher level, the light itself (ohr pnimi). He writes that this is indicated in the fact that vessels like cups containing water are mostly round shaped.

[13] Art and Architecture of the Roman Empire. Bellona Books. 2006

[14] Jewish Art by Grace Cohen Grossman (1995), p. 19

[15] Jewish Art p. 35

[16] Jewish Art p. 29

[17] Israel Museum Jerusalem; Jewish Art p. 31

[18] Museo Nazionale Rome; Jewish Art p. 23

[19] Institute of Archaeology collection, Hebrew University; Jewish Art p. 32

[20] Israel Museum Jerusalem; Jewish Art p. 34

[21] Similar to the image of the Menorah branches in the Oxford Rashi manuscript.

[22] Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Ms. Hebrew 7, fols 12v, 13r; Jewish Art p. 52.

[23] The British Library, Add. Ms. 11639 fol. 114r; Jewish Art p. 52

[24] British library MS. 15282 fol. 238v; Jewish Art p. 47

[25] Bodleian Library, University of Oxford MS. 251, fol. 49;

[26] Comunita Israelitica Florence

[27] Comunita Ebraica, Padua

[28] Jewish Art p. 160

[29] Beit Habechirah 3:10

[30] Menachot ch. 3

[31] 25:32

[32] Likkutei Sichot vol. 21 p. 168

[33] Talmud Menachot 28b

[34] Ch. 95

[35] Likkutei Sichot ibid

[36] Exodus 25:34

[37] In Likkutei Sichot (ibid), the Rebbe argues that with the revelation of the Maimonides’ manuscript depicting the Menorah with straight branches, it is appropriate to follow this view of the Menorah, even though both views are valid. As the principal source of the round shaped branches of the Menorah is from the Arch of Titus, which for centuries served as a symbol of captivity and subjugation of Jews by Rome, it is inconceivable that Jews would follow this design, when Maimonides is of the opinion the branches were straight and was most likely the design of the original Menorah of Moses and Solomon.

[38] 25:31-40

[39] Menachot 28b

[40] Menachot 3

[41] Beit Habechirah 3:9

[42] Exodus 25:31

[43] Sa’adia Gaon, as quoted by Ibn Ezra on Exodus (25:33), opines the goblets were almond shaped, based on the description meshukadim juxtaposed to the word gevi’im goblets.  According to Ibn Ezra Meshukadim comes from the word in Proverbs (8:34) l’shkod - to watch (Rashi) or hasten (Mezudah David). Accordingly, the word Meshukadim implies the Menorah design symbolizes protection for the Jewish people, as oppose to a design of the goblets. According to the Unklus Aramaic translation, Meshukadim means simply decorated. According to the view of Sa’adia, it would appear there are two botanic aspects of the Menorah: the flower p’rocheho (Unklos: rose)and the goblets that were almond shaped. This is in addition to the kaftor that were apple shaped (Rashi). Interestingly, according to Israeli botanist and expert on plants in the Bible, Nogah HaReuveni, the Menorah of the Tabernacle was designed in accordance with the shape of the Salavia palaestina with interesting implications to the points raised in this essay regarding the design of the branches and goblets.

[44] Jewish Art p. 52

[45] Commentary on Exodus 25:31

[46] 25:31

[47] Likkutei Sichot vol. 21 p. 165

[48] 25:8

[49] Menachot 86b

[50] Based on the verse (I Kings 6:4): “He made for the house windows that were wide and narrow”

[51] Rabbi Hanina said: There were windows in the holy Temple through which light would be emitted into the world. What is the basis for this? 'And for the house he made closed-opened windows.' They were both open and closed! They were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside in order to radiate light to the world. Said Rabbi Levi: According to the normal practice, when a person constructs a dining-hall he makes its windows narrower on the outside and broader on the inside in order to draw light inward. However, the windows of the holy Temple were not like that. Instead, they were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside in order to radiate light to the world.


Kindly edited by Sora Feldman 

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