Tag Archives: Menorah

Secrets of the Menorah Psalm and the Jewish Holidays

This week’s Torah portion is Emor. It begins with a set of priestly laws before delving into a long exposition about the Jewish holidays. The Torah lists a total of seven holidays, starting with Shabbat, then Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. Other holidays like Chanukah and Purim were instituted by the Sages, based on later historical events and references in the Tanakh.

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, showing the upper sefirot (Keter/Da’at, Chokhmah, and Binah, known as the Mochin), and the seven lower sefirot that follow.

The Torah’s arrangement of holidays, and their meanings, immediately call to mind the seven lower mystical sefirot, or middot. Pesach is all about God’s salvation and the liberation of the Jewish people, tying into the first sefirah, Chessed, or “kindness”. This sefirah is associated with water, and the Pesach narrative both begins and ends with the theme of water: the Israelite newborns in the Nile, and the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea, with the Israelites themselves passing through the raging waters unharmed.

Six months later, opposite Pesach, is the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. While the former marks the start of spring, the latter ushers in the time of autumn. Whereas Pesach is about freedom and kindness, Rosh Hashanah is about judgement and repentance. Not surprisingly, Rosh Hashanah corresponds to the sefirah opposite Chessed, called Gevurah, or “restraint”, and more commonly referred to as Din, “judgement”. This sefirah is associated with fire, like the purifying flames of God’s crucible evoked during this time.

The third sefirah is Tiferet, “beauty” or balance, and is commonly referred to as Emet, “truth”. This corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the revelation of truth and the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) famously states that God gave a three-part Torah to a three-part people (Israel, Levi, Kohen), through the third (Moses, a third-born child), on the third day (meaning either on a Tuesday, or after the required three days of purification) of the third month (Sivan). A mystical reading of the Talmud might add: corresponding to the third sefirah (Tiferet). Tiferet is associated with wind, or spirit (the Hebrew terms for “wind” and “spirit” are the same), referring to the divine spirit that rested upon the entire nation at Sinai.

The fourth and fifth sefirot, Netzach (“Victory” or persistence) and Hod (“Splendour” or gratitude), are always discussed together. The Kabbalists use these energies as symbols representing twin pairs such as a pair of legs, kidneys, or even testes and ovaries. They represent the twin forces of light and electricity, highly interrelated from a scientific perspective, and both traveling at the same incredible speed (300,000 km/s). When it comes to the holidays, Netzach and Hod are the two interrelated holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

Then comes Yesod, “foundation”, referring to righteousness and in particular, sexual purity. This is undoubtedly Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and purification. Lastly, the seventh sefirah, Malkhut or “kingdom”, is the holiday that we have every seventh day. Shabbat is referred to as the Sabbath “Queen”—fitting for a sefirah representing kingdom. Malkhut symbolizes fulfilment and completion, and as we read every Friday night, Shabbat is the day that God completed His creation, and in which we, like God, find fulfilment.

The Menorah Psalm

A replica of the Temple Menorah, made by the Temple Institute

Right after the holiday passage, the parasha records God’s instructions for lighting the Temple Menorah. The Menorah had seven branches, once again corresponding to the seven lower sefirot. Elsewhere, the Torah tells us in detail the design of the Menorah, and we see that it was composed of 22 cups shaped like almond flowers, with 11 knobs for buds and 9 flower blossom ornaments. Together with the seven lamps, that makes a total of 49 components.

The 49 components of the seven branches of the Menorah correspond to the 49 words in the seven verses of Psalm 67 (not counting the introductory verse common to most psalms). For this reason, Psalm 67 is often written in the form of a menorah:

Meanwhile, each of the seven sefirot is itself further composed of seven inner sefirot, making a total of 49 parts. These correspond to the 49-day counting of the Omer, with each of the seven weeks representing a sefirah, and each of the seven days of each week representing one sefirah within a sefirah. Because of this, it is customary to read Psalm 67 after reciting the counting of the Omer each night.

This psalm in particular is said to have immense spiritual power. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806), better known as the Chida, wrote in his book Midbar Kedumot that God revealed the words of this psalm to King David in the shape of a menorah, emblazoned upon a golden shield. David engraved the image upon his own shield, causing his enemies to fall before him.

The psalm itself requests that people will grow to know God, thank Him, and walk in His ways, and that in turn, God will bless us and shine His countenance upon us. Ultimately, this is the purpose of the Sefirat haOmer period. It is a time of refinement, growth, and personal development.

The Menorah is therefore a most appropriate image, as its seven branches are said to represent the seven orifices of the face (eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth), and the seven major parts of the body (arms, legs, head, torso, and reproductive organ). Our task is to purify all of these aspects of ourselves, so that our bodies become holy and our souls shine forth like the radiant light of the Menorah.


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

This Sunday evening marks the start of Chanukah, “the festival of lights”, perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakha of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of pork dishes, frog legs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons – soon to be known as the “Maccabees” – started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 40,000 troops, together with war elephants. It is estimated that the Maccabee forces managed to scramble 12,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 12,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with “elected officials” sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great as well. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was somehow grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Babylon (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions even found their way into Jewish holidays. In Ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left – sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (which means “dessert”).

To suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the names of angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek names, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly did in battle, but definitely not in spirit. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of Ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.

The Mystery of Manna

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, we read about the Israelites’ miraculous crossing of the Red Sea (or Reed Sea) and the events that followed. After the crossing, Moses led the people through the wilderness for three days during which they could not find any water. Finally, they came to a place called Marah, named thus because the waters here were unbearably bitter. The people complained of thirst, and God brought about another miracle by sweetening the bitter waters of Marah. It was here that the Israelites were given their first set of Torah laws (Exodus 15:25).

Crossing of the Red Sea from the 1956 film ‘The Ten Commandments’

Contrary to popular belief, the Ten Commandments revealed at Mt. Sinai were not the first set of laws given to the Jews. While still in Egypt, they had received the laws of Rosh Chodesh (commemorating the new months), as well as laws associated with the Passover holiday such as consumption of matzah and the paschal offering. They also had more ancient laws passed on from the Patriarchs, including circumcision (first revealed to Abraham) and the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve (gid ha’nashe, which originated with Jacob’s brawl with the angel). The Torah states that at Marah, they were given a few more laws. Rashi comments that they were given the law of keeping the Sabbath, the laws of the Red Cow (Parah Adumah), and the laws of courts and the justice system.

The Shabbat laws are particularly relevant, and it is easy to see why one of the laws given at Marah must have been Shabbat. Later on in the parasha, God gives the people Heavenly manna for food, and tells them that they are not to gather or cook the manna on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:5, 22-27). Clearly, the people must have already been familiar with the Sabbath beforehand. What they weren’t familiar with, though, was the manna, which is why they called it that very name, saying man hu – “what is it?” (16:15).

What is Manna?

The Torah describes the nature of manna in a couple of places. It is first called “bread from Heaven” (16:4), and described as appearing in the morning atop the dew on the ground (v. 13-14). In the book of Numbers (11:9), however, it states the opposite, with the dew being atop the manna. Rashi explains that there was a layer of dew on the ground, then a layer of manna, and then another layer of dew on top to cover it. This would keep the manna clean and whole.

The text continues to describe the layer of manna, comparing it to a thin sheet of frost. Indeed, they had to gather it early in the morning, for as the sun would come up and warm up the day, the manna would melt (v. 21). Later, the Torah tells us that colour of manna was like white coriander seed. It was gathered, ground up, and cooked into wafers that tasted like honey. The account in the book of Numbers (11:8) states that it tasted like fatty cakes or cakes baked in oil. From this, the Talmud (Yoma 75b) concludes that the manna must have tasted differently to different people. Other sources suggest that the manna tasted like whatever the person wanted it to taste like! (According to some, it tasted like anything except for the following: fish, cucumber, melon, leek, onion, and garlic. See Rashi on Numbers 11:5.)

Each person in the wilderness received a daily portion of manna, with a double portion on Friday so that it would last for the Sabbath. Based on the measurements in verse 36, Rashi calculates that one portion was about the size of 43.2 eggs. With a standard egg being about 55 grams, that comes out to nearly two and a half kilograms of manna per person!

Manna, According to Historical Sources

Historians have tried to pinpoint the identity of manna based on similar substances found in the Sinai wilderness. The Tamarix gallica tree is found in the Sinai, and exudes a yellowish, waxy resin that melts in the sun and tastes like honey. It can’t be formed into cakes, though, nor does it provide much nutrition other than sugar – not a fitting candidate, considering the Israelites subsisted off of manna for forty years. Not only did they subsist off of it, but it was a perfectly nutritious and wholesome food, producing no waste whatsoever. The commentaries tell us that the Israelites did not have to defecate during their forty year period in the wilderness, which is why they were so drawn to the idolatry of Ba’al-Pe’or (Numbers 25:3), bizarrely worshipped by defecation (Sanhedrin 106a, and Rashi on 25:3).

Another candidate for manna is the honeydew produced by certain insects, which is also sweet, has a white-yellow colour, and quickly evaporates in the heat. Others suggest that the description fits some kind of fungus. This is a particularly interesting possibility, since many funguses release psychoactive chemicals and neurological stimulants.

Ultimately, none of these completely fit the description of a Heavenly food that descended from Above; a food so pure that it did not produce any waste. A food described as being conceived of by God in the twilight between the sixth and seventh day of Creation (Avot 5:9), and produced in Heavenly mills (Chagigah 12b).

The manna was so special that God commanded a sample of it to be placed in a jar as an eternal souvenir (16:32-33). Unfortunately, this jar was lost many centuries ago. (Some say it is hidden, along with other holy artifacts like the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah, and will be restored in the times of Mashiach). Nonetheless, Jews still commemorate the manna in a number of ways. One of the reasons that the challah is covered during Kiddush on Shabbat is to symbolize how the manna was covered by dew. Similarly, just as the Jews received a double portion of manna on Friday for Shabbat, we place two loaves of challah on the Shabbat table.

Perhaps we will soon merit to get a taste of the real thing.