Thursday, February 3, 2011

Menorah's Symbolism

For more on the Menorah's branches click here

Parshat Terumah

As the Torah is comprised primarily of laws and narrative, let us take a quick scan of Parshat Terumah to see where it fits in the scheme of the rest of the Torah. According to the Sefer HaChinukh, Parshat Terumah has three mitzvot in it – to build a Beit Hamikdash, not to remove the poles from the aron (ark), and the rules surrounding the placement of the "showbread" on the shulchan (table).

So much for "laws."

The narrative is confined to the specific instructions surrounding the creation of the one-time Mishkan that was never built again. We don't even see them building it here; those details are only shared with us in Vayakhel and Fekudei, which we will read in a few weeks.

Not much narrative to speak of.

As a result, most contemporary discussions of this parsha that go beyond the importance of "making a sanctuary to God" focus on symbolic interpretations of the mishkan and its vessels.

To focus on one example, the Sfas Emes writes of the beautiful symbolism embedded in the Menorah. With six branches and a centerpiece that counts as number 7, he says, it represents the week high"lighted" by shabbos. As the light of the Menorah represents the light of Torah, the Torah is read on shabbos to be a source of light for the six days of the week.

Many point out that the "menorah" itself is in reality only the middle candlestick, while the arms that come out are the "kanei hamenorah" – the menorah's branches. There are altogether 22 decorative cups on the menorah - 4 on the center candlestick, and 3 on each of the six branches.

22 represents the 22 letter alphabet God used to create the world and the Torah.

The 3 cups on each of the branches-representing-weekdays represent the forefathers and the three daily prayers they individually established. As the center candlestick represents the seventh day of the week, shabbos, its 4 cups represent the three prayers plus the addtional shabbos prayer of Mussaf.

Taking the idea a step further, he looks at the 22 phrase poem we recite on Shabbos, "El Adon," and says the first two and last two phrases (which are connected to one another through the "A't ba'sh" symbolism) together contain 22 words. Additionally, the letters of "a't ba'sh" (א"ת, and ב"ש) spell out the word "shabata" - שבתא – which means Shabbos in Aramaic. The eighteen remaining phrases, representing the eighteen remaining letters, represent the other days of the week, 3 letters per day, like the three cups of each branch.

For further detail and for deeper understanding, the Gerer Rebbe explains, one must seek clarification in the Zohar.

In his "Collected Writings, Vol. III," Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch presents an extensive study of symbolism in Jewish law and life. Regarding the menorah, he writes:

"The light in the center… is the goal common to all the other lights on the menorah. These lights, in turn, are borne by six branches. However, none of these has a separate base or shaft of its own. Rather, they all stand upon one base; they all have one root, and one shaft supports them all… the light in the middle is not only the ultimate goal of all the lights, which serves to unite them all, but also the starting point from which all the other lights emanate." (p. 218-219)

There is much more symbolism in this one-piece marvel of gold that we call "menorah" than meets the eye. But this is a good start.

7 represents nature, as Rabbi Hirsch writes of in his essays on tzitzit and bris milah, both of which take seven and elevate it to eight in their efforts to heighten spirituality by going above and beyond nature – taking it to the level of "supernatural."

If the candles indeed represent the days of the week, and the center candlestick is the glue that holds everything together, then we can certainly take the obvious step and declare that shabbos is what holds everything about what it means to be a Jew together.

It is not just about a physical image or manifestation, the menorah or its symbolism, as much as it is about what the menorah does practically. After all a candelabra's job is to give light.

Here in lies the quintessential symbolism. The Torah is the ultimate light, as it is the original source for just about all goodness that exists in the world. If holy light emanates from the branches of the menorah, it is a reminder to us that our days must be infused with the study of Torah. Ultimately the study of Torah is most beneficial when put it into practice in the most significant way, through the observance of shabbos.

May the Jews of the world recognize this beauty, and may we all merit to bask in the light of the menorah when we live to fulfill the mitzvot that are commanded in Parshat Terumah.

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