After commanding Israel to make the Tabernacle, rather than begin with the structure itself, God tells the Children of Israel to make the utensils that go into the tent, beginning with the Ark of the Covenant, the table, and then detailing the construction of the menorah, or candelabrum.
The word ‘menorah’ comes from the word ‘ner’ which means ‘candle’ or ‘lamp.’ In Proverbs, the lamp is used an analogy to learning Torah and keeping God’s commandments:
For the commandment is a lamp, The teaching is a light, And the way to life is the rebuke that disciplines. Proverbs 6:23
The menorah was made of one piece of solid gold beaten into shape, and had seven branches; one central stem with three branches on each side. Each branch was decorated with three cups shaped like almond blossoms, eleven “knobs,” and 22 ornamental “goblets.”
Based on the image of the menorah featured on the Arch of Titus in Rome, many people believe the branches were curved. However, both Rashi and Maimonides wrote that the branches were actually straight, extending outward on a diagonal slant.
The menorah stood just outside the parochet (curtain), across from the golden table holding the showbread. It should be noted that the only stairs in the Temple stood in front of the menorah, used by the kohanim to prepare the lamps.
Each of the menorah’s seven lamps was filled with a half log of pure olive oil and a wick which was prepared every morning. The oil was enough to last all night, and one light, referred to as the “western lamp,” was to burn constantly, through the day as well as the night. (Leviticus 24:3). There is much discussion as to which lamp this is and there is no definitive answer.
The Torah states that one talent of gold was used in the creation of the menorah which, according to Josephus Flavius, the first-century Romano-Jewish historian, was approximately one hundred pounds. At the current market value of gold, the menorah contained over two million dollars worth of gold.
The Midrash tells us that Moses wondered how he could possibly make the menorah out of one solid piece of gold. In response, G‑d told him to toss the chunk of gold into fire where it would miraculously take shape on its own.
When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, he had ten additional menorahs made and placed five to the right of the existing menorah and five to its left (II Chronicles 4:7).
The Talmud (Menachot 28b) describes how after their defeat of the Syrian-Greeks, the Maccabees entered the Temple Mount and discovered that the place had been violated, its valuables sacked, and its sacred items contaminated. Eager to light the menorah, they thrust spears into the ground, forming an ad hoc candelabra. In time, that was replaced by a silver menorah, and eventually a golden one.
The fate of the menorah remains a mystery. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 69 CE, they famously boasted about carting the menorah off to Rome, a feat which was memorialized in the Arch of Titus in Rome.
It should be noted that Jewish law forbids recreating the seven-branched menorah for personal use. On Hanukkah, an eight-branched menorah is lit. It has been suggested that the seven branches represent the seven days of Creation and completeness. The center lamp represents the Shabbat.
Alternatively, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former leader of Chabad Hasidut, suggested that the seven branches represented the seven Noahide laws, with the menorah standing as a graphic reminder that the Temple was the vessel for the Jews to be a light unto the nations.
The menorah has become a symbol for Israel with a bronze replica over four meters tall standing in front of the Knesset.
As part of its remarkable efforts to prepare for the Third Temple, the Temple Institute created a menorah to be used in the Third Temple. Weighing half a ton, the menorah contains forty-five kilograms of twenty-four karat gold, and has an estimated value of approximately three million dollars. It is currently on display alongside the Yehudah HaLevi steps leading down to the Western Wall Plaza and the Temple Mount.