In 1949, the Provisional Council selected an official emblem for the fledgling Jewish state to display its sovereignty in the community of nations. Graphic artists Gavriel and Maxim Shamir came up with the famous design of a menorah flanked by two olive branches, prevailing over 450 other submissions. According to Gavriel Shamir, “After we decided to use the menorah, we looked for another element and concluded that olive branches are the most beautiful expression of the Jewish people’s love of peace.” Our haftarah, which contains the original outline for the Shamir Brothers design, teaches that there is an altogether different meaning behind the Menorah flanked by olive branches, which is central to the holiday of Chanuka.
The haftarah of Shabbat Chanuka begins with a universal vision, “Many nations will join themselves to Hashem on that day, and they will become a people unto Me; and I will dwell in your midst”(Zechariah 2:15). As the Malbim and others note, this verse refers to non Jews converting to Judaism in response to seeing God’s miracles in the end of days.
This prophecy stands in contrast to Zechariah’s next vision, a rebuke of Yehoshua, the high priest: “But Joshua was dressed in filthy garments as he stood before the angel. The angel spoke up and said to his attendants, “Remove the filthy garments from upon him!’” (3:3-4). Rashi explains that the angel criticized the intermarriage of Yehoshua’s sons, and the high priest’s failure to object sufficiently when his own children were drawn to foreign influences.
The haftarah begins with a lofty vision of brotherhood with all mankind followed by a warning of the threats therein. This tension between the universal and the particularistic forms the introduction to the final section of the haftarah, the beautiful description of the Menorah flanked by two olive branches: “I see and behold—there is a menorah made entirely of gold with its bowl on top; its seven lamps are upon it, and there are seven ducts for each of the lamps on its top. There are two olive trees over it, one at the right of the bowl, and one on its left” (Zechariah 4:2-3).
The Menorah of course was familiar to Zechariah, Yehoshua and the entire Jewish people, but what is the significance of the accompanying olive trees? According to the Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 36:1), “just as (olive) oil illuminates, so too the Beit Hamikdash provides light to the entire world, as it says, “and nations will walk by your light, kings by your shining radiance” (Isaiah 60:3). That is why Israel is called a leafy olive for Israel provides light for all.” The olive tree represents the Jew’s responsibility to be a light unto the nations, fueling the fire of the Menorah which served to illuminate the entire world with its light.
Indeed, this message was literally built into the Holy Temple itself, as the Talmud (Menachot 86b) describes that the windows of the Beit Hamikdash were constructed the wrong way—with the wide part outward! King Solomon understood that the Menorah should be the light for rest of the world, and not vice versa.
These passages from Zechariah are therefore appropriate readings for Shabbat Chanuka which memorializes the battles waged by the Maccabees against the introduction of Greek influence into Jewish beliefs and practices. Israel is meant to provide light to the nations, as Zechariah describes in the beginning of the haftarah, and not the other way around.
This message is integral not only for the holiday of Chanuka, but for the role of the State of Israel. Despite Gavriel Shamir’s interpretation, the olive branches in Zechariah’s menorah are not in fact an expression of the Jewish people’s love of peace, as beautiful as that is. The olive branches that flank the Menorah in the emblem of the State of Israel are meant to remind us that Israel must not be overly influenced by outside forces, but must assume its role in providing moral and Godly illumination to the entire world.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz is the director of Israel365 and editor of “The Israel Bible,” and Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a psychologist and a new Oleh to Israel, as well as a rebbe in Yeshivat Lev Hatorah. Please send comments to Haftarah@TheIsraelBible.com
It is upon this conflict that Zecharia’s vision sheds light (too much pun?). The Midrash Tanchuma (Tetzave 5:1) depicts Noah’s dove’s olive branch as a symbol of light to the world, as it teaches: “Hashem said: ‘Just as the dove brought light to the world, so too you, the Jews, who are compared to the dove should bring olive oil and light it before Me.’” Zecharia’s menorah is a vision reinforcing the notion that the Jews who follow in God’s ways can and should be the guide to the world. The Greeks, who Chazal tell us are compared to darkness, should receive our light, as Zecharia describes at the beginning of the haftarah, and not the other way around, as was done by Yehoshua’s sons.
Indeed, this message was literally built into the Holy Temple itself, as the Talmud (Menachot 86b) describes that the windows of the Beit Hamikdash were constructed the wrong way—with the wide part outward! King Solomon understood that the Menorah should be the light for rest of the world, and not vice versa. Each year, as we light our own menorahs, we reaffirm our commitment to this eternal message of Chanuka. The Maccabees fought the Greeks and Hellenistic Jews and purged the Temple of its pagan influence.
By all accounts, the Shamir brothers intended to invoke the Christian interpretation of the olive branch, symbolizing peace. However, as Zecharia’s nevuah teaches us, they also unwittingly included a second aspirational message to the emblem of the State of Israel. In addition to desiring peace, we continue to strive to be a light unto the nations, demonstrating fairness, justice, and commitment to God.