By Nadav Shragai, Haaretz.com
If you asked a Chabad Lubavitch Hassid, they would tell you the shape of the gold seven-branched candelabra that stood in the Second Temple, and which gave its form to the nine-branched Hanukkiah used today, was not rounded, as it appears on the emblem of the State of Israel and on the Arch of Titus.
Based on a drawing by Maimonides 800 years ago, Chabad says the Temple menorah’s branches emerged at 45 degree angles from the central branch, thus giving Chabad Hanukkiahs throughout the world their distinctive triangular shape.
However, that theory is now facing a challenge in the form of a new book published by the Temple Institute in Jerusalem’s Old City. The elegantly designed book, titled “A Menorah of Pure Gold,” pulls the scholarly rug out from under Chabad’s differently shaped candelabra.
Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the head of the Temple Institute and the author of the book, supports the curved-branch theory. He states that Maimonides’ manuscript that Chabad bases its design on was meant to be only a rough sketch. Maimonides himself explains this in the text near the drawing.
The new book presents dozens of early drawings of the Temple menorah discovered in archaeological excavations around the world from the Second Temple period and thereafter, in all of which the menorah has rounded branches rather than straight ones.
According to the research, a menorah with rounded branches was used even in Maimonides’ own synagogue in Cairo, dating a century before his time.
Ariel explains that the menorah on the relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome was presented first in the Hall of Peace where the Romans displayed other spoils from the Temple. He says that Josephus Flavius described how the menorah came to the Romans via a priest who was left alive on condition that he bring all the gold vessels to them. Ariel says that according to Josephus, in exchange for his life, the priest “went and got two gold menorahs in the shape of the Temple menorahs, but not the original menorah.”
This shows, according to Ariel, that the theory may be true that the original menorah was buried at the time under the ruins of the Temple.
Among the ancient drawings of menorahs with rounded branches that appear in Ariel’s book is one from the Herodian Mansions beneath the Wohl Torah Center in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, a drawing of a menorah in a catacomb of Beit She’arim, the burial place of Mishna compiler Rabbi Judah Hanasi, and others.