Illuminating Insights into the Menorah

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

While the merits of building vessels at this time in preparation for the third Bais Hamikdash is a subject of intense debate, one cannot deny the majesty of the constructed Menorah which sits atop the steps leading to the Kotel. Some observers take note of its artistic details, while other focus on the overall impression of its construction. And yet, it is not enough to merely appreciate the superficial esthetics of the Menorah. As a vessel of the Bais Hamikdash, there must be within it some important idea that helps us understand its role in the daily (or nightly) routine. A debate between the Rashbam and Rambam helps illuminate (figuratively, of course) how the Menorah fit into the construct of the Bais Hamikdash.

 At the end of Parshas Emor (Vayikra 24:1-9), the Torah describes the commandments concerning the oil for the Menorah, as well as the ingredients and baking of the lechem hapanim (showbread). 

The Rashbam (ibid 2) offers an interesting explanation as to the mention of both the Menorah and Shulchan (Table) one after the other. It happens to be that these two vessels were placed in close proximity to one another in the Bais HaMikdash. As he explains, this was not a coincidence:

“This section is being reviewed because the Menorah was next to the Shulchan, to provide light to it, where the lechem hapanim was placed, as explained here; all this is from the rectification of the Shulchan and its order, the oil to light and the bread to be arranged [on it].”

What is intriguing about this commentary is that according to the Rashbam, the primary function of the Menorah was to provide light for the Shulchan. This implies that the Menorah really had no independent role. Was the Menorah really so secondary? Furthermore, since the candles were lit at the end of the day, when the avodah was completed, one could safely assume that the kohanim were never actually using this light when dealing with the Shulchan. What, then, was its purpose? 

The Rambam offers his own rationale for the Menorah’s function, found in the Moreh Nevuchim (3:45):

“A candlestick was then out in front of the curtain (paroches), as a sign of honor and distinction for the Temple. For a chamber in which a continual light burns, hidden behind a curtain, makes a great impression on man, and the Law lays great stress on our holding the Santuary in great estimation and regard, and that at the sight of it we should be filled with humility, mercy, and soft-heartedness.”

It is quite evident that the Rambam is ascribing an independent function to the Menorah, explaining how the Menorah served a unique role. This seems to be at odds with the Rashbam’s understanding, where the Menorah was merely an extension of the Shulchan, serving to bring light to this vessel. This is a significant debate that needs to be understood.

In general, every vessel had a clearly defined practical role in the daily operation of the Bais Hamikdash. The kohen used the altar for korbanos, washed his hands with the kiyor, or used a kli-sharase to carry blood. In a sense, there was no vessel that was merely decorative or ornamental. How would the Menorah fit into this equation? No doubt, the primary role of the Menorah was to provide light, and the purpose of light is to illuminate. To merely light the Menorah without making use of the light would negate its definition as a kli-mikdash. Therefore, according to the Rashbam, there had to be a practical utility to the Menorah, just as with the other vessels. Based on this premise, the fact that the two vessels were in close proximity in the Bais Hamikdash was not a coincidence. The Menorah, as he understood it, existed to illuminate the Shulchan, providing light for it. Functioning in this manner, the Menorah fits into the same category as all other vessels. With this said, there is still the question about the fact that this light was never actually used by the kohanim. The Torah indicates that the lecham hapanim (showbread) remained on the Shulchan from Shabbos to Shabbos – once in place, the loaves were not removed until the following Shabbos. As a result, one could deduce that the bread resting on the Shulchan indicated it was in use. If this is the case, one could offer the same assessment of the light from the Menorah. Rather than provide light for those using the Shulchan, its function instead was to indicate that the Shulchan was in a state of operation. We see this in the language of the Rashbam, where he writes “the oil to light and the bread to be arranged” – the presence of these two demonstrated that the Shulchan was in a state of being used.

The Rambam would have to agree that each vessel of the Bais Hamikdash served a distinct practical role, yet he offers a different assessment of the role of the Menorah. One troubling part of the Rambam’s interpretation is the effect the Menorah was supposed to have on the individual, ultimately bringing him to hold the Bais Hamikdash in high regard and produce a sense of humility. The problem is, one could argue that the Bais Hamikdash itself, along with all of the vessels, was set up for this purpose. What was the Menorah adding to the picture? Let’s first understand the overall formulation of the Rambam. This vessel seems to go against the mold, lacking any particular role in the Bais Hamikdash. As mentioned above, light functions to illuminate. However, we see another instance in halacha, by the ner Chanukah, where this function is “removed” from light so that it may serve as a vehicle to a specific idea. The halacha is clear that we are not allowed to benefit from the Chanukah light whatsoever. Instead, the lit candle draws us into thinking about the miracles of Chanukah and the important ideas that emerge from it. The same could then be said about the Menorah and its candles. The lights of the Menorah were structured to function as a vehicle for the ideas listed above by the Rambam, and were not meant to illuminate.

While this may provide insight into the overall difference in the potential functions of the Menorah, there is still the issue of how this fits into the general idea of klei-mikdash, the Temple's vessels. Without a practical function, how would it still retain its status as a vessel? It could be the Rambam is basing his assessment of the Menorah on a different understanding of its status as a vessel. As we know, the purpose of the Bais Hamikdash was to serve as a vehicle in understanding God, opening a pathway to significant and distinctive ideas. The vessels themselves reflected the wisdom of Hashem, both in their construction as well as in their use. One might think, then, that it would be through their practical usage that one would have access to this area of knowledge. In other words, the study of the vessels of the Bais Hamikdash would take place through their handling. If this were the case, then those removed from their usage (i.e. – everyone but kohanim) would think they were closed off from these ideas. The Menorah serves to refute this notion. It is the one vessel that, by definition, has no utilitarian value – and that is its very function. It demonstrates that access to the system of knowledge was not dependent solely on the use of the vessels. To have a vessel that existed for no practical purpose served to remind the individual that the method of analysis of the vessels was not dependent on their daily usage and was therefore available to everyone. 

May we merit to see the building of the Bais Hamikdash in our lifetimes.