According to the books of Maccabees, the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes carried off and destroyed the sacred vessels of the Jerusalem Temple, including the golden candelabrum. The restoration of those vessels after the successful Jewish uprising become one of the most prominent themes of the Hanukkah saga and celebrations.
Rabbinic literature preserves two principal traditions about how the Hasmoneans dealt with the absence of the menorah when they came to rededicate the Temple and wished to kindle the lamps as required by the Torah. In most respects those two traditions are identical—so identical, in fact, that a minute difference between them has generally been written off as nothing more than a copyist’s error.
The texts all commence from the premise that the victorious Jews entered the sanctuary bearing seven iron rods, and that these formed the basis for a makeshift candelabrum that they fashioned to serve until a proper gold menorah could be set up. It has been suggested that those rods were in fact hollow spear-heads of the sort that in ancient armies often served as torches. The spear-heads had sockets drilled into them with which they could be affixed to the the handles, and these could serve conveniently as receptacles for oil and wicks for warriors who were arriving straight from a battle.
The texts also report that they did something to those rods that involved tin—or, to be exact, an alloy of tin and lead. As to what the tin was used for, that is precisely the issue on which the traditions diverge.
The more familiar version, the one that is preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, states that they used the tin as a coating for the rods. As might be expected in a work devoted to the minute technicalities of Jewish religious law, the matter of the coating had implications for several practical questions of halakhah. Although the Torah seems to insist that the menorah must be shaped out of a single piece of pure gold, the rabbis asked whether, in cases where that is not possible, it would be permissible to substitute other materials? If so, must they be metals, or would wood or ceramics be acceptable? And if only metals are allowed, will any metal suffice, or must it be a precious one like silver, or perhaps bronze?
The story of the Hasmonean menorah could be cited as a precedent in those halakhic deliberations, implying perhaps that—in the absence of gold or silver—a plating of tin (which also has a gleaming silver-like appearance) is preferable to drab (albeit durable) metals like iron.
But the identification of permissible materials for the menorah could have additional implications that led to restrictive rulings. The rabbis of the Talmud extended the Torah’s prohibition “Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold” to apply to replicas of any object that is “with” God, including the structure, vessels or implements of the Temple or Tabernacle: “A person may not construct a house in the form of the Temple, or an exedra in the form of the Temple hall, or a courtyard corresponding to the Temple court, or a table corresponding to the sacred table, or a candelabrum corresponding to the menorah. One may, however, manufacture one with five, six or eight lamps—but one should refrain from making any with seven lamps, even if it is composed of other metals.”
This ruling implies that any material that is permitted for the actual Temple candelabrum thereby becomes forbidden for non-sacred or private use. Therefore if we accept that tin was considered an allowable medium for the construction of the original Temple candelabrum, then it should lead logically to a prohibition against the crafting of non-sacred tin candelabra for use outside the Temple. This issue was discussed by the Jewish sages.
The alternative version of the story about the Hasmoneans’ temporary menorah states that the triumphant Jewish forces made use of the tin not in the actual body of the candelabrum, but only as a bonding substance for soldering the rods together.
Indeed, this procedure makes a lot of practical and historical sense. We know that tin and alloys of tin and lead were commonly utilized for welding in the ancient world, and that the process was well known to the Jewish sages.
For example, when the rabbis wished to describe how the Egyptians fashioned a sarcophagus for Joseph that would remain concealed underwater until the time of the promised exodus, they said that it was constructed out of metal and firmly welded together by means of tin and lead. The container’s weight allowed it to sink to the bottom of the Nile and to remain there until Moses was ready to proclaim that the time of redemption had arrived, at which point the casket miraculously floated to the surface ready to be carried to the promised land for proper interment by the liberated Hebrews.
The metallurgic status of the Temple candelabrum continued to pique the interest of Jewish scholars and poets in some surprising ways.
For instance, a rabbinic compendium devoted to the structure of the Tabernacle and its vessels concluded that the Torah’s requirement that the menorah be made from a single block of beaten gold did not extend to its ornaments: the “knobs” and the “flowers.”
A midrashic exposition expanded on this premise to imaginatively reconstruct an exchange that took place when God commanded Moses to oversee the crafting of the original menorah. The great prophet was perplexed and overwhelmed by the complexity of the verbal instructions, until God had recourse to visual aids in order to personally illustrate the process for his benefit: he projected a full-coloured graphic presentation in which a model of the menorah was fashioned out of white, red, black and green flames. The model included all the cups, knobs, flowers and the six branches projecting from the central column.
This tale would appear to furnish the background for a strange and fascinating tradition that is embedded in the liturgical poetry of several notable Hebrew authors whose lyrical creations were deeply rooted in the midrashic teaching and talmudic scholarship of the land of Israel.
Thus, a piyyuṭ by the eighth century poet Rabbi Phineas Beribbi Hakohen of Tiberias addressed the Almighty with the words: “the candelabrum in your abode is compose of three different golds.” The renowned Yannai spelled this out in more extensive detail in his description of the menorah: "It was entirely of gold, as was instructed—yet it appeared as if it were three golds: a green metal was the gold of the cups, red for the knobs, white for the flowers."
While it is doubtful that the craftsmen in Moses's time would have known how to produce gold in diverse hues, the basics of such a technology were known in the talmudic era and in the times of the great liturgical poets. White, yellow, red or green varieties of gold can be manufactured by mixing in the correct proportions of silver, copper, platinum or nickel.
And indeed this image of a lamp fashioned from assorted tints of gold provides us with an powerful metaphor to illustrate the diverse and ever-brilliant illuminations of the Jewish cultural and spiritual traditions—as they continue to shed their manifold lights on the meaning of the Hanukkah story.
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