The Sefirot, Temple implements and Jacob’s ladder, 14th c. Russian State Library, (Ms. Guenzburg 82)
Are the branches of the menorah a symbol of the ten Sefirot (divine emanations) in the Kabbalah? This, at least, is what some kabbalists thought.
Like all Jewish innovators before them, in order to convey their bold new ideas, the kabbalists adopted Judaism’s oldest symbols, in this case—the Menorah. Dozens of illustrated examples in manuscripts and in print offer proof.
How did these kabbalists view the Menorah? In his article “Wisdom, the Eighth Emanation: The Menorah in Kabbalah,” [Hebrew] Moshe Idel discusses two heavenly interpretations of the Menorah. One, developed by the Castilian kabbalist Rabbi Joseph ben Abrhamam Gikatilla, sees the artifact as a symbol of the seven planets. Gikatilla writes, “Just as the entire Menorah is pure radiance and indeed the candles are intended to illuminate just as the seven planets are intended to illuminate, so the seven candles are analogous to the seven planets.”
The Menorah’s seven branches represented the seven planets according to Gikatilla. The materials from which the Temple menorah was fashioned — gold, silver and copper – in turn hint at the three realms—the upper, middle and lower: “Behold, the secret of the lamp is explained” (Sefer Ginat Egoz, Jerusalem, 1988/89, p. 269).
A more common interpretation sees the Menorah as a symbol of the higher powers, the attributes of God – the Sefirot. Rabbi Asher Ben-David, a kabbalist who lived in the first half of the 13th century in Provence, suggested that the Menorah’s candles “hint at the seven edges,” referring to the seven lower Sefirot.
The seven branches of the menorah were interpreted as the seven lower divine emanations, divided into two groups of three. At their center is the Sefirah of Tiferet (glory), that is the shamash, the middle branch that divides the two halves. Whereas Gikatilla focused on the materials from which the Menorah is made, the kabbalists who interpreted the Menorah as a symbol of the Sefirot focused on the material that lights it—the oil. The oil and the light of the Menorah provided a solution to the great question of the Kabbalah: How do we reconcile the existence of the one God with the ten Sefirot of the kabbalists?
In ancient times, the Menorah was a sign and a symbol of the divine presence—the Shekhinah that rests over the Temple, and over all of Israel. The Kabbalistic theory separates the hidden God—the infinite—from His attributes and powers revealed in the world—the ten Sefirot that emanate from the infinite. The oil poured into the seven branches and the light that is lit from them are, as Idel writes, “the abundance which comes from infinity, which is absorbed by the mid-line, which divides them among the six Sefirot, or edges.”
The Story of the Star of David
The six pointed star represents peace and harmony in Buddhism, while alchemists believed it symbolized nature—how did the Star of David acquire its significance in Judaism?
“Something of man’s secret enters into his symbols.”
The Star of David originated long before it was adopted by the Jewish faith and the Zionist movement; it appeared thousands of years ago in the cultures of the East, cultures that use it to this day. In the past, what we know today as the Star of David was a popular symbol in pagan traditions, as well as a decorative device used in first-century churches and even in Muslim culture.
But how is the Star of David tied to the fate of the Jewish people?
In the Hebrew context, the Star of David is actually referred to as the “Shield of David” (magen David), a phrase first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, not as a symbol, but as an epithet for God [Pesachim 117b]. Another link to the shield concept is a Jewish legend according to which the emblem decorated the shields of King David’s army; what’s more, even Rabbi Akiva chose the Star of David as the symbol of Bar-Kochba’s revolt against the Roman emperor Hadrian (Bar-Kochba’s name means “son of the star”).
The Star of David only became a distinctly Jewish symbol in the mid-14th century, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted the Jews of Prague the right to carry a flag, and they chose the six-pointed star. From Prague, the use of the Star of David as an official Jewish symbol spread, and so began the movement to find Jewish sources that traced the symbol to the House of David.
On the other hand, the renowned Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem claimed that the Star of David does not originate in any way in Judaism. Though he noted the symbol was identified on a Jewish seal from the seventh century BCE found in Sidon, as well as in 3rd–4th century CE synagogue decorations, the star was found alongside other symbols that were known to not be of Jewish origin.
So where can we find representations of the hexagram (a six-pointed star) in other cultures?
The hexagram has been used in India for thousands of years, and can be found on ancient temples and in daily use; in Buddhism it is used as a meditation aid to achieve a sense of peace and harmony, and in Hinduism it is a symbol of the goddess Lakshmi—the goddess of fortune and material abundance.
Hexagrams abound in alchemy, the theory and study of materials from which the modern science of chemistry evolved. Magical symbols were commonplace in this ancient theory, and alchemists recruited the six-pointed star to their graphic language of signs and symbols: an upright triangle symbolized water, an inverted triangle symbolized fire, and together they described the harmony between the opposing elements. In alchemical literature, the hexagram also represents the “four elements”—the theory that all matter in the world is made up of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire—effectively, everything that exists. One could say that the star is the ultimate alchemical symbol.
Alchemy borrowed the idea from the classical Greek tradition that masculinity symbolizes wisdom, while femininity symbolizes nature; man is philosophy and woman is the physical world. The illustration below, which appears in an 18th century alchemical text, shows a man holding a lantern as he follows a woman holding a hexagram – wisdom being the key that reveals the secrets of existence.
In Islam, the hexagram is referred to as the “Seal of Solomon,” and it adorns many mosques around the world. Until 1945, the emblem was also found on the Moroccan flag. It was changed to the five-pointed star (pentagram), when the six-pointed star became the emblem of the Zionist movement. The use of this symbol has diminished throughout the Islamic world for the same reason. The hexagram can also be found in medieval and early modern churches—although not as a Christian symbol, but as a decorative motif.
Despite its use in other cultures, the Star of David is emblazoned on the Israeli flag, and thus it is considered the undisputed symbol of the State of Israel, regardless of its origin. A symbol’s power ,after all, is in the meaning we give to it.
[Sources for this article are courtesy of Chaya Meier Herr, director of the Edelstein Collection for the History of Science, and Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel]
Drawing Moses… From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
A glimpse into how artists across the ages have tried to depict the undepictable events at Mt. Sinai...
What does that mean? How can sounds be seen? What do they look like?
Though every word in the Torah has been scrutinized and analyzed for generations, this description – provided in the context of the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai – seems particularly enigmatic.
The answer is certainly not obvious nor clear, and like any good Jewish question, it has been asked and answered in some very interesting ways across the ages.
Many understood it quite literally – the letters comprising the Ten Commandments themselves appeared in the air, for all to see.
Some took a bit of a more mind-bending approach, explaining – in various ways – how at that critical moment in the Jewish story, the Israelites were on a different physical and spiritual plain… All their senses merged together.
Still, other commentators rejected both of those explanations, instead opting for a more rational approach: the description was not to be understood literally. Just as someone who understands something might say, “I see,” so, too, did the Israelites “see” the commandments they were receiving.
Given the ambiguous nature of these particular words, it seems no wonder that artists over the centuries who wanted to draw the scene largely focused on concepts and imagery that would be a bit easier to convey.
Here are a few depictions from the National Library of Israel collections, ranging from the sublime to the (all but) ridiculous…
Let’s start with the sublime…
This gorgeous 15th century Italian prayer book shows Moses atop Mt. Sinai receiving a Torah scroll from Heaven. You have to give the artist credit for making efforts to show the sounds and shofar blasts referenced in the original text… those shofars are clearly blasting right down to Moses and all of the Israelites below!
Less colorful (and less Jewish) – though no less detailed – our next depiction comes from one of the first printed books to integrate images and text. Liber chronicarum, published in Nuremberg in 1493, is an historical encyclopedia printed in Latin and shortly thereafter in German.
Though depicting God is generally a “no-no” in Jewish sources, it was okay for the Christian artists who created this work, showing God Himself giving a horned Moses the Ten Commandments!
In a seeming contradiction to the Biblical text, Israelites are shown waiting for the Law rather patiently.
This one, which appeared in a work edited by an 18th century Jesuit missionary, features a crucified Jesus right next to Moses on Mt. Sinai! Also, check out the stairs going up the mountain. Eighty-year-old Moses surely would have appreciated those, even if they do kind of look like an MC Escher creation…
A similar one, printed in Russia in 1821, shows Moses literally being handed the Ten Commandments:
No hands of God in the next one, printed in 16th century Venice, though Moses does get horns (as opposed to rays of lights protruding from his head), and a nice cottage!
Moses on Mt. Sinai features in countless Christian maps, sometimes appearing as a geographical location within the map and sometimes as more of an artistic accent somewhere outside the boundaries of the map itself.
Here are a few examples, many of them featuring identical or very similar images alongside texts that have been translated into different languages.
Click on the link in each caption to see the full map and see if you can find Moses in the original!
And now for some Jewish renditions…
Here are the Ten Commandments appearing on Mt. Sinai. Notice that Moses doesn’t appear, perhaps due to the religious sentiments of the Jewish cartographer or his intended clientele.
Though there are some Jewish maps, such as the one by Joseph Schwarz appearing above, Haggadot are, of course, a much more common place to find Jewish art, and – in our case – depictions of Moses on Mt. Sinai.
This depiction, which includes a fence around Mt. Sinai as mentioned in the text, has an almost shtetl-like vibe to it, no?
A similar scene, with Moses apparently engulfed by clouds, appears in a different illustrated Haggadah produced a few years later by another renowned Jewish artist, Joseph ben David of Leipnik. It is likely that both of these images (as well as the last one featured in this article) were inspired by the 1695 printed Amsterdam Haggadah.
And now the illustration of Moses you may or may not have been waiting for…
From afar it looks like a similar scene and a decent enough rendition of Moses and the Giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
Yet as you look closer… something seems a bit off…
With all due respect to children, this illustration appearing in a priceless centuries-old Hebrew manuscript looks like… well… a second grade arts-and-crafts project?
Maybe even a self-portrait of an enraged elementary school student tearing up his homework?
Could something have gone wrong along the way?
The artist’s own child stepped in when Dad wasn’t looking?
Paint was running low?
An attempt at “post-modern” before there was even “modern”?
A botched restoration attempt?
We will never know, though maybe – like the sounds at Mt. Sinai, any good work of art and every Jewish text – we are all meant to see and appreciate this particular “revelation” at Mt. Sinai in our own way.
Many thanks to friends and colleagues Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Dr. Stefan Litt and Ayelet Rubin for their assistance.
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.
From Amsterdam to Persia: A World of Wine-Stained Haggadot
Four glasses of wine is a lot, are we really that surprised?
We urge you to please be as understanding as possible. There’s simply no need to rush to judgement here. Those gathered around the Passover Seder table are required by tradition to down four glasses of wine during the holiday meal. As fate would have it, over the course of the Seder, the wine contained in these glasses has been known to spill over onto tablecloths, dishes of food, nearby Seder guests, and even the cherished pages of our Passover reading material: the Haggadah.
Meet the manuscript known in Hebrew as Yom Geulat Avadim (“The Day of Redemption of Slaves”), completed in Persia in the year 1782 by the scribe David Shabtai. This is in fact a Passover Haggadah, containing a distinguishing feature: a series of mysterious stains, which only appear in its second part.
Why is only one section of the manuscript adorned with these stains? The answer likely has something to do with when the different sections were written. Pages 1-13 feature a different script as well as a different type of paper, which was mercifully not exposed to the staining liquid. This section was apparently added to the manuscript at a later stage. It contains a Hebrew piyyut, a liturgical hymn, beginning with the words “Yom geulat avadim”, and also includes a translation into Judeo-Persian.
Generally, when we encounter stained manuscripts, we tend to assume that they resulted from the ravages of time leaving their mark. But in this case, we have reason to believe that the stains are the result of wine spilled during a Passover Seder, as the stained section of the manuscript contains the Passover Haggadah. The work’s colophon states that these pages were copied by David Shabtai, while also adding an ominous warning – “The reader shall rejoice and the thief shall be erased” (“הקורא ישמח והגונב ימח”).
The second stained manuscript we will present here, inscribed in Amsterdam in 1712, also has its stains on the “right” pages. In the case of this Haggadah, the wine stains show up on the very pages which instruct readers to drink from their glasses. True, we haven’t gone to the trouble of sending the Haggadah to a lab to confirm the molecular structure of the liquid we suspect to be wine, but we feel the evidence is quite convincing. The stains naturally re-appear in the section recalling the ten plagues of Egypt, whose reading is accompanied by the traditional dipping of the finger into one’s wine glass. That’s all the confirmation we need.
It seems that four glasses were more than enough for one reader, as a huge wine stain also covers an entire page containing part of the classic Passover song Dayenu.
Ten copies of this edition of the Haggadah came to the National Library of Israel with the deposit of the Valmadonna Trust Collection in 2017. Of these ten Haggadot, the Library decided to digitize the wine-stained copy, as a souvenir of an especially festive Passover Seder held long ago.
The practice of spilling wine during the Seder has endured over time, of course, with our next piece of evidence dating to 1946 – a Haggadah published in the Land of Israel, towards the end of the British Mandate period.
Here we see that the Jewish pioneers of the pre-state era were just as careless and ill-disciplined as their ancestors in the Diaspora, if not worse! In fact, wine stains can be found on nearly every page of this Haggadah, with no connection whatsoever to written instructions regarding wine-consumption. It seems these people enjoyed their holidays.
While this is the most recent example we were able to find in the National Library catalog, we have reason to believe that this custom is still going strong today. Wishing you a very happy Passover from the National Library of Israel!