When the Second Temple was destroyed, its menorah was said to have been taken to Rome. This is depicted, with the menorah being carried by Jewish slaves, in a carving on the inside of the Arch of Titus. (photo by Steerpike via Wikimedia Commons)
In the Temple of Jerusalem stood a seven-branched candelabrum or menorah, which was lit each day by the high priest. There were also other candelabra for ornamental purposes. When Antiochus removed the Temple menorah, Judah Maccabee had a duplicate built – called a candlestick with lamps upon it, in one Apocrypha translation – and he lit it, although there is no mention of oil to light it.
When the Second Temple was destroyed, its menorah was said to have been taken to Rome. This is depicted, with the menorah being carried by Jewish slaves, in a carving on the inside of the Arch of Titus.
Lighting a chanukiyah, or eight-branched candelabrum with one to serve as the shamash (one who lights the others), is a popular Chanukah custom. Originally, eight individual ceramic or stone lamps with wicks were lit with olive oil. Jews from Yemen and Morocco also used rough stone lamps with scooped-out places for the wicks and the higher one for the shamash.
At some point, people began the custom of hanging their lamps on the left side of the door, opposite the mezuzah, because Jews were commanded to affirm the miracle in public. When it became dangerous to display the chanukiyah out of doors, people began lighting them inside the house, frequently placing them by a window.
A wide variety of those chanukiyot, in diverse decorative styles and materials, have been preserved throughout the years.
As early as the 12th century, replicas of the Chanukah menorah, with the two additional branches, were found in synagogues, so that poor people and strangers could still benefit from lighting. Eventually, this design was used for home chanukiyot, but some people criticized the custom of lighting in the home. As well, discussions ensued about on which wall to place the synagogue chanukiyah – by the 16th century, lighting the candelabra in the synagogue became established as an addition to lighting one at home.
According to Michael Kaniel in A Guide to Jewish Art, in Morocco in the 11th century, the chanukiyah was the most widely used ritual object. They were made with a wide variety of materials: gold, silver, brass, bronze, iron, lead, glass, wood, glazed ceramics, terra cotta, bone, pomegranate shells, walnut shells and bark. Then, the brass style became popular, with North African Arab designs of flowers, foliage, fruits and animals. Those from Iraq often used the hamsa, the open hand symbol against the evil eye.
Chanukiyot dating back to 13th-century Spain and southern France display a straight row of holders with a back plate. One can also find chanukiyot made of bronze from the time of the Renaissance (14th century), depicting Judith with the head of Holofernes, who she killed, thereby saving her people, but that’s a story for another time.
European chanukiyot, mostly after the 17th century, were made in brass with animals symbolic of Jewish folk art. Later on, they appear in silver and were commissioned from silversmiths; European artisans often created chanukiyot from silver, using plant designs.
An 18th-century lamp from Germany depicts the prayers for lighting the candles. A 19th-century lamp, either from Libya or Morocco, is made of ceramics. Twentieth-century designs in Morocco were of silver and used animals and plants in the design.
Originally, wicks and oil were used, but, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many people replaced these with candles. Traditional Jews, particularly in Jerusalem, still use wicks and oil and hang the chanukiyah outside the house in a glass-enclosed container.
Electric chanukiyot atop public buildings are also customary in Israel as are home-style chanukiyot of all varieties, displayed in stores, offices and public places.
The primary rule for a “kosher” chanukiyah is that all eight holders should be at the same level, with the shamash placed higher than the others.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads walks in English in Jerusalem’s market.