Hanukkah’s botanical link to Israel's past

The moriah plant, shaped like the menorah, releases its fragrance in the heat of the day.

 SALVIA, A member of the sage family.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
SALVIA, A member of the sage family.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It is winter in Jerusalem. The Hebrew month of Kislev usually falls in late December. Tiny candles are burning in nine-branched candelabra on balconies and window ledges throughout the city as Jews celebrate Hanukkah. They are commemorating the victory of the Maccabees over the Selucid Greeks and the purification of the Temple in the year 165 BCE.

The tradition of lighting eight candles in the hannukiah stems from the miracle of finding a single cruse of undefiled olive oil in the Temple, which burned for eight days until more pure oil could be prepared for the newly rededicated Temple.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, it was prohibited to make replicas of the Temple’s seven-branched menorah. Thus the hannukiot of today have eight branches, plus a shamash.

The first menorah, the one in the Tabernacle created in the Sinai wilderness, is explicitly described in two places in Exodus, chapters 25:31-38 and 37:17-24. We are told that Bezalel, the outstanding craftsman who made all the vessels for the Tabernacle, made the menorah of pure gold. The stem and branches were of beaten work, and its calyxes, knobs and flowers were of one piece. There were six branches stemming from its sides, and each branch bore almond-shaped calyxes with knob and flower.

The description makes striking use of botanical terms. The late Hannah and Ephraim Hareuveni – founders of the Museum of Biblical and Talmudic Botany at the first campus of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, which was tragically destroyed in the War of Independence in 1948 – set out to search the fields of Israel for plants whose shape was reflected in the biblical description of the menorah. They found in Israel, from the Sinai desert to the mountains of Lebanon, several species of a fragrant plant with shape and characteristics of the biblical menorah. These fall into the genus Salvia, a member of the sage family.

 A HANUKKAH MENORAH on display at the Western Wall. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) A HANUKKAH MENORAH on display at the Western Wall. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

In Hebrew, we call it moriah. It has branches stemming from its sides: three branches from one side and three from the other, exactly as described in Exodus. The leaves below each pair of branches are described in the Bible as designed like a kaftor, often translated as calyx – from Greek kalyx – or knob.

The Temple menorah stood in the south of the Temple and represented the prayer for a successful olive crop, the oil of which burned continually. It was a constant light and also a symbol of vigilant prayer. The burning of fragrant incense was always combined with lighting the lamps of the menorah:

 “On it (the altar) Aaron shall burn fragrant incense; every morning when he tends

 the lamps, he shall burn the incense, and when he lights the lamps between dusk

 and dark, he shall burn the incense; so there shall be a perpetual burning of incense before the Lord for all your generations.” (Exodus 30:7-8)

The moriah plant, shaped like the menorah, releases its fragrance in the heat of the day.

Light and fragrance in nature were brought together by the Creator, just as in the havdalah prayer at the end of Shabbat, just as the lamps and scent of incense were brought together in the Temple, where the menorah was lit with “pure oil of pounded olives.”

When Jews the world over celebrate Hanukkah and light their nine-branched candelabra, we are doing more than commemorating the Maccabees’ liberation of Jerusalem. We are also recalling the Temple menorah, linked with the moriah plants growing all over Israel, from Sinai to Mount Hermon.

Israel’s emblem, the menorah with an olive branch on each side of it, is the symbol of our return to our homeland in the hope of rebuilding it in the light of peace. And the tiny candles burning bright proclaim to the world in these difficult times, that our light will never be extinguished. 

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. [email protected]