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Rothschild Pentateuch

This image is a color illustration on a folio of a manuscript. It shows a golden menorah that represents the original Golden Menorah lampstand that stood in the Second Temple.

Unknown; Joel ben Simeon Elijah ben Meshallum and Elijah ben Jehiel; Commentary by Rashi.
1296 CE
J. Paul Getty Museum

Unknown, Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment bound in maroon morocco, Ms. 116 (2018.43)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Acquired with the generous support of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Ms.116

The Golden Menorah was one of the most sacred objects in the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Fourteen centuries later, in 1296, an artist painted this representation of the Golden Menorah. The original Golden Menorah was a lampstand with seven branches and seven lamps. It was made out of pure gold. The lamps were lit in the Temple every day using pure olive oil. Josephus wrote only that the Jews lit the candles (meaning the lamps), but a later tradition added a miracle story. According to this legend, the Jewish priests needed pure oil (prepared by a special ritual) to light the menorah, but for the festival, they could find just one small jug with only enough oil to burn for one day. However, that little bit of oil burned for eight days, long enough to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. Is the origin of Hanukkah connected to the environment, the history of the Hebrews, or interactions with other people?

Modern Customs: The celebration of Hanukkah lasts for eight days. Jews remember the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting eight days by lighting candles and giving gifts. Families use a special menorah called a hanukkiah that has nine branches, one branch for each night and one for a helper candle, that is used to light the others. They light the helper candle and one branch candle on the first night, another on the second night, and then they light an additional candle each night. Finally, eight candles (plus the helper candle) are lit on the final night of the holiday. During Hanukkah families eat latkes (potato pancakes) and donuts, along with other oily foods, in honor of the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights. Because it is close to Christmas, Hanukkah has become a gift-giving holiday in the United States and some other countries.

The modern celebration of Hanukkah differs significantly from ancient customs. The location of the celebration has shifted from the Temple to the home and local synagogue. Jews stopped sacrificing, partially because the Second Temple was destroyed, and partially because rituals of worship shifted to prayer, moral behavior, and symbolic sacrifice, such as fasting or giving money to the local synagogue. (This shift took place in other religions as well, such as Hinduism.) The religious leaders changed from priests to rabbis. These changes happened over centuries, but they transformed the religion. Another point is that the customs are based not only on the history of Judas Maccabeus’s restoration of the Temple but also the legend of the Hanukkah miracle. This legend does not date back to 168 BCE. Rabbis recorded it in the Talmud (a collection of laws, customs, and legends) for the first time a few centuries after the historical events. Students should recognize the mixture of history that is supported by primary sources and stories that are added later in the modern customs.