Plants of the Bible: The Tabernacle Menorah

פורסם: August 1st, 2010 | עודכן: 17/01/15


As a native of this country, where many of the events related in the Bible took place, the plants of the Bible have attracted my attention for a long time. My love of chapters or proverbs in the Bible evidently infiltrated into my soul, influenced by my parents’ home and through the schools I studied in, arriving at its climax when I was fortunate enough to hear about these chapters and proverbs directly from Nogah Hareuveni, my army commander. He trained us as instructors in “Field Education” for soldiers in field units in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). I looked at natural phenomena mentioned in the Bible, and often felt moments of “coming full circle.” The understanding of proverbs, based on understanding their natural history components, gave me an inner joy. Thus, reading the proverb: “and thorns shall come up in her palaces” (Isaiah 34:13), and standing in a [Sarcopoterium spinosum] batha in the Judean mountains or in the Galilee, makes me happy. I sometimes see in my mind “snapshots” from the complicated sequence of events that took place, from the abandonment of the palace, its break-down to stones and soil, and the thorny shrubs of [Sarcopoterium spinosum] pushing aside the annual plants growing in the site. I have lived for the last 70 years in the city where many events mentioned in the Bible took place. In Jerusalem, I have found in my childhood ancient coins made by the kings of my people more than 2,000 years ago. I look at the same plant species my forefathers saw here and keep them in my mind as “living artifacts” from archaeological excavations. Nature continues to play its music here while the number of listeners and those who understand it decreases.
In the following chapter I will present my views as influenced by those who taught me, but which became fixed through my own perception. I shall try to combine explanations derived from my knowledge of plant life and its environment in Israel.

Part 1. The Tabernacle Menorah

We read in the Bible (Exodus 37:17-24; translated by H. Frankley in Hareuveni 1988): “He (Betzalel) made the menorah from pure gold… There were six branches stemming from its sides: three branches of the menorah branched from one side and three branches from the other side. There were also three almond-shaped calyces with knob and flower on the first branch… and similarly for all six branches stemming from the menorah. On the main stem of the menorah there were four almond-shaped calyces, its knobs and its flowers, a knob under two of its branches, and a knob under two of its branches, and a knob under two of its branches, according to the six branches going out of it, under the six branches which stemmed from the menorah…”

The words used in the Bible to describe the menorah and also in botany for describing plant parts are marked above in bold print. In my text I follow the approach and view-point of the Hareuveni family (Efrayim, Hanna, and their son Nogah), as written in their articles and books. I look upon this chapter as a memorial candle to their blessed memory. The text in Exodus draws a quite accurate description of the menorah (Fig. 14.1.1), a description that agrees well with that of a plant (Figs. 14.1.2, 14.1.3): “and three branches of the menorah branched from one side and three branches from the other side.”

[Salvia palaestina] is selected as a [Salvia] species closest in its structure to the menorah. The six branches stem from the central axis (Fig. 14.1.4) which is termed in the Bible as “menorah.” Knobs and flowers are mentioned in the description of the branches; they are also related to the genus [Salvia], as we’ll see later. An additional description is drawn in a rather special way: “there were four almond-shaped calyces, its knobs and its flowers, a knob under two of its branches, and a knob under two of its branches, and a knob under two of its branches, according to the six branches going out of it.” I usually read this paragraph in front of the Salvia menorah and show the pairs of stem leaves from the axiles of which the six branches stem (Fig. 14.1.4). There are pairs of similar bracts along the branches (Fig. 14.1.5). These bract pairs are echoed clearly in Jewish art. There are many lines of similarity between the seven branched menorah and the Hanukah candlesticks (menorah with nine branches) that are regarded as typical of North African Jewry (Fig. 14.1.6, 14.1.7).

The [Salvia] branches stem alternately, two going left and right and the two above them forward and backward. In order to have all the six branches on one plane, the central axis of the plant has to be twisted a bit. The branches of the North African Hanukiot have a mobile axis and one can turn them 900 to become like the plant, having branches turning right and left or forward and backward (Fig. 14.1.7). The pairs of decoration on the Hanukia branches (Fig. 14.1.8) perfectly resemble the pairs of bracts on [Salvia palaestina] branches (Fig. 14.1.15).

Fig. 14.1.1: The seven branched menorah in a synagogue mosaic discovered at Ma’oz-Hayyim.

Fig. 14.1.2: Salvia palaestina in Jerusalem.

Fig. 14.1.3: A close-up of the flowering branch displaying the bracts.

Fig. 14.1.4: A Salvia plant with its central Menorah stem twisted so that the six branches are in one plane.

Fig. 14.1.5: The tip of a branch with typical bracts.

Fig. 14.1.6: A typical North African Hanukkah Menorah. Branches decorated with bract-shaped elements resembling those of Salvia palaestina.

Fig. 14.1.7: The branches of the North African Hanukkah Menorah are hinged. It is possible to move the branches to their position as in the original Salvia plant.

Fig. 14.1.8: A close up of the Hanukkah Menorah branches with the “bracts decoration.”

The emblem of Israel and the knobs

Titus’ Arch of Triumph is situated in the Forum Romanum, in Rome (Fig. 14.1.9). The Temple’s menorah (candelabrum) and other holy items were taken from the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus and his soldiers. These are displayed on the Arch (Fig. 14.1.10, 14.1.11). The menorah from Rome became the emblem of the state of Israel. There is a close resemblance between the menorah found recently in Magdala (Fig. 14.1.12) and that of Titus’ Arch in Rome. In his book “The Emblem of the State of Israel” (Hareuveni 1988) the author quotes his father’s article (E. Hareuveni, Leshonenu, 1928) on the identity of the term “knob and flower.” The source is a proverb in the Gemara (Menahot, 28: 2) mentioning a tradition according to which: “knobs – how do they look? – like a kind of Cretan apples.”

I learnt about this from Nogah, in preparation for teaching soldiers how to eat the young galls developing at the top of [Salvia fruticosa] stems. The galls are formed at the tips of young branches in the spring. Small wasps lay their eggs in the tips and the plant creates a special organ around them where the young wasps are hidden and can receive nourishment and develop to maturity. By forming these galls the plant decreases the damage to a small, specific part of its body. The gall of every species has a typical shape, and may be used as a diagnostic character. In Salvia fruticosa it resembles a small apple with a group of leaves (Figs. 14.1.13, 14.1.14). The top of each “common apple” (the cultivar developing on trees) also has a group of five calyx lobes.

Fig. 14.1.9: Forum Romanum in Rome with Titus’ Arch of Triumph.

Fig. 14.1.10: A relief from Titus’ Arch showing Roman soldiers in a triumphal procession in Rome. They are carrying the Temple Menorah (which became the emblem of the State of Israel) and additional sacred objects, looted from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Fig. 14.1.11: A relief of the seven-branched Menorah after several components were lost as a result of prolonged weathering.

Fig. 14.1.12: A relief of the seven-branched Menorah from Magdala, the archaeological dig near Migdal; from the first century C.E.

Fig. 14.1.13: A gall resembling a hairy apple at the top of a Salvia fruticosa stem. The hole below the leaves is formed by the adult wasp escaping from the gall.

Fig. 14.1.14: Galls at the tips of Salvia fruticosa branches.