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The Physics Of Flame Combustion


Just because the miracle of Chanukah defied physics doesn’t mean illustrations and illuminations of the Temple and Tabernacle menorahs haven’t grappled with the physics of flame orientation.

An analysis of dozens of ancient and medieval depictions of menorahs reveals that although most artists conceived of flames in scientific terms—the flames “point” upward, as one would expect real world fire to do, absent factors like wind—some artists seem to have been influenced by Midrashic or rabbinic interpretations of the directions of the Tabernacle and Temple flames.

English biblical commentary. C. 1463. Fol. 048v. Lower part of page of Exodus. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

According to Midrashic and Talmudic sources (e.g. Menachot 86b and 98b), the central flame of the menorah (what we now call the Shamash) had special significance, while the Ner Ma’aravi (western lamp), which might have been the flame closest to the Holy of Holies, also carried unique symbolism and prominence.

Various rabbinic interpretations (e.g. Rashi) on Numbers 8:2 observe that the biblical mandate to orient the flames toward “mul p’nai ha-menorah”—loosely the “face” of the lamp—suggests that the six wicks ought to face the central wick, or as Rashi explains it, “toward the middle one, which is not of a branch of the menorah, but its body.”

So, it seems, there is rabbinic and biblical precedent for flames to face toward the central wick (which might face upward, without any reason to face any other flame). All this comes with the caveat that the western lamp (which may have been the second candle from the east, depending which orientation of the menorah one subscribes to: north-south or east-west) might face toward the Holy of Holies rather than to the center.

Synagogue of Hamat; floor mosaic. 4th century. Hamat, near Tiberias.

In light of this context, it is worth observing the configuration of menorah wicks in a mosaic on the floor of the fourth century synagogue in Chamat near Tverya (image one). The mosaic, which also features two lulavim, etrogim, shofarot, and shovels, interprets biblical verses literally when it represents parts of the arms of the menorahs as pomegranate shaped. And the flames emanating from the three arms of the lamps on either side all face the central bodies of the menorahs. The central wicks of each Menorah face opposite directions—but each points to the central architectural form: either a representation of the synagogue, Tabernacle, Temple, or the Holy of Holies of the Temple or Tabernacle.

If one examined the image from a literal perspective, one would likely assign the central architectural element to Solomon’s Temple, which was the only place to have multiple menorahs in residence. But whether it ought to be taken literally or metaphorically, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that the artist intended both of the menorahs’ central wicks to face the synagogue-Holy of Holies.

It’d be one thing to suggest that the wicks facing the central branch were an artistic device of parallel structure and symmetry and had nothing to do with religious symbolism—that’d be a fine argument to make, except that having the wicks face upward would also be symmetrical—but the mirror-image reversal of the central wicks certainly seems intentional.

The same move doesn’t occur in several other menorah interpretations. All the wicks in a Byzantine mosaic (sixth century) at Chulda, which also represents a shofar, lulav, etrog, and incense shovel and features a Greek inscription, “Praise to the people,” seem to point upward.

The menorah wicks also point upward in a drawing engraved into plaster on a lime floor in a first century house in Jerusalem (Israel Museum), as well as in several other manuscripts.

French Bible. Part I: Genesis to Ecclesiastes. 14th century. Fol. 049v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. MS. Bodl. 251.

A visual device that appears in a 19th century Mizrach (East) decoration—also in the collection of the Israel Museum—represents an interesting interpretation of the flames. The same move surfaces in a 14th century French Bible (image two), which is also in the collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The flames in these menorahs resemble hands, with multiple “fingers” reaching out in different directions. The “hands” actually resemble floral elements (or bells, or fleurs-de-lis) on the body of the menorah.

While it’s difficult to sustain the argument that the flames face the center, or even if some of the “fingers” face the center that the artist intended them to carry the kind of symbolism discussed above, it is a noteworthy depiction of the flames, in that they are represented as disjointed, rather than unified. Anyone who has watched flame carefully knows that there is tension in the “paths” that flame takes in space. Even if this artist had no Midrashic or Talmudic texts in mind, it’s worth pondering the possibility of wicks both facing the center and a more naturalistic or scientific trajectory simultaneously.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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One Response to “The Physics Of Flame Combustion”

  1. Irwin Ruff says:

    One difficulty with the author’s interpretation is that illustrations are being discussed, and the flames are drawn as the artist preferred. The flames are drawn AS IF candles were being burned (i.e., the flame is rising from the center of the arm, even if they are then distorted). A reading of the pertinent sections of the Chumash, however, indicates that LAMPS were the source of the light. A lamp consisted of a bowl, probably open at the time of the first Temple, mostly closed on top later, filled with oil, and with a wick extending from one side of the lamp (the lamp was never completely round, but usually at least elongated, with a “spout” at one of the narrow points which held the wick). The wick was the only element that was burning. The flame was thus only at one direction relative to the cup of the menorah, and could therefor be oriented in any direction: toward the center arm or to the Holy of Holies. It is possible that the artists did not fully understand the geometry of the menorah.

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