As we learn of the mitzvah to light the menorah in this week’s parsha, it seems a fitting time to examine the practice of writing chapter 67 of Tehillim in the shape of a menorah. This will be familiar to many from the design of “Shiviti” or “Mizrach” wall hangings or in the pages of many Sephardi siddurim, usually around Mincha. Many Ashkenazi siddurim include this image alongside the counting of the Omer, because there are 49 words in the chapter (after the opening verse) and 49 letters down the central column of the diagram.
Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, the Rokeach, wrote a brief essay called Yirat El explaining this symbol, probably around the beginning of the 13th century. This very obscure text is attributed by some scholars to the Ramban, who lived and worked at about the same time. In general, the style and content of the essay seems more consistent with the Rokeach’s work than that of the Ramban, so that attribution is credible. The text is rooted in Jewish mysticism and esoterica and is rather difficult to understand. While ostensibly written to explain the connection between the menorah and the aforementioned mizmor of Tehillim, it contains valuable insights into the hidden meaning of the menorah itself. We will attempt to discover at least a few of those insights here.
The author of the essay asserts that David HaMelech had this mizmor in the shape of a menorah inscribed on his shield that he carried into war, and his enemies fled before him. Certainly this is consistent with the pervasive theme of the mizmor – the acknowledgement by all the nations of the world of the kingship of Hashem. According to this particular text, the correct manner of writing the mizmor in the shape of the menorah is with the first verses on the right side of the central column and the last verses to the left. It is common for students of the Arizal and especially the Rashash to reverse this configuration, so that is commonly how it is depicted in Sefardic and Chassidic siddurim since the late Middle Ages. However, our text predates these changes by several hundred years, so by virtue of its antiquity alone it seems the former arrangement of the verses should be the preferred practice.
The central column is always the same, and the first verse is written atop the branches of the menorah, in the form of flames emerging from their cups. The central column represents Shabbat, on which the other six days of creation depend. It is also the Shabbat in years, meaning the shemittah year, and in addition represents Yovel as it is comprised of the 49 letters signifying the years of a full shemittah cycle. This illustrates how in Jewish metaphysics everything branches off a central point, extending to the right and to the left. This is sometimes referred to as “the tree of life.” The illustrations of this principle vary depending on their context, but the basic premise remains the same: One G-d who created everything, and everything divided between two opposing extremes – judgment and mercy, right and left, male and female. The author of our essay explains how everything in the physical universe and the celestial realms is embodied in this single menorah, forming each of its arms as they radiate off of the center.
The menorah in the Mishkan represented the light of Divine Wisdom emanating into the physical universe, and this depiction of the menorah, attributed to David HaMelech himself, provides a more nuanced view of how this occurs in practice. For example, the outermost arms each consist of seven words. The right side represents time as ordained by Hashem – the seven planets in their circuits or seven days of the week. The left side is time as it is counted by Israel redeemed in our land – seven shemittah cycles that are followed by the Yovel. But as depicted in the diagram, the preceding years are not concluded by Yovel so much as they revolve around it.
In another example of this representation of the natural on one side and the supernatural on the other, the inner branches each have six words, for two pairs totaling twelve. On the right side are the 12 constellations that form the zodiac, also signifying the months of the solar year. On the left side are the tribes of Israel and, presumably, the months of the lunar Jewish year. All of these entities return us again to the central column, just as our Sages taught (Sanhedrin 97a) that the world of human beings will exist for six thousand years. At the conclusion of those six thousand years (but really at their inception as well – because all of creation exists in service of this ideal), the seventh thousand – the final redemption, the Shabbat of human existence – focuses all the light in the universe, just as the central flame in the menorah focuses all of the light in the Sanctuary.
When the Bait HaMikdash was standing, the windows of the Heichal were constructed in such a way that they carried the light out of the Sanctuary to the world rather than bringing the light of the sun inside. This is the light that radiated through and out of the menorah, and this is the light that David HaMelech attempted to depict when he wrote this mizmor in the shape of a menorah.