When Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the new Jewish state needed an official emblem by which to demonstrate its sovereignty to the world. Toward that end, Minhelet Ha’am (the Provisional Council of State) announced a competition three weeks later seeking proposals from Israel’s graphic designers.
The winning proposal, which was chosen from among 450 designs submitted by 164 participants, incorporated as its central theme an iconic representation of the menorah carved in relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome. However, the council rejected the design and appointed an Emblem and Flag Committee, whose members included cabinet ministers, Knesset members, and experts from various fields, including the famous painter Reuven Rubin and renowned archaeologist Eliezer Sukenik.
This time, the committee solicited ideas from the broader public, and the results yielded a wide variety of decorative elements, such as a lulav, a shofar, Shabbat candles, two doves, and the Lion of Judah. But almost all incorporated a menorah, which had served as a uniquely Jewish symbol for millennia, as a central motif.
The genesis of the design approved by the committee was a proposal by the Shamir brothers, Israeli graphic artists renowned for designing Israeli stamps and currency notes, in which the menorah is flanked on each side by a branch and olive leaves.
In a February 16, 1949 interview, Gavriel Shamir explained the conception of their design:
After we decided to use the menorah, we looked for another element and concluded that olive branches are the most beautiful expression of the Jewish people’s love of peace. The leaves are also a very decorative element. Now we faced the question of which menorah to use…. We decided on a stylized version rather than an ancient form. Our intention was to create a modern emblem, without Jewish traditional symbols. We told ourselves that the menorah itself is an ancient symbol and its very presence on the seal constitutes a traditional element. But its shape should be modern.
However, the committee, uncomfortable with the modernity of the stylized menorah, instructed the Shamirs to prepare a revised version adopting the Titus menorah. Many, including particularly Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, vociferously objected to the use of this design because the menorah, which the Romans proudly paraded as the ultimate symbol of Jewish defeat and degradation, represented the expulsion of the Jews from Eretz Yisrael and the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.
But the members of the committee and the Provisional Council, which both unanimously adopted the design, all believed the use of the Titus menorah would serve as an important metaphor for the rebirth of Israel: that after itself joining the Jews in exile, the menorah would now stand as testimony to the ultimate victory and eternal survival of the Jewish people.
This approach may perhaps best be illustrated by a story told of Rav Yosef Kahaneman, the Ponovezher Rav, who, upon his arrival in Rome immediately rushed to the Arch of Titus and, after staring at it for some time, shouted into the cold night:
“Titus! Evil Titus! Take a good look at what has occurred. You dragged my hapless people out of our land two millennia ago and led them into an exile from which they were never to return. You went home to Rome – the most powerful nation on earth – in glory and triumph. But Titus, where are you? What has become of the glory that was Rome? What has become of the infallible empire that was supposed to last forever? The Jewish people however are still here and continue to flourish. Yes, we are still here, but where are you?”
Shown here is a postcard issued for Israel’s first anniversary, in May 1949, which incorporates the recently adopted official national emblem of Israel. Also displaying the national emblem is a beautiful Israeli stamp issued in honor of Israel’s 7th anniversary, which I have placed next to the card.
Because the ultimate design does not seem to reflect religious practice or belief – no verses from the Torah, no reference to the God of Israel – many argue that the secularists/socialists prevailed over the religious/observant. In fact, however, the national emblem reflects one of the great mystical visions of the Prophet Zechariah, and the graphic combination of the menorah and olive branches has its genesis in Zechariah 4:1-3:
And the angel that spoke with me returned, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep. And he said unto me: “What do you see?” And I said: “I have seen and, behold, a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and its seven lamps thereon; there are seven pipes, yes, seven, to the lamps, which are upon the top thereof, and two olive-trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof.”
Thus, the ultimate symbol of modern Israel, incorporating three simple elements – menorah, olive branches, and Israel – effectively reflects both the grandeur of Jewish history and Herzl’s dream of a contemporary Jewish state.
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As noted by Israeli historian and art scholar Alec Mishory, it is impossible to know the true form of the menorah actually used in the Beit HaMikdash because ancient depictions, which appear on coins, on decorated glass, in catacomb frescoes, and on the walls and mosaic floors of synagogues, are inconsistent. The most significant difference between the Titus Arch and what is seen on the mosaic floors of ancient synagogues in Eretz Yisrael is the base: on the Arch, the seven branches rest on a stepped polygonal base, while the synagogues depict a tripod-like base. The oldest extant image of the menorah – which appears on coins minted in 37 BCE (just over 100 years before the arrival of the menorah in Rome) by King Antigonus II Mattathias, the last of the Hasmonean kings – only adds to the confusion: While the menorah presents a flat base rather than a tripod base, it has only a single level rather than the two-tiered base shown on the Titus Arch.
These various ancient depictions of the menorah in various milieus also differ from descriptions in the Torah. In the extraordinary December 9, 1973 correspondence (shown below) to Shaul Hon on his Chief Rabbi letterhead, Rav Shlomo Goren discusses the differences between the State Menorah and the menorah in the Beit HaMikdash:
I received your correspondence along with the photocopy of the article in Maariv for Youth that deals with the differences between the menorah in the Mikdash and the State Menorah. Your theory is interesting, but I don’t know how it can stand in the face of halachic sources and texts. From the sources we learn that all ten menorahs of Shlomo [King Solomon] stood in the heichal [hall] and not “in the street outside, where the people gathered,” as is explained in the text itself in Divrei Hayamim, 2:4, “And he made the ten Golden Menorahs in accordance with the law and he placed them in the heichal, five to the right and five to the left.”
And in Talmud Menachot, page 98, side B, and also page 99, side A, the devir [inner sanctum] that is described in Seder Melachim is the mechitzah [wall of separation] that divides between the Kodesh Hakadashim [the Holy of Holies] and the heichal, as is explained in Rashi to [Tractate] Yoma, page 52, side B. And the front of the devir facing the heichal was also the place for the menorah of Moshe Rabbeinu, and for the shulchan [table] and the mizbeach hazahav [golden altar].
In my opinion, it is worthwhile to investigate the subject of the form of the menorah in light of artistic representations of the menorah that we find in mosaic tiles in the floors of various ancient synagogues through the land; according to my best recollection, the vast majority of these depictions show them with three legs, as per halacha, but there are some places where the menorah is shown without legs, which does not exactly match the depiction of the menorah that is displayed on the Titus Arch in Rome.
Your work stirs much original thought on this subject, and it is worthy of contemplation and serious investigation. May your strength remain for Torah.
Rav Shlomo Goren (1917 – 1994) is perhaps best known for serving as Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and as Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel; for organizing the formal military chaplaincy in the Israeli army; and for designing and implementing the rules and regulations for total religious observance in the Israeli armed forces.
The far less known, but nonetheless remarkable, Shaul Hon (1921 – 2009) was a true renaissance man, earning degrees from Hebrew University in nine different fields, including biblical studies, art history, linguistics, and law. He was Ma’ariv’s resident reporter for chess and for law and archeology, a truly unique combination. He wrote at least 15 books, eleven about chess, and authored hundreds of articles, columns, and investigative reports on various subjects, from literature and law to art history.