Symbols – The Menorah as a Jewish Symbol

The menorah (candelabra) from the Temple serves as a Jewish symbol. The chanukiya, which symbolizes the menorah and the Chanukah miracle, has itself acquired the status of a Jewish symbol. We will study the menorah and the subject of symbols: we will consider what a symbol is, become familiar with some Jewish symbols, and study their meaning.

Resource Ages: 6-8, 9-11


Mosaic floor from the Ancient Synagogue in Jericho, 7th century (copy).

Photo: Dr. Avishai Taicher

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How are symbols used in celebrations and holidays?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How do symbols shape and influence culture?
  •  What is the meaning of the menorah as a Jewish symbol?

Background for Teacher

A symbol is a representation that expresses a particular idea or concept, usually in a visual manner, such as a picture. However, a person, an event, and even a sound can also serve as a symbol. A symbol has meaning and value that go...

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A symbol is a representation that expresses a particular idea or concept, usually in a visual manner, such as a picture. However, a person, an event, and even a sound can also serve as a symbol. A symbol has meaning and value that go beyond its actual content. Sometimes a connection can be seen between the symbol and the idea it represents, such as a “stop” sign showing a hand stopping the traffic. Symbols represent religions, organizations, nations, cultural ideas, and social conventions and maintain a close affinity with the social awareness of groups. Symbols may encourage social cohesion and communication, express an idea in a concise manner, arouse emotions, and so forth. A symbol gains meaning the more it is used over the course of time, and the contexts in which it is expressed expand.

There are many symbols in Jewish tradition. Some represent Judaism as a whole, while others represent specific themes or ideas within the Jewish world. Examples of Jewish symbols include the star of David, menorah, tablets of the Law (luchot habrit), lion, the “chamsa” palm symbol, and others. The menorah, which was used in the Temple to light candles in the morning and in the evening, symbolizes the Temple and has served as a Jewish symbol for centuries, since the First Temple period. Images of the menorah can be found on art objects, ritual items, synagogues, and graves, and on the emblems of Jewish groups. Today the menorah is also a symbol of the State of Israel, after it was chosen to appear on the state emblem. The form of the menorah that appears on the state emblem is the menorah from the Arch of Titus, as part of a relief depicting the looting of the Temple treasures. Thus the menorah in the state emblem also symbolizes the return from exile and Jewish revival.

Despite the similarity between the menorah and the chanukiya, they are different. The Temple menorah was made from a single piece of gold and had seven branches. The chanukiya, which symbolizes the Chanukah miracle when the menorah was lit, has nine branches – eight for the eight days of the festival, and a ninth branch for the shamash (which lights the other candles). The chanukiya is a ritual object used in the home, whereas there was only one menorah. The chanukiya can be used from any material suitable for holding lit candles. Sometimes the chanukiya is designed to imitate the appearance of the menorah, but this is not a requirement. The chanukiya symbolizes both the miracle of the tin of oil that lit the menorah in the Temple for eight days and the victory of the Maccabees and the introduction of the festival of Chanukah in their honor. 

The picture here shows a copy of the mosaic floor at the ancient Shalom al Yisrael Synagogue in Jericho, which dates to the seventh century. Various Jewish symbols can be seen in the mosaic – a menorah in the center, a shofar to its right, a lulav to its left, and underneath the inscription Shalom al Yisrael – Peace on Israel.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Show the class the picture of nine familiar symbols. Divide the class into pairs. Read out the definition of each symbol, without mentioning its name. Each pair writes the number of the symbol on a piece of paper, holds it up, and says “stop!” The first pair to hold up a piece of paper wins a point. We suggest that each pair prepare 5 pieces of paper in advance, on which they will be able to write the answers, using both sides.
    When defining each symbol, refer to an aspect that also refers to the idea behind the symbol. Suggestions:

The Olympic symbol – represents five values that form the foundation of victory in sport.

The Apple logo – the form of the logo is connected to the name of the company, and to the fact that the word “bite” in English sounds like byte, a concept from the world of computing.

The emblem/symbol of the State of Israel the form is based on ancient Jewish symbols.

The Nike logo – represents movement in sport.

The Amazon logo – represents the idea that they supply everything from A to Z.

Fed-Ex logo – the arrow between two of the letters alludes to the movement and speed the company seeks to embody.

Stop sign – depicts the movement people make with their body.

European Union symbol – like the number of hours on the clock and months in the year, 12 represents precision and completeness.

The Windows logo – the shape is reminiscent of the company’s name.

Summing up, ask: what is a symbol? What role do symbols play in human culture and communication? How do symbols arouse emotions? How do symbols help connect the individuals in a group?

The students can refer to the symbols in the activity as they give their answers.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. Look at the photograph. What symbols can you identify in the mosaic?
  2. When we say that the menorah is a symbol of the Temple, what do we mean?
  3. The Menorah is one of many Jewish symbols. Why do you think Judaism needs symbols? What do these symbols give to the Jewish people?
  4. What other Jewish symbols are there, and how do you interpret their meaning?
  5. Do you know any groups or organizations that use the image of the menorah in their emblem? Give details.
  6. The emblem of the State of Israel also includes the menorah. Why do you think the menorah was chosen as the state emblem?
  7. What other Jewish symbols do you know? What do they represent? Where do they appear? What do the symbols mean to you? (You can give examples: magen david, tablets of the law, kippah, shema yisrael, etc.)
  8. What is the connection between the menorah and the chanukiya? What are the similarities and differences between the two?
  • You can show the students a presentation with pictures of various menorot, including pictures of emblems that use the image of the menorah.
  • Ask the students to design an emblem for the Jewish people; it can be based on existing Jewish symbols, among other elements.
  • For older students: look at the emblem of the State of Israel and identify the different components. Explain the connection between the menorah on  the Arch of Titus and the menorah in the state emblem. You can use this information.
  • To learn more about symbols in Jewish holidays use this template.
  • Learn about the symbols of light and darkness relating to Chanukah through the resource about Light and Darkness.
  • Learn about the miracle of the tin of oil and what the chanukiya represents through the units The Story of Chanukah and Chanukah Candles.
  • Learn about the Shabbat Candles as a symbol of the arrival of Shabbat.
  • Research project: Photograph chanukiyot in your home or look for pictures online. What materials are they made of? What is their shape? What decorations do they feature – do these include Jewish symbols? Are they similar to the menorah in the Temple? What makes each chanukiya special and what do they share in common?