Israel's official menorah held to be pagan in origin

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 18, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- What could be more Jewish than Israel's menorah?

Something less pagan, perhaps, according to some Jewish scholars.

The seven-branch candelabrum has been taking a beating lately for its use, and alleged misuse, in Israel.

The menorah symbolized on Israel's shekel and printed on all official letterheads is a bit of a fraud, contends Professor Daniel Sperber, former dean of the faculty of Basic Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

"It's a historical mistake," he said.

It seems the base of the menorah used in Israel is copied from an arch in Rome built two millenniums ago, which in turn was most likely copied from a temple in southern Turkey built for the worship of Zeus, the Greek god of the heavens.

The original source included dragons with twisted, long necks, mounted by beautiful, naked nymphs. On the modern menorah, the dragons survive, but the nymphs have been banished in the name of religious modesty.

The solid base is nothing like that described in the Exodus book of the Bible, a three-legged stand decorated with flowers and buttons, not monsters and beauties.

"What we have here is something that is not really Jewish," the professor said. "It is really part forgery."

He argues that the Israel government should disinherit the flawed emblem it adopted in 1949 and gradually change over its official symbol to one that is historically accurate.

"We really should have a symbol that is authentically Jewish and follows the Biblical description," he said. "I think when you chose a state symbol you should be a purist."

The trail of the mistake is an interesting one. The modern menorah was taken from a scene on the stone face of the Arch of Titus, built in Rome in the year 81.

The arch celebrates the Roman victory over the Jews 11 years earlier, and its scenes show Jews being led to captivity and their treasures -- including a menorah -- being taken away from the ransacked Jewish temple.

But Professor Sperber theorizes that the fragile base of the candelabrum was broken off in an earlier ransacking. The workmen hired by Herod to rebuild the Jewish temple envisioned a new base and copied unusual dragon images they had likely seen on a structure called the Temple of Didyma in Turkey.

That design turned up on the Arch of Titus and, through the years, became incorporated in the symbol of Jewishness. It is inlaid in mosaic floors, worked into walls, doors and the latticework of synagogues. It decorates glasses and is a popular paper cut-out in Jewish elementary schools.

Despite its popular acceptance, the present menorah is an affront to Jews, Professor Sperber argues.

"The people who are aware of it will see something that is symbolic of a society ignorant of its sources, divorced from its sources," he said.

"I couldn't disagree more," retorts Professor Dan Barag, a Hebrew University archaeologist, who sees nothing wrong with the government menorah. "The menorah is the most meaningful symbol that Judaism has created.

"It symbolizes the resurrection, the coming of the Messiah. Jews hold it in their hands and say the Messiah will come."

But Professor Barag has his own complaints about Israel's use of the symbol. He recently protested the issue of an Israeli postage stamp with a picture of an ancient oil lamp.

In the well of the lamp is the etching of a menorah. But Professor Barag is miffed that the position of the lamp on the stamp seems to put the menorah on its side.

"I think it's wrong. It's the emblem of the state," argued the professor, who is a curator of ancient coins and stamps.

"There would be a public outcry if you printed a stamp in England with the head of the monarch on her side," he said.

Yinon Beilin, head of Israel's Philatelic Service, is unimpressed with the complaint: "They are dealing with an issue that is totally marginal. It has no significance."

Professor Sperber expects little luck getting the base of the menorah changed, and Professor Barag was equally resigned to the lack of public response for his demand that the stamp be recalled.

"What had the proportion of becoming a major political scandal passed without much notice," Mr. Barag sighed.

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