An Herbal Menorah

Find fresh meaning in Hanukah’s historic herbs.


| December/January 2003



012-03-018-Menorah01.jpg

The menorah’s seven-branched candelabrum has been a symbol of the Jewish people for thousands of years. The image is recorded from the Sinai Desert to the Golan Heights, carved into rock walls, worked into mosaic designs on ancient synagogue floors and used as a motif on countless tombs and monuments throughout the Holy Land. At the holiday of Hanukah, a nine-branched candelabrum is lit on eight successive nights to mark the victory of a small group of Jewish insurgents over the Greeks for the people’s right to remain practicing Jews. The event traditionally is interpreted not so much as a military victory but as a moral one, a triumph of the Jewish spirit against all odds.

The only difference between the traditional, or Temple, menorah and that used for Hanukah is the increased number of lights from seven to nine, said to honor the prohibition against making replicas of the original Temple menorah. Authorities on biblical plants now agree with the suggestion put forth by Israeli scholar Nogah Hareuveni, in Nature in Our Biblical Heritage (Neot Kedumim, 1996), based upon research conducted by his parents, pointing to a species of salvia as the inspiration for the menorah. This species grows wild all over the area from the Sinai Desert to the mountains of Lebanon. The plants closely resemble the first menorah described in graphically botanical terms in two passages from the Book of Exodus: (Chapter 25:31-38; Chapter 37:17-24).

“He (Betzalel) made the menorah of pure gold. The menorah, its stem and its branches were of beaten work; its calyxes, its knobs, and its flowers were of one piece with it. There were six branches stemming from its sides: three branches of the menorah stemmed from one side and three branches from the other side.” (Exodus 37:17–18)

Tracing The Symbols

From passages in the Talmud (an ancient compilation of legal rulings, commentary and homilies), the elder Hareuvenis determined that the “knobs” referred to in the Exodus passage were a kind of Cretan apple. They were known as Cretan apples because one of the menorah sages, Salvia pomifera (especially prone to galls) is plentiful on the island of Crete, where its “apples” are relished as a delicacy. The knobs were not really apples at all, but swellings on the sage plant caused by the sting of wasps. While the galls do no great harm, they alter the plant’s growth. In the case of the salvias, this results in a slight deformity that echoes the biblical description of the menorah as having knobs or buds that grow directly out from the stem as though “of one piece with it.” In ancient times, these apples were an item of brisk trade between Cretans and Israelites, as suggested in the Hebrew word for knob, kaftor, also thought to be the ancient name for Crete. But the story doesn’t end here.

In 1978, while attending a conference in Crete, Professor Avinoam Danin, a leading expert on Middle Eastern flora, visited a small herb and spice shop where he saw bags labeled “sage” and asked for some with “apples,” whereupon he received a branch of sage with a dried gall at its tip. These, his colleagues told him, are still relished by Cretan mountaineers, just as they must have been in ancient times. In A Modern Herbal, Maud Grieve says the galls often are candied with sugar and made into a kind of sweetmeat and conserve, said to have healing properties.

In 1987, I made my first trip to Israel and I was in a bus with a group of plant enthusiasts guided by Avinoam Danin. When the bus stopped by the side of the road, we got out to look at roadside flora. Danin handed me a small green “apple,” which I found very tasty, something like a juicy, immature, real apple.





elderberry, echinacea, bee hive

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Feb. 17-18, 2018
Belton, Texas

Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on Natural Health, Organic Gardening, Real Food and more!

LEARN MORE