An Herbal Menorah

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The model for the ancient menorah is found in species of salvia that grow wild all over the area from the Sinai Desert to the mountains of Lebanon.

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.

Wild Enchantment

On successive trips to Israel, I became enchanted with wild salvias. I saw them everywhere in my travels, sometimes growing in rocky outcrops, their branches often vividly outlined in menorah fashion against a clear blue sky. My favorite among them is dominican sage (S. dominica). It is indelibly linked in my memory to all the aromatic herby plants I love that are so abundant in the land. On my second trip, Danin handed me a stem of this fragrant sage as a kind of welcome. The plant virtually glows like a well-lit menorah from the presence of minute hairs that cover its gray-green leaves, stem, calyxes and two-lipped, white and light-yellow flowers.

Neot Kedumim is a 625-acre reserve in Isreal created by Nogah Hareuveni and dedicated to recreating biblical landscapes on the ground to teach their deeper significance in text and traditions. There, I walked on a self-guided tour that took me to the Hill of the Menorahs section, built to show off the various wild species of salvia menorah models. These perennial salvias, as well as Greek apple sage (S. pomifera), grow 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, and they bear small two-lipped flowers, characteristic of the mint family to which they belong. Most have a long history of medicinal use, mainly to aid digestion, induce perspiration, as a gargle for laryngitis or to act as a mild sedative. Their branches grow out from a prominent central stalk that resembles the taller middle light on a menorah, called the Shamash or servant, used to light the others. One homiletic idea advanced for this custom is to show that our own lights are not diminished by helping others. If you look at salvias with a menorah in mind, some assume a startlingly menorah-like presence, as I recently noticed in the candelabrum of white flowers in the foliage of S. argentea.

In March, 1998, at the height of most salvias’ bloom season in Israel, I saw, felt and sniffed most of Israel’s wild species at the wall of the Hill of the Menorahs at Neot Kedumim. When I observed them planted among other salvias, I noticed the dominican sage was the most woolly in appearance, with the sharpest scent (it is also called “pungent sage”). Three-leafed sage (S. fruticosa), the plant whose galls I had tasted, had pebble-textured bright gray-green leaves noticeably divided into three distinctive leaflets and pale lilac-pink flowers; its leaves often are used as a substitute or adulterant for cooking sage. Jerusalem sage (S. hierosolymitana) was the most ornamental, though not fragrant. Its long, thin flower spikes curving out from a taller, straight middle stalk were vivid purple-pink on purple stems, its leaves wrinkled and lobed. S. judaica, from the Judean hills, had developed its purple florets, echoing the purple bracts of the nearby native wildflower, S. viridis, sometimes called annual clary or painted sage, a favorite annual of mine (its purple, pink or white colorful top bracts dry well).

The menorah salvias available in North America are S. pomifera, hardy to Zone 8, and S. fruticosa, hardy to Zone 9. S. pomifera, most similar to garden sage (S. officinalis), is distinguished by its textured, aromatic, grayish-white foliage and its striking flower spikes. The upper lip on its little bloom is violet-blue, the lower lip is mid-blue, and the calyx is often reddish purple.

In my experience, none of the salvias are hard to grow or overwinter indoors on a south-facing windowsill. Grown in these conditions they reach 16 to 24 inches. Seeds, which germinate in four to 12 days at 70 degrees, should be lightly covered with soil. Introduce plants outdoors only when temperatures are consistently warm. Plants should be watered well until they are established, after which they can withstand drought. If they are grown outdoors all winter, cut them back the following spring to stimulate fresh growth, and cut back flowering stems to maintain a more compact habit. Cut back plants before bringing them indoors, and water with a light hand, but don’t let them dry out. All make superb houseplants and provide material (flowers, stems and leaves) for potpourri. Propagation is by seed or stem cuttings.

Lighting History

The origins of Hanukah, in which the menorah is prominently featured, began in the winter of 165 b.c. when the Maccabeans (the group who led the revolt against Antiochus IV and his armies) regained control of the Temple in Jerusalem and found it desecrated and desolate. According to legend, when they relit the menorah (or fashioned a new one), they filled its cups with a single vessel of olive oil, which should have lasted only a single day, but it miraculously lasted for eight days. A more prosaic explanation is that when the Maccabeans rededicated the Temple they celebrated Sukkot, an eight-day fall festival that the Jews had been unable to observe that year.

Over time Hanukah became a celebration in its own right, with the lighting of the menorah as its central observance. Although it occurs at the darkest time of year in the West, often coinciding with Christmas, its origins were in the part of the world where winter is a time of regrowth and renewal, precluding any connection between Hanukah and a winter solstice festival. In Israel, and increasingly elsewhere, the Hanukah menorah is called hanukiyah (plural hanukiyot) to distinguish the Hanukah menorah from the Temple menorah. Variant transliterations of the Hebrew word “Hanukah” (which means “dedication” in Hebrew) can be confusing: Chanukah, Hanukkah and Hannuka all mean the same thing.

Hanukah begins at sundown on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which this year falls on December 19, according to the Gregorian calendar. The only requirement is to light the menorah (preceded by appropriate blessings) and display it, if possible, in a window. Its general design, however influenced by styles of the period and available materials, has remained true to the one described in the Book of Exodus, with branches sprouting from a base, with a slightly taller one in the middle. They range from artistic and ornate to simple, even crude, fashioned from silver, brass, tin, wood and even glass. Ancient ones were made of clay. They were composed of small pear-shaped vessels, each with its own wick, arranged side by side.

Although only expected to light one menorah, many families supply one for each member, thus increasing the enjoyment of the occasion, especially for children who can construct a simple, but effective menorah from egg cartons, tin cans, a large potato, clay or anything that can hold eight candles. My husband, Jigs, once made a jaunty one from eight pieces of heavy wire inserted into drilled holes on a wooden framework. The wires were bent at the top to hold the candles. We learned to cover the wooden base of the menorah with tin foil to avoid scorching as the candles burned out and fell out of the wires.

Small, bright candles come in a box of 44. On the first night, we place a candle in the prominent middle cup or holder (this is the Shamash candle) and a candle in the far right cup. After initial blessings, we light the Shamash candle, and with it, we light the far right candle. These burn down after a half hour, so the next night we add a fresh Shamash candle and two fresh candles starting again on the far right. On each successive night we add another candle, always starting on the far right, but when we light them we begin from the left, by lighting the newest candle first to mark the new day of Hanukah.

For an herb lover, the idea that the ancient menorah actually springs from the soil, from a living plant, gives the holiday fresh meaning.

Jo Ann Gardner is a gardener, writer and cook living in the Adirondacks of New York. Her most recent project included serving as a contributing editor to Flora: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia (Timber Press, 2003).

Salvia Sources

Goodwin Creek Gardens, P.O. Box 83, Williams, OR 97544; (800) 846-7359

Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, 316 Surrett Cove Rd., Leicester, NC 28748-5517; (828) 683-2014

Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 205 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865; (908) 852-5390

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