Alongside its importance in ancient times, the menorah continues to play a central role in modern Jewish practice, especially during the festival of Hanukkah. In contrast to the ancient menorah in the Temple, the modern menorah has eight branches instead of six.
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) after it was entered and defiled during conflict with the Greeks in around 165BCE. When they had defeated the Greeks and returned to the temple, the Hasmoneans discovered that there was only enough oil to keep the scared flame burning for a day. By a miracle, they were able to keep it alight for eight days, and this time was thus set aside as a festival of praise and thanksgiving.
The time in which the war was fought was part of a wider period of Hellenization, which was cultural as much as military, and many Jews attempted to assimilate, especially those in the upper echelons of society. Thus the ‘miracle of the oil’ as it is termed represents a cultural victory as a military one. Furthermore, the focus in rabbinic literature is largely on the miracle of the oil rather than the military victory, and the celebration is therefore about the victory of light over darkness and a commemoration of God’s provision to his people.
In remembrance of this miracle, a candle is lit on each of the eight nights of the festival of Hanukkah. One candle on the first night, two on the second, and so on for the whole eight days. The Menorah is intimately connected with this celebration – most Jewish households have one especially for this occasion.
Crucially, the Hanukkah, and therefore the menorah with it, serves a function in secular as well as religious Judaism. As Hanukkah tends to fall close to Christmas, it serves as an alternative festival, and thus an important marker of Jewish identity. In some senses this is even more important among secular or liberal Jews, who are far less likely than their conservative or Orthodox counterparts to be distinguished by aspects of dress. Hanukkah holds particular significance in Israel, where it has come to symbolise the survival of the Jewish people throughout against enormous odds.
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Eisen, Arnold M. Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment and Community. London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
MJL Staff. "Hanukkah 101". My Jewish Learning. N.p., 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
Solomon, Norman. Judaism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.