The menorah originated as a seven-branched candelabrum carried by the Israelites through the Sinai desert as part of the equipment for the Tabernacle (forerunner to the Temple in Jerusalem). It is today the emblem of the State of Israel.
When Moses received the Torah on Mt Sinai, God showed him the prototype of the menorah. Carved from one solid piece of gold, it had the central shaft and six branches, three on either side curved upwards, making seven branches altogether. This menorah was to be used only in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, with no imitation being permitted. The special candelabra used on Chanukah is called a chanukiah, and not a menorah, as it has eight branches.
“Make a menorah out of pure gold. The menorah should be formed by hammering it. Its base, stem and cups, spheres and flowers must be hammered out of a [single piece of gold]. Six branches shall extend from its sides, three branches on one side of the menorah, and three branches on the other side…”Shemot (Exodus) 25:31-40
In the Temple (Beit Hamikdash), the menorah was made of pure gold, with seven straight branches and three feet. The number seven is significant in Judaism, so the seven branches were meaningfully chosen. They represent the six days of creation and the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day of rest. Thus the number of branches on the menorah serves as a constant reminder of our creator, God, and the importance of the Sabbath. Three upside down cups were on each branch, and near the base was another cup, bringing the total to 22 cups. This is exactly equal to the number of letters in the Aleph Bet (the Hebrew alphabet). The 9 flowers decorating the menorah were a symbol of the world’s potential for growth and development, and the 11 egg-shaped bulbs were a symbol of limitless spiritual pleasure.
The High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, lit the menorah in the Temple every day toward evening. All the flames in the menorah faced the central lamp. As this lamp faced the Holy of Holies, it was called the ner ma’aravi, the western lamp. This lamp would burn miraculously long after the others had burned out, until it was time to rekindle the menorah the next day, even though it was the first one kindled every day toward evening. The entire world could thus see this as a sign that God dwelt with the Jewish people.
After the destruction of the first menorah with the first Temple, and then the loss of the remade menorah with the destruction of the second Temple, it was preserved as the most important symbol of the Jewish people.
It was used to illuminate manuscripts during the Middle Ages, and Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) took it as a representation of the sefirot (emanations of God). Today the menorah is a familiar symbol, appearing, amongst other places, on Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows in Jerusalem, at the Ghetto memorial in Warsaw, and outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem.