Minute Menorahs

In this week’s Haftarah, the prophet, Zechariah, is shown a vision and asked by an angel to interpret it. The vision features a “candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and seven lamps to it, and seven pipes to the seven lamps, which were upon the top of it/ and there are two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side of it” ( Zech. 4:2-3). In other words, there is a menorah shown with olive trees “feeding” bowls which then in turn fill the lamps. The medieval rabbinic commentaries explain that the olive trees represent the Jewish leaders of the High Priest and government ruler, indicating that the Jewish people, represented by the Menorah, are strengthened through them working in tandem. The item pictured here (Ms. Acc. 301) is a 15th century rough copy on coarse leather, attributed to a young student, that includes this section of Zechariah. It is written in square North African characters, and as is found in records of other ancient languages, was written without spacing between the words. While we have many surviving images of the Menorah from ancient mosaics and reliefs, this text is unadorned and one must visualize the Menorah from Zechariah’s prophecy based on the descriptive text.

 

In the late 14th or early 15th century, the Menorah began to take on a unique form. Micrography, the Jewish art of using miniscule letters to depict other images, was especially prevalent in the context of Masoretic bibles, where from at least as early as the 9th century, the Masorites would often write their scribal notes on the bible in the forms of geometric patterns, animals, and flowers. This technique was applied heavily in the 15th and 16th century to depict the Menorah. The text supplied for this form is nearly always that of Psalm 67, cited by the Abudraham as having mystical connections to the Menorah; specifically that reciting this Psalm carefully each day was akin to lighting the Menorah in the Temple. Pictured here is a Shiviti tablet (Ms. Acq. 2017-140), a small 18th century slip of parchment which had been affixed to the wall. Devout Jews, particularly Hassidim, would meditate on the figure of the Menorah and recite this Psalm and remind themselves before whom they prayed. These tablets are typically headed “Shiviti YHVH LeNegdi Tamid” (I keep God before me at all times), which is why they are called Shiviti tablets. This text appears within a circle in the upper portion, whose micrographic text reads “man worries over the loss of his money and does not worry [sufficiently] over the lessening of his years” – this idiom is catchier in Hebrew, where it rhymes.

 

The art of micrography was adopted by other cultures as well, and pictured last is a very large broadside by a Dutch artist from the 18th century. This work comprises several chapters of Exodus and depicts the Tabernacle with some of its utensils and vessels. These include the Ark of the Covenant, the Showbread Table, the small altar, and the Menorah. Rather than Hebrew, the bible verses here are written in Dutch, and make up the smallest details of this picture, from the Tabernacle’s curtains, to the priests hard at work. This item was newly discovered in our collection and has not yet been cataloged!