Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Abrabanel & The Menora: An Early Interpretation Supporting the Concept of Tora U’Madda by Yaakov Bieler

March 14, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Philosophy, Tanach


The latter Tora portions of the book of Shemot, with the exception of Ki Tisa, focus upon the construction of the Tabernacle and the fabrication of the ritual clothing worn by the priests when they were performing the Temple service. Most commentators are hard-pressed to derive rigorously argued, logical spiritual instruction from this quantitatively significant section of the Tora; those who do attempt to suggest such ideas usually see the various artifacts described as at best symbolizing particular ideas or themes. The degree to which the suggested symbolism reflects the particular predilections of the interpreter in question as opposed to clear objective concepts that can readily be arrived at an embraced by a wide range of traditional Jewish thinkers can certainly be contested.

                An example of one of these symbolic approaches that I have found particularly intriguing is presented by Abrabanel[1] (1407-1508) with respect to the Menora.[2] His overall scheme of interpretation regarding the three artifacts in the Heichal,[3] i.e., the Shulchan,[4] Menora and Mizbeach HaZahav,[5]posits that each object represents one of the forms of reward that is forthcoming to those who comply with the Tora’s dictates. The Shulchan connotes physical, material rewards, the Mizbeach, particularly the incense that is offered upon it, suggests the eternity of the soul even after death, while the light-giving Menora is associated with wisdom. However, since the Aron containing the Tablets of the Ten Commandments[6] is the symbol for Tora wisdom, the knowledge represented by the Menora, according to Abrabanel “hints at ‘Sheva HaChachmot’ (the seven wisdoms), all of which are to be found in the Tora of God”. Obviously, the Menora’s seven branches lead the commentator to seek out something comprised of seven categories, and the fact that the wicks in the six outer branches tilt towards the wick of the central branch which in turn tilts towards the Kodesh HaKodashim containing the Aron,[7] lead him to conclude that whatever the number seven represents is to be ultimately connected to Tora. But the corpus of   “Sheva Chachmot” that Abrabanel appears to take for granted as obvious and well-known, since he does not bother to define or reference the concept, bears investigation.

                A biblical textual reference that associates the number “seven” with “wisdom” is found in Mishlei 9:1, “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out seven pillars.” Yet traditional commentators on this verse do not appear to shed light upon the Abrabanel’s reference:

a. RaShI—the seven days of Creation (not a reflection of the types of wisdom that served as the basis of the Creation, but rather the individual platforms for the application of such wisdom; MaLBIM—the fact that on each of the days specific aspects of the Creation unfolded is a reflection of wisdom being applied;)


                      the “seven” books of the Tora (according to Rebbe’s view in Shabbat 115b-116a that BaMidbar 10:35-6 constitute a book unto themselves, resulting in BaMidbar being considered three separate books—but Abrabanel clearly intended to reference forms of wisdom that are different from that of the Tora;)

b. RaLBaG—the number “seven” represents multiplicity as in Mishlei 24:16 (yet in order to explain Abrabanel’s approach to the Menora, we are searching for a list of exactly seven disciplines of wisdom;)

c. Ibn Ezra—if the number “seven” is modifying “wisdom” (rather than “pillars”)[8] then it is a reference to “the seven wisdoms that the house of wisdom rests upon” (while this interpretation parallels Abrabanel’s comment, it nevertheless does not serve to clarify what these seven wisdoms actually are.)

                Consequently, we are left with the conclusion that Abrabanel’s (and Ibn Ezra’s[9]  as well) reference to the “seven wisdoms” is intended to call to mind the seven disciplines that the medieval world referred to as the “liberal arts”[10]: the “trivium” comprised of the language arts, i.e., grammar, rhetoric and logic, and the “quadrivium” made up of mathematics, i.e., arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. Not only does Abrabanel contend that the directionality of the wicks of the Menora represents how these seven secular disciplines are all entirely complementary to the contents and assumptions of the Tora, but he also makes claims regarding their individual importance and respective interdisciplinarity:

And the Menora was entirely made of pure gold to symbolize the value of wisdom, the eternity of its longevity and that no alien ideas that would not be compatible with religious thought and belief (“dross”) are contained therein…and there were on it “Gevi’im”, “Kaftorim”, and “Perachim” (cups, bulbs and flowers)[11]  the branching out of all of the wisdoms and knowledges one from the other (an organic connection between them where one exists in synergy with the next), and that this wisdom was the precursor to the next.The Menora was hammered out of a single piece of gold because in a certain sense the wisdoms come together…because the wisdoms are really one just as the house is a single structure, but it is divided into seven branches in accordance with the number of different subject matters that are referred to as the “seven wisdoms.”

Abrabanel’s romantic vision of the coalescence of wisdoms calls to mind the Herman Hesse’s premise in his master work, Magister Ludi, in which different disciplines are reduced to their essential principles and then integrated with one another in order to demonstrate a similar unified nature of knowledge and knowing. While Ibn Ezra also mentioned the seven wisdoms in the context of Mishlei 9:1, for Abrabanel to imagine the holy Menora in first the Tabernacle and then the Temple representing the integration of secular and holy knowledge, and that secular knowledge should be considered a reward for Mitzva compliance is surely notable.

[1] Peirush Abrabanel Al HaTora, Shemot, Saphrograph, New York, 1959, p. 116b.

[2] Shemot 25:32-8.

[3] The outer section of the central portion of the Tabernacle, as opposed to the inner section known as Kodesh Kodashim and containing the Aron.

[4] Shemot 25:23-30.

[5] Ibid., 30:1-10.

[6] Ibid., 25:16; Devarim 10:5.

[7] See for e.g., RaMBaM, Mishna Tora, Hilchot Beit HaBechira 3:8.

[8] Vilna Gaon (Sefer Mishlei Im Beiur Eliyahu MiVilna, Shilo, Tel Aviv, p. 27b), like Ibn Ezra’s first explanation of this verse, connects “seven” with “pillars” rather than wisdom. He speaks of three wisdoms.

[9] Since Ibn Ezra lived between 1089 and @1164, his reference to the “seven wisdoms” is an even more ancient one than that of the Abrabanel.

[10] Liberal arts were considered those disciplines by which an individual would gain wisdom, but not the skills and knowledge required to gain employment and earn a livelihood. Studies focusing on the latter goals were known as the “illiberal arts.” See

[11] E.g., Shemot 25:33.

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