Hanukkah menorahs come in all shapes and sizes. In our house we have one decorated with basketball players, several handmade versions by both adults and children, one in the shape of Noah’s ark that was given to our children but now used by me, and one “traditional” hanukkiah (Hanukkah lamp) that resembles the original menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) states that the mitzvah of Hanukkah is only to light one light per household each night, which is why the Rabbis constantly refer to ner Hanukkah, the “Hanukkah light” rather than the Hanukkah lights (in ancient times oil and wicks, rather than candles, were used). The more pious way to celebrate was to light one light per person in the household each night. For example, if you have 5 people living in your home, you would light 5 lights each night.
These are rituals no one follows today because ironically, Hanukkah is the holiday in which everyone, from the most secular to the ultra-Orthodox, celebrates in the most pious fashion possible in the view of the Talmud, which is that one should light their lights according to day of the festival – one for the first day, two for the second day, etc.
We don’t think of this as particularly special, but that is because we don’t appreciate the expense of oil. For many Jews in ancient times, their oil was expensive and used for cooking as well as light, but the Hanukkah lights cannot be used for any benefit. Instead the hanukkiah is meant only to publicize the miracle of the holiday. Multiple lights per household would be a major sacrifice of precious resources.
Traditional Jewish sources have little to say about the shape of the hanukkiah. The lights have to be distinguishable from one another and on the same horizontal plain, but other than that, there aren’t many rules. In time, however, many hanukkiot began to be shaped in the form of what we take to be the ancient menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem. After all, the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil for the menorah that lasted 8 days.
The problem with associating the hanukkiah with the menorah is that it can create confusion. It was many years until I realized that the menorah in the Temple had all seven branches lit each day. I thought that it was lit like our hanukkiot: one on Sunday, two on Monday, etc. Hanukkah lamps in the shape of menorahs might seem like the “traditional” ones, but actually they are just as artificial as my Noah’s ark version.
These “menorah” hanukkiot allow us to bring a bit of the ancient Temple into our homes. We only use them once a year, but they sit on our shelves as beautiful displays reminding us of our connection to the most sacred space in our tradition. And the menorah is certainly the loveliest of Temple implements. Few, I imagine, would like to have a replica of the sacrificial altar on their mantle.
The rabbis of the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 24b – 25a) actually prohibited us from creating our own versions of the Temple or its accessories, including the menorah. Perhaps they wanted to prevent people from creating their own sanctuaries, which would lead to lots of little temples and religious chaos. It may be that the hanukkiah in the shape of the menorah was a way for us to get around this prohibition. The rabbis specifically allow a menorah with eight lamps. It’s not exactly the original, but for the important purpose of memory, it’s close enough.