Back then, in the desert tabernacle, and later in the First and Second Temple, the menorah fulfilled a largely inspirational and symbolic function. It was lit with the purest oil in an outside area, and it was meant to illuminate the world with the light of God and the Torah.
But the menorah has changed over time. Yes, you can still buy old-fashioned ornate metal candelabras with the knobs and flowers, but you can also get modern and original art and themed menorahs. And menorahs no longer have seven branches -- they now have eight, because they are used to commemorate the miracle that occurred at the first Chanukah, when a single vial of pure oil burned for eight days in the ransacked Second Temple.
Thus we light an ever-increasing number of lights for eight days, and we even call the menorah something different -- the technically correct name for the eight-branch candleholder is chanukiah.
So what does a chanukiah need in order to be kosher? Not much. The lights must be aligned with the shamash, the candle used to light the others, somewhat above. And each candleholder must hold an amount of oil or large enough candle to burn for about half an hour. Beyond that, anything goes.
You don't even need to have an eight-branch candelabra for all eight nights -- you simply need enough lights for that particular night. In a pinch, you can fill a few whiskey shot glasses with oil or line some candles up on a piece of foil and voil? -- a menorah.
Although a menorah can be ridiculously simple, (as any mother of a preschooler at a Jewish school will know, a menorah means bottle caps glued to a block of wood) over the years, it has become something of an iconic, instantly recognizable Jewish symbol, and it has inspired countless Judaica artists, craftsmen and metalsmiths to fashion their own unique menorahs. They do this under the rubric of hiddur mitzvah -- making the mitzvah beautiful.
Marcia Reines Josephy, principal of Josephy Rembrandt Exhibitions and a former assistant curator of the Jewish Museum of New York, has a collection of more than 20 menorahs at her house, including an 18th-century metal piece that her father brought to this country from Poland, as well as ones made by her children and grandchildren.
Menorahs are a bit like Las Vegas hotels -- think of any theme, and you can build one around it. If you have a friend who likes '60s chic, for example, then you can buy her a groovy flower-power bus menorah. If your child likes a particular sports team or has a penchant for dinosaurs, there are menorahs that will match his interests.
Looking for wedding present? How about a newlywed-themed menorah? Or maybe, for those who like kitsch, a fiddler on the roof ceramic diorama menorah or a New York skyscraper menorah.
"For kids, the trends are very colorful metal menorahs," said David Cooperman of Shalom House in Woodland Hills, which stocks more than 250 different menorahs. "And we are also seeing a trend for more lifelike, rather than childish or cutesy menorahs."
And, like Josephy, many people can't stop at just one menorah.
"We had a customer in here yesterday who lights more than 50 menorahs on the last night," Cooperman said.
So why has the menorah endured and thrived over so many years?
"It is the menorah that is the oldest Jewish symbol," Josephy said.
"The seven-branched menorah from the Temple or the Tabernacle in the wilderness, that is the beginning of Jewish creativity. [Back then] you had wonderful artists, and wise-hearted men and women, and the menorah was a central part of that creativity. That is one reason that it has remained as such an important symbol, and it is also visually strong and big."
Noah's ark menorahs are perennially popular children's pieces. This one is available at thejewishmuseum.com.
The Jewish Museum also carries a number of very cute hand-painted metal animal menorahs in the shape of a whale, moose, goose, dinosaur or fish.
Themed menorahs make great gifts. This cloche (close) friends menorah is made of metal and is hand painted. Available at the Museum of Tolerance gift store.
For a newlywed, what better way to say you're in love then with this Piper Strong Newlywed menorah from A Mano Galleries
A growing trend in modern menorahs is for streamlined, collapsible pieces, like this anodized aluminum belt menorah from the Jewish Museum.
Gary Rosenthal is an artist who fuses glass and metal in his very popular Judaica. This menorah, top right, is a replica of one that he presented to the White House 25 years ago. Available at Treasures of Judaica, the gift store of the University of Judaism.
This traditional style of menorah is the closest to the original design that was present in the Tabernacle and in the First and Second Temple. It features a small jug for pouring oil. Available from Hazorfim.com.