Symbolism of the Menorah, the Table and the Incense Altar
The section of the Tabernacle outside of the Holy of Holies contained three objects: the table, the menorah and the golden incense altar. These three objects represent three different types of reward that G-d grants to those who observe the commandments.
The first type of reward, material wealth and honor, is represented by the table, which was made of pure gold and always contained twelve loaves of bread. Gold represents honor, while the bread symbolizes the Divine Providence that insures the material success of the Jewish People. Each level of the table was rimmed by a gold border or “crown” which symbolized G-d’s protecting our honor even when His Divine protection is hidden, i.e. when the righteous suffer and the evil prosper. The number twelve hints at numerous things: the twelve tribes, the twelve months of the year, the twelve signs of the Zodiac — all of which symbolize G-d’s constant involvement in the physical world.
The second type of reward, knowledge and wisdom, is symbolized by the menorah. As it states in Proverbs (2:6), “For G-d grants wisdom; from His mouth comes knowledge and understanding.” This is the earthly reward granted to man’s soul. The seven flames represent the seven branches of wisdom which are found in the Torah. The flames incline toward the middle flame which was opposite the Holy of Holies. This is to indicate that all the other wisdoms defer to the one true wisdom of the Torah resting in the Holy of Holies. The menorah was fashioned from pure gold to indicate that G-d’s wisdom is pure and unadulterated by false ideas. The cups, knobs, and flowers on each branch indicate that all of the branches of wisdom are derived from each other and interconnected. Each one is a preparation for the other. The menorah was also fashioned from only one piece of pure gold to indicate the total unity of all knowledge, wisdom and understanding through the Torah. This metaphor also appears in the reference to the wise woman in Proverbs 9:1: “With all forms of wisdom did she build her house; she carved out its seven pillars.” There is only one house, but there were seven different skills that were required for its construction.
The third type of reward, the eternal existence of the soul and its connection to G-d after death, is symbolized by the golden altar. The smoke that rises upwards represents the soul, which also “rises” after death. This altar was not connected to either the menorah or the table to symbolize that the reward of eternal existence is not acquired through wealth and honor, or through knowledge and wisdom, but rather through the true unifying of the self with the Torah. To indicate that this reward is the highest and most valuable, the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur took the incense and placed it on the ark. The Kohen lit the incense morning and evening, and it was referred to as a “continual incense” — another indication of the eternal existence of the soul. It is also referred to as “holy of holies to G-d”, an expression notably absent from the services of the table and the menorah. This eternal and pure spiritual reward is totally different from the other two. Finally, even though the incense altar is referred to as the golden altar, it was not fashioned from pure gold. Rather, it was made of wood with a gold covering. This indicates that it is by means of our earthly physical existence — which is as ephemeral as wood — that we can obtain the priceless eternity that the gold covering symbolizes.
These three types of reward are also contained in the Kohen Gadol’s blessing of the people: “May G-d bless you and safeguard you” is a reference to material success and physical safety. “May He illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you” refers to the illumination of wisdom and knowledge and the fact that G-d’s granting them to us is an example of His graciousness. “May He turn His countenance to you and establish for you peace” is a reference to the only true peace — the connection of the soul to G-d after death.