In order to see what the almonds on the Menorah represent (symbol, meaning) in Exodus 37:20 we really have to wander a little bit inside the Bible and some more.
First about the fruit: in Israel, the flowering of the almond marks the beginning of the agricultural season. It is the first fruit tree to flower, often even in January/February. Can tolerate aridity better than many other trees. Very drought resistant. However, it seems that it takes quite a while until the fruit is good to eat.
- See more in Lytton John Musselman, A Dictionary of Bible Plants,
Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 17
The word for almond (שָׁקֵד) is related to the the stem sh-k-d, which means “to be watchful, wakeful, vigilant”; thus, the almond flower is a symbol of life renewed and sustained.
- See N. M. Sarna, Exodus. English and Hebrew; commentary in English in
The JPS Torah commentary, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia,
1991, p. 165
Basically we could stop here. Almond = life renewed and sustained by God's power at work. Yet there is some more.
Now the full description of the Menorah is in Exodus 37:17-22. And there is another one, almost alike, in Exodus 25:31-34. Parallel:
Exodus 25:31-34 “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its
cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And
there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of
the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the
lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almond
blossoms ... (ESV)
Exodus 37:19-20 .... three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond
blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch - so for the
six branches going out of the lampstand. In the lampstand there were
four cups shaped like almond blossoms, its bulbs and its flowers
We shall return to this. Let's have a ride first.
In Genesis 30:37, Jacob uses branches of almond in his attempt to influence the breeding of the flocks.
Genesis 30:37 Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond [לוּז] and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the
white of the sticks. (ESV)
Yet the word used up here is different: לוּז. Not sure if this is of any help.
Further on, in Genesis 43:11, almond nuts are included in Jacob's gift for Egypt, during the famine.
Genesis 43:11 Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in
your bags, and carry a present down to the man, a little balm and a
little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds.(ESV)
This could be significant, as almonds appear to be as something precious.
A very interesting Numbers 17:8 is giving us a a testimony of the work of God, who has chosen the person who is going to be the high priest.
Numbers 17:8 When he went into the Tabernacle of the Covenant the next day, he found that Aaron's staff, representing the tribe of Levi,
had sprouted, budded, blossomed, and produced ripe almonds! (ESV)
So it is a sign of God's presence among Israel.
From Jeremiah 1:11-12 we can find out more about this presence:
Jeremiah 1:11-12 And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see an almond (שָׁקֵד)
branch.” Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well, for I am
watching (שָׁקַד ) over my word to perform it.” (ESV)
Here is the mysterious yet relevant play on words of שָׁקֵד (almond) and שָׁקַד (to watch, to be alert, to guard, to keep a close watch on something or someone, especially of God’s watching over His word to fulfill it). In order to encourage Jeremiah in his very difficult prophetic work, God is giving him this vision of an almond, symbolizing God’s watchfulness and constant readiness to keep his promises. Basically God is telling Jeremiah he is not to be afraid in announcing Judah’s doom, because God would strengthen and defend him (see Jeremiah 1:17–19).
It is interesting how the Talmud (TJ) is reading this, connecting two different historical events: the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (in 586 b.c.e.) and by Titus (in 70 c.e.)
Ta'an. 4:8, 68c "Just as 21 days elapse from the time of the almond sends forth his blossom until the fruit ripens, so 21 days
passed from the time the city was breached until the Temple was
- See also Ecc. Rabbah 12:8
More or less the same idea of God’s watching, in Zechariah 4:2-6, 10:
Zechariah 4:2-6, 10 And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of
it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that
are on the top of it. [...] And I said to the angel who talked with
me, “What are these, my lord?” So the angel who was speaking with me
answered and said to me, "Do you not know what these are?" And I said,
"No, my lord." Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to
Zerubbabel [...] (10) “These seven are the eyes of the Lord, which
range through the whole earth.” (ESV) / (The seven lamps represent
the eyes of the Lord that search all around the world.) (NLT)
Exactly, the seven lamps are a symbol of the eyes of God, watching over His word to fulfill it. Is this that the lampstand, or Menorah, must symbolize God’s own presence? Well, this is why it is called Lamp of the Presence, isn't it?
No wonder the Rabbis interpreted the Menorah as a symbol of Israel and its mission to be “a light unto the nations”.
Shabbath 22 b: The light of the Menorah it is a testimony to mankind that the Divine Presence rests in Israel.
- For a relevant comment on this, please see, M. A. Fishbane,
Haftarot. The JPS Bible commentary, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2002, p. 224 sq. See also R. L. Eisenberg, The JPS guide to Jewish traditions (1st ed.), The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2004, p. 579
Isaiah 42:6 I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant
for the people, a light for the nations ... (ESV)
All these actions of God as described in Isaiah 42:6: calling, taking by the hand, keeping - can be understood as part of the work of God, watching over His word to fulfill it. And this work as symbolized by the almond.
Interesting enough, we meet this up in a NT prophetic fragment:
Revelation 1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and
among the lampstands was One like the Son of Man ... (ESV)
Very similar to Jeremiah 1:11-12 and Zechariah 4:2-6, isn't it? If there is any connection among these, I would dare to go further and read them both in connection with Deuteronomy 7:9.
Deuteronomy 7:9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love
him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations ... (ESV)
It is all about the same idea of God, watching over His word to fulfill it. As we got here, perhaps we can add that the almond may be understood as a symbol of the Covenant too.
Now to conclude: the almonds on the Menorah as described in Exodus 37:20 would represent:
the work of God continually watching over His word in order to keep
and fulfill the Covenant;
the Covenant in itself;
Israel and its mission to be “a light unto the nations”;
the life of man renewed and sustained by God's power at work.
Last but not least, there is one more text, revealing a possible 5th meaning of the almond:
Ecclesiastes 12:5 Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper
drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes
to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street (ESV).
Here, the almond describes the short cycle of human life. Therefore the almonds on the Menorah can be a symbol of the human being too, who is called to preserve the light of God in order not be afraid "of a high place and of terrors on the road".
If you stay with me a little more on this, I'd quote a such a beautiful interpretation of Philo of Alexandria. It is rather related to Numbers 17, yet I think it is relevant for your question anyway:
Philo, On the Life of Moses, II. XXXIV.180-186
XXXIV. (180) And the fruit were almonds, which is a fruit of a
different character from any other. For in most fruit, such as grapes,
olives, and apples, the seed and the eatable part differ from one
another, and being different are separated as to their position, for
the eatable part is outside, and the seed is shut up within; but in
the case of this fruit the seed and the eatable part are the same,
both of them being comprised in one species, and their position is one
and the same, being without strongly protected and fortified with a
twofold fence, consisting partly of a very thick bark, and partly of
what appears in no respect short of a wooden case, (181) by which
perfect virtue is figuratively indicated. For as in the almond the
beginning and the end are the same, the beginning as far as it is
seed, and the end as far as it is fruit; so also is it the case with
the virtues; for each one of them is at the same time both beginning
and end, a beginning, because it proceeds not from any other power,
but from itself; and an end, because the life in accordance with
nature hastens towards it. (182) This is one reason; and another is
also mentioned, more clear and emphatic than the former; for the part
of the almond which looks like bark is bitter, but that which lies
inside the bark, like a wooden case, is very hard and impenetrable, so
that the fruit, being enclosed in these two coverings, is not very
easily to be got at. (183) This is an emblem of the soul which is
inclined to the practice of meditation, from which he thinks it is
proper to turn it to virtue by showing it that it is necessary first
of all to encounter danger. But labour is a bitter, and distasteful,
and harsh thing, from which good is produced, for the sake of which
one must not yield to effeminate indolence; (184) for he who seeks to
avoid labour is also avoiding good. And he, again, who encounters what
is disagreeable to be borne with fortitude and manly perseverance, is
taking the best road to happiness; for it is not the nature of virtue
to abide with those who are given up to delicacy and luxury, and who
have become effeminate in their souls, and whose bodies are enervated
by the incessant luxury which they practise every day; but it is
subdued by such conduct, and determined to change its abode, having
first of all arranged its departure so as to depart to, and abide
with, the ruler of right reason. (185) But, if I must tell the truth,
the most sacred company of prudence, and temperance, and courage, and
justice seeks the society of those who practise virtue, and of those
who admire a life of austerity and rigid duty, devoting themselves to
fortitude and self-denial, with wise economy and abstinence; by means
of which virtues the most powerful of all the principles within us,
namely, reason, improves and attains to a state of perfect health and
vigour, overthrowing the violent attacks of the body, which the
moderate use of wine, and epicurism, and licentiousness, and other
insatiable appetites excite against it, engendering a fulness of flesh
which is the direct enemy of shrewdness and wisdom. (186) Moreover, it
is said, that of all the trees that are accustomed to blossom in the
spring, the almond is the first to flourish, bringing as it were good
tidings of abundance of fruit; and that afterwards it is the last to
lose its leaves, extending the yearly old age of its verdure to the
longest period; in each of which particulars it is an emblem of the
tribe of the priesthood, as Moses intimates under the figure of this
tree that this tribe shall be the first of the whole human race to
flourish, and likewise the last; as long as it shall please God to
liken our life to the revolutions of the spring, destroying
covetousness that most treacherous of passions, and the fountain of
- Philo of Alexandria, The works of Philo. Complete and unabridged,
C. D. Yonge (ed.), Hendrickson, Peabody, 1996, p. 507