The enlightening story of the menorah
NEW YORK – Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights, falls during the darkest days of the year. It commemorates the rededication of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple following second century B.C. Greek defilement. Though a bit of consecrated olive oil, enough for one day, was found to rekindle the Temple’s candelabra, it burned for eight days and nights – long enough to prepare more.
Ever since, Jews have celebrated this eight-day miracle by kindling special lights commonly known as Hanukkah menorahs or lamps. Their form is fixed – eight lights at uniform height, along with a separate “servant” light, used to kindle them. One light is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, followed by another on each subsequent night. By holiday’s end, all eight are aglow.
Though candelabras appear on Jewish coins dating from 40 B.C., people likely kindled eight individual oil-filled clay lamps or single ones featuring eight small oil-fonts. During the Diaspora (70-1948 A.D.) when Jews scattered worldwide, Hanukkah lamps often reflected local materials, techniques and traditions. Some were impermanent. Many communities kindled eight small cups of oil, while others used eggshells or scooped-out potatoes.
Through the late Middle Ages, Franco-German Jews evidently favored wall-hung bronze lamps featuring pierced, triangular backplates. In place of olive oil, however, they may have kindled wicks dipped in goose fat.
Early Spanish Hanukkah lamps, though similar in style, featured vertical backplates.
Examples reached foreign shores during the 15th century when Jews sought refuge overseas from persecution. In time, Moroccan wall-hung models incorporated Moorish-type arabesques, openwork geometric designs, stylized birds and architectural elements. Algerian and Tunisian ones, edged with tiny oil fonts, featured decorative scrolled motifs and crenelated backplates. Since North African Jews favored appearance over age, when these lamps were worn or needed repair, they were melted down and cast anew. As a result, originals are rare.
With the expansion of international trade, North African Hanukkah lamp elements also appeared in other lands. Early, squarish, brass Dutch backplates, for example, were pierced, punched or embossed with low-relief bird, flower, candelabra, heart or Star of David images.
By the 19th century, however, Dutch Jews, like many others across Europe, favored convenient, candle-lit silver, gold or bronze menorahs featuring symmetrical branches supported by central shafts. Some were simply designed, evoking the stately Temple candelabra. Others featured imaginative bases, decorative spouts and intricately scrolled branches, along with oil jug, lion or Star of David finials.
Small, decorative backplate, footed menorahs of this era, especially those wrought by master craftsmen, were highly desirable. Silver Austrian ones often feature semicircular backplates exquisite chased and pierced peacock, ramping lion, or Ten Commandment motifs enhanced by rich florals and regal crowns. Polish brass ones, depicting crests or noble animals like stags, griffins or eagles, are sometimes flanked by similar side panels. Fine, woven silver filagree “Baal Shem Tov” models, featuring gilded, cartouche-shaped backplates adorned with birds, flowers, Torah scrolls, architectural elements and paired servant lights, are particularly enticing. Though most were small, designed for table use, “monumental” Polish and Russian synagogue menorahs ranged up to 4 feet in height.
Rare, exceptional, antique menorahs, featuring fine, unusual images or craftwork, explains Jonathan Greenstein, Judaica expert at J. Greenstein and Co., are extremely collectible. Yet few survived the Holocaust. Most available on today’s market reached the West during earlier Jewish immigration.
From 1909 through 1926, members of the Bezalel School in Jerusalem created appealing stamped brass and silver backplate menorahs, many depicting classic motifs or scenes of the Hanukkah story. Classic Bauhaus forms and green, patinated brass models followed.
Contemporary Western artists often recast favorites or, inspired by tradition, create modern ones featuring Hebrew inscriptions, embossed Biblical scenes or popular motifs, Some, through cutting-edge technology, create crystal, acrylic, glass and freeform “molten” silver beauties. Others craft intriguing menorahs from found materials like bullets, artillery shells, or a mishmash of metal pipes.
Though many celebrate Hanukkah with a single menorah, others assign a separate one to each member of their family. Seven, eight, nine menorahs with candles all aglow – that’s a sight to behold.
Many observant families, however, prefer kindling oil-fonts because they are closer to tradition, closer to the Hanukkah miracle. These are enclosed in protective glass boxes, then displayed outdoors for all to see.