Rare Chanukiyot Exhibition at Israel Museum Reflects Jewish Historical Journey

December 4, 2018

4 min read

This Chanukah (the Jewish Festival of Lights), the Israel Museum displays 150 of its collection of 1,000 chanukiot – the largest collection of its kind in the world. The Chanukah menorahs, exhibited in the museum’s Jewish Art and Culture Wing, include pieces from an array of ancient Jewish diaspora communities in Spain, Morocco, Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Holland, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Russia and Ukraine.


While it is unclear how long Jews have been celebrating with the tradition of lighting candles, archaeologists have found clay chanukiot dating back to the beginning of the Middle Ages. The oldest chanukiah in the collection dates back to the first century.

Mirroring the immigrants themselves who gathered in Israel as a part of the process of kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of the exiles), many brought the artifacts from the four corners of the earth to become part of a collection at the museum. According to senior curator Dr. Rachel Sarfati, the pieces “reflect a historical journey through the Jewish communities that existed in these countries.”

“We can decipher where and when the chanukiot are from based on the motifs designed on the lamps,” she told Breaking Israel News.  Urban landscapes often shaped chanukiah design. For example, a chanukiah with a design similar to a gothic church in Western Europe with horseshoes typical of Islamic art is likely from the Spanish kingdom in the 13-14th century when the architecture featured gothic, Islamic style architecture. A chanukiah on display from Spain resembles the Alhambra palace. Italian chanukiot feature fountains, popular in Italian cities. Chanukiot from Poland resemble wooden synagogues with an entrance, featuring extra branches for Shabbat candles so the menorah could be used year round. Some chanukiot portray a leader from a given chanukiah’s country of origin. “Historical events created value to the Jewish communities,” said Sarfati. “The Jews would express this value through a gesture or homage to their leaders and architecture.”

Based on the shape and design of the chanukiot, one can learn a lot about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in a given place and time. Where Jews were unpopular, the chanukiot tend to be physically small and were not often placed in windows. Where Jews were well-liked, chanukiot are larger, ornately decorated and were often placed outside on the street. For example, the chanukiot from Jerusalem are box-shaped until today, as Jews would place them outside of their homes in the winter weather.

The most valuable chanukiah in the collection was made in Germany in the 19th century. “In Europe during this time, Jews would commission Christians to make their ritual objects, including silver chanukiot, reflecting both the economic abilities of Jews during this time as well as the close relationship between Jews and Christians in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Hungary from the 13th century to the 16th century.”

Now, placing the freestanding chanukiah (as well as chanukiot with dominant backs to reflect the light) in a window is popular around the world, reflecting a “changing situation.” Jews who felt unprotected used to avoid a display of customs in public, maintained Sarfati. Now, she said, Jews around the world have again begun to place chanukiot in windows to publicize the miracle. “Most of the chanukiyot were used by their owners for lighting Chanukah candles at home, while some, primarily the largest ones, were displayed in synagogues and in public spaces.”

The story of Chanukah itself commemorates the miracle of victory and oil the Jews found over two centuries ago in Jerusalem, before the beginning of Christianity. According to a Talmudic legend, Syrian king (Antiochus) made the Jews worship Greek gods and erected a statue of himself in the Second Jewish Temple, ordering them to bow down to it. As the Ten Commandments forbade Jews to worship idols, they refused and the Maccabees rebelled, eventually recapturing Jerusalem from the Syrians. However, the Temple had been destroyed and as they were cleaning and repairing, they rededicated the Temple to God by lighting a lamp (menorah), a symbol of God’s presence. Although just one small jar of oil was found, enough for only one day, the oil miraculously lasted eight days.

As such, many chanukiya artists incorporate into their creations design elements from the Temple and the menorah that stood within it. Biblical motifs often include the branches similar to the lamps used in the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, with the calyx and petal design described in the Bible:

And on the menorah itself there shall be four cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals” (Exodus 25:34)

German hanukiya with Biblical motifs. (Credit: Israel Museum)

While the Temple menorah has seven branches (and this type of menorah is prohibited to use outside of the Temple) the Chanukah menorah has eight branches, plus a raised shamash light used to kindle the other lights and commemorate the miracle. Other design elements include the face of the Holy Ark, the candle-lighting blessing or words to the traditional song “Hanerot Hallelu” (“These Candles”) and the image of a cohen (priest) lighting the Temple menorah. “All of these Jewish symbols enhance the meaning and celebration of Chanukah,” added Sarfati.

“It’s a spiritual atmosphere in Israel during Chanukah,” she said. “Here in Jerusalem, walking outside, one can see Chanukah lamps on both sides of the streets.” Although diverse, what unites the chanukiot from around the world, Sarfati posed, is their purpose – to observe the same ritual and law of publicizing the miracle that occurred some 2,500 years ago.

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