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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The One Where Y'all Light the Little Candles


 Drawing of  Temple Vessels,  circa 1st century B.C.E. by unknown artist  (Photo c. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Yoram Lehmann)
Yes, Chanukah starts tonight at sunset,  the holiday when the Jews recall a miracle dating back 2,176  years to the Greek destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple. The story of Chanukah is likely familiar to most,  but, as I’ve noticed that I have readers in the most diverse of countries and cultures, you can find it here .

The menorah, the seven-branched candelabra of the Temple, is one of the most enduring of national symbols of the Jewish people. It differs from the candelabra  that is used for the celebration of Chanukah in the number of candles lit – a chanukiah is comprised of eight branches to re-enact the eight days of the miracle, plus an extra candle to aid in the lighting of the others (plural: chanukiot).

Scholars have long explored ancient texts for clues to the actual appearance of the ancient holy vessel. At the end of Jordanian rule in 1967, extensive archaeological digs were conducted in the Jewish Quarter, led by archaeologist, Nahum Avigad,  which uncovered a rare possible eye-witness documentation. During the excavations a large mansion was unearthed which showed a drawing scratched into a plaster wall located a number of meters away from the Temple itself (albeit during the time of Herod's Second Temple, after the Chanukah story). It is believed to have been drawn by a Jewish Priest who was familiar with the holy artifacts and sketched them into the wet plaster of the wall and is the earliest known depiction of the menorah.
Graffito with temple vessels; Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem; Herodian period, 1st century BCE, Plaster, The Israel Museum 

This ancient rendering of the menorah is housed in the Israel Museum archaeology wing in the newly renovated museum.  If you are visiting,  keep this image in mind when you cross into another wing of the museum, that dedicated to Jewish Life. The old museum displayed a truly impressive high wall of Chanukah lamps from all over the world-  which, unfortunately, was eye-straining and prevented close-up views of the details of the individual lamps which were as diverse as their countries of origin. And,  I presume, also presented a continuing battle with dust. The newly designed museum now  displays fewer examples in a room dedicated to these Chanukah lamps,  each in a display window of suitable height and  with individual lighting so that they can be better appreciated.

Preparations for the holiday are at their height,  with the first of eight candles to be lit tonight. My studio landlord's grandchildren invited me to see their family's preparations for the holiday, and this is one of the chanukiot their family lights - jumbo-sized, the better to publicize the miracle. I was struck by the remarkable resemblance it bears  to the one shown above from the first century, B.C.E.  And so it is with tradition.

I will be posting more images relating to Chanukah from around Jerusalem and beyond for all eight nights of the holiday. If there are artists who incorporate the menora or chanukiah image in their work are welcome to send a suggestion  for posting.

"Chanukiah in Nachlaot" ( Razel Family) c. 2011by Heddy Abramowitz


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