Hanukkah , a joyous winter festival, commemorates the military victory of a small number of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, over the oppressive Syrian-Greek monarchy, which had commanded the Jews to worship only Greek idols under penalty of death under the rule of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Following their triumph, in finding Jerusalem’s sacred Temple desecrated by the Syrian-Greeks, the Maccabees cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary by lighting its seven-branched menorah , or candelabrum, with a small amount of oil that remained. Miraculously, the oil, supposedly enough for only one day, burned for the eight days of the Festival of Dedication—Hanukkah—in Hebrew.
To celebrate the success of the Maccabean Revolution, the first instance of fighting for religious freedom in recorded history, and the miracle of the Second Temple, Hanukkah lights are kindled for eight days each year during the Hebrew month of Kislev . This ritual is done using a nine-branch candleholder called a Hanukkiah , a Hanukkah lamp, or a menorah. Unlike a traditional, seven-branched menorah, the eight lights of the hanukkiah are gradually lit over the course of the holiday. Only one candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, with an additional candle being lit for each subsequent night, allowing the week-long celebration to close with with all eight branches fully illuminated. The hanukkiah also holds a ninth candle, the shamash , that acts as a servant light to kindle the others, since the glow of the hanukkiah is not to be used for work or illumination. Traditionally, the lighted Hanukkah lamp is placed near a window in the home, serving as a bright symbol of honor and celebration in the midst of dreary December nights.
Hanukkiot exist in a multitude of styles and materials, with tremendous creativity being shown in their manufacture. This hanukkiah, a seventeenth-century Italian “benched” menorah, features intricate brass detailing and a stunning figure of Judith, whose demonstrations of bravery and strength in the face of adversity, illustrated in the biblical Book of Judith, gained immense popularity during the Middle Ages. After the Assyrian invasion of the city of Bethulia led by Holofernes in 100 B.C.E., as local authorities sheepishly chose to surrender to the military forces surrounding them, Judith, a young and unsuspecting widow, challenged her community’s decision by confronting Holofernes at the Assyrian army’s base camp. In distracting the general with her beauty, Judith was able to decapitate Holofernes while sleeping in his tent, allowing the Israelites to launch a surprise attack and emerge independent. While the story of Judith is not directly correlated with the events of the Maccabean revolt, the courage and perseverance of both Judith and the Maccabees have inspired the Jewish people throughout centuries of hardship and adversity. Having created this hanukkiah in the shadow of Pope Paul IV, known as one of the most anti-semitic popes in papal history for having exiled Jewish Marranos from Port Ancona, this craftsmen’s work evokes a sense of hope and tenacity strong enough to withstand the trials of persecution and discrimination.
This month’s Object of the Month was written by Kate Stein, an intern at the Cincinnati Skirball Museum.
Kate is a senior at The Seven Hills School and has been involved with the Skirball Museum since January 2017.