Hanukkah is a post-biblical festival that recalls the deliverance of the Jewish people from the tyranny of the Syrian-Greek government in 165 BCE. The victory of the Maccabees over King Antiochus and his troops was the first time in recorded history that a people fought for religious freedom. When the Jews prepared to rededicate the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem, they did not have enough oil to rekindle the seven-branched menorah that represented God’s eternal presence. According to the apocryphal book of Maccabees, a miracle occurred—a small vial of oil lasted eight days.
The Hanukkah story is recalled each year by lighting candles for eight days using a Hanukkiyah (Hanukkah Lamp) which has nine wicks, one for each night of the holiday and one for kindling the others, called the shamash (servant light). Used in the home, and expected to appear in a window for all to see, the Hanukkiyah has experienced a wondrous array of decorative styles.
The silver appliqué Hanukkiyah featured here was made in central Europe in the early nineteenth century. The elaborate and intricate design replicates a synagogue altar with columns flanking a central space that would house the Holy Ark. Set on claw feet, the back plate and sides are impressed with motifs of flowers, foliage, and birds. Griffins and other exotic beasts abound, as well as cornucopia and a ram’s head with horns at bottom center, below a balustrade of eight candle sockets. The shamash candle socket is behind a screen of foliage between two stags above the central columns. Of particular interest is the unusual component of a clock with Hebrew numerals at the top. This remarkable Hanukkiah was a gift to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion by Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Katz in memory of their parents. At the time of the gift (1950), Mr. Katz was president of the Gruen Watch Company.