Antiques: The Lights of Hanukkah


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As summer fades from view, it signals that the holidays are squarely in sight. We’ve been through the weirdness of Halloween before and are now loosening our belts in preparation for some serious year-end eating. First, Hanukkah, let’s take a look at its most iconic symbol: the menorah.

While most people know that the menorah is an eight plus one candelabra, the oldest known consisted of only seven branches. Among other places, these were discovered in the original temples of Jerusalem, but after their destruction, a tradition emerged not to reproduce anything found there. Beyond that, the story gets a bit hazy after more than 2,000 years, but the Hebrew Bible describes a time when God gave Moses specific instructions on what a menorah should look like. The very first was to be solid gold, but it is obvious that this one has been lost to history.

The earliest menorahs date from the Temple in Jerusalem and displayed seven candles.

In any event, the lower eight branches of a menorah would represent the eight days that an oil lamp remained lit with very little oil during a battle between a band of Jews and their pursuers. Since then all kinds of symbols and traditions have become attached to the menorahs, including the cosmic meaning of each candle, when and how each can be lit and where the menorah is to be displayed. Interestingly, the three major religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – have historical relationships with the menorah, making it a universal symbol of faith.

Over the centuries, menorahs have come in all shapes and sizes. Almost all families with roots in the Jewish faith have one somewhere, and many include stories that stretch back generations. These are often considered family heirlooms and rarely hit the market. During World War II, menorahs in European Jewish homes were researched and destroyed, making them extremely coveted by collectors today. The world’s largest menorah is on the corner of 59th and 5th in New York City. Standing 32 feet tall and weighing 4,000 pounds, it was created by Israeli artist Yaakov Agam and serves as a touchstone for Manhattan’s Jewish community.

A traditional brass menorah like those found in millions of homes.

For those of us who don’t have the room to accommodate a 4,000 pound menorah, we mostly settle for table versions in silver, copper, or brass. The original menorahs used oil lamps for lighting, but with the invention of candles around AD 400, menorahs became much easier to light. The ninth candle that stands above the others is the shammash, used to light the other eight. The shammash stays on all evening as a sentry, ready to revive others that are inadvertently extinguished. It is this distinctive design element that makes menorahs immediately recognizable, offering the promise of constant illumination to all in attendance. And as it is, we could all use a little more lighting these days.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award winning catalog publisher and author of seven books as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Antique Galleries in Palm Springs. His antiques column appears on Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Send him a message at [email protected]

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