Hanukkah commemorates the miraculous reconsecration of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees in 164 B.C.E, following their victory over the Syrian-Greek armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The main feature of the festival is the lighting at home of an additional light of the Hanukkah lamp on each of the eight days of the festival (25 Kislev - 2 Tevet).
According to Rabbinical tradition, Hanukkah celebrates the "miracle of the pitcher of oil" which occurred on the Temple Mount: "A single pitcher of oil sufficient for only one day’s kindling led to a miracle [wherein the Menorah] burned for eight days" (BT Tractate Shabbat 21b). To proclaim this miracle as required, the kindled Hanukkah lamp is prominently displayed for all to see.
Upon kindling the Hanukkah lights, the following passage is recited, "We light these lights on account of the miracles and wonders, triumphs and battles, that you brought about for our fathers in those days at this time . . . And on all eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred . . . (from the Ashkenazic prayer book, based on a passage from Tractate Sofrim 20:6)"
The Hanukkah lamp is either suspended or standing. Its eight oil fonts or candle holders are typically accompanied by a servant light. A backplate and side panels shield the flames and reflect their glow. The bronze Hanukkah lamps in the collection (cat. nos. 112-131), mainly from the 15th - 17th centuries, are in the Gothic and Renaissance styles, and come from Northern Italy, France and Germany. These are the earliest examples extant.
Their casting technique, quality, refinement of detail, and gilt traces indicate that they were created in preliminary molds, and that the lamps were later used as prototypes for many others. A number of the Renaissance-style lamps (cat. nos. 120-125) were designed in northern Italian workshops, some of them by Jewish artists. The renowned molders of the de Levis family of Verona in the 16th century were apparently among those who designed prototypes for Hanukkah lamps (cat. nos. 279-280). Two later 18th־century lamps (cat. nos. 131-132) resemble gates in the Neo-Classical style.
The silver lamps from Frankfurt, Germany (cat. nos. 134-139) hail from the late 17th century and mainly the 18th century. The 18th-century lamps were made after the fire that destroyed the Jewish ghetto on January 14, 1711. These lamps represent the fine work of the Christian silversmiths in the city's guilds.
Pewter craft is represented by Hanukkah lamps from south Germany and Alsace (cat. nos. 140-142), which complement the Purim and Passover plates. Both urban and village styles are evident in these pewter objects. Their engraved inscriptions and decorations were apparently based on drawings by Jewish artists of the 18th century.
Among the silver Hanukkah lamps from Central and Eastern Europe is a rare example from Russia (cat. no. 143), in the form of a splendid, delicately fashioned chandelier. Three 18th-century lamps from Poland (cat. nos. 144, 145, 148) were made by members of Jewish guilds, silversmiths who excelled in the mastery of their craft (see also Torah ornaments, (cat. nos. 2-7, 9).
Contemporary folk artists made the two Hanukkah lamps (cat. nos. 148, 165) and other silver objects (cat. nos. 27, 28, 107, 111, 239). The quality of their work did not meet the standards required by the guilds - yet their very imperfection and lack of uniformity, as well as traces of the hammer and knife, contribute to the charm of these objects.
The patterns for Polish cast-brass Hanukkah lamps (cat. nos. 149-157) were prepared by Jewish artists, who also decorated synagogues, made paper-cuts for Shavuot, drew patterns for tombstones, and illustrated manuscripts and Esther scrolls. Various patterns were based on Scriptural texts and bore the imprint of local art styles and the artist's imagination.
Since the age of Enlightment in the 18th century, there were Jewish craftsmen in Poland in almost every city or shtetl where Jews lived. From early morning till late at night, they and their apprentices toiled over blazing furnaces where the brass was melted. From the flames sprang cast deer, lions, eagles, guilloche bands, and vegetal forms with which the craftsmen adorned their works, sometimes adding a tribute to the ruler in the form of an eagle or crest.
The precise provenance of the Polish lamps is difficult to ascertain, due to the wanderings of the Jews in search of hard-earned livelihood, and the political upheavals which mark the country's history. The difficulty is compounded by the nature of the division of labor in creating these wares: separate parts were made in different workshops and mounted on different lamps. Nevertheless, sources and materials which influenced cast-brass works can be identified: heavy lamps with thick panels and roughly hewn decoration recall tombstone carving; finer-gauge lamps recall silhouettes and lacework, as in paper cuts; lamps with cast motifs in the wood-carving style recall Torah arks; and lamps with side panels and balustrades recall the wrought iron work on railings around the reader's platform (bima) in the synagogue. From 19th-centry Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, are Hanukkah lamps (cat. nos. 161-166), with their eclectic blending of styles characteristic of the period. The choice of sheet brass, a relatively cheap metal, to fashion Dutch and similar North African 18th-century lamps (cat. nos. 167-172) shows the influence of economic conditions and metal market fluctuations in Europe at the time. The backplates are adorned with light reflectors, hearts, flowers and folk motifs.
Cast North African Hanukkah lamps (cat. nos. 173-178) were made mainly by Jewish craftsmen who decorated them with arabesques, birds, vegetation, and gates, found also in manuscripts and illustrated pages. One large hanging lamp (cat. no. 181) represents the lamps of the Jewish community of Cochin in India. It has a row of oil fonts and an arched backplate-reflector topped by a crown. The two lamps (cat. nos. 182-183) which complete the collection are from Iraq. One of them is formed of rows engraved with biblical script, recalling the colorful text and decoration found in Esther scrolls and manuscripts from Baghdad.