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Hanukkah Menorah

November 26, 2002–January 5, 2003

On loan from the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Collection, this elaborately decorated eighteenth-century menorah—one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith—marks the holiday season. Dating to about 1771, the candelabrum is large in size (60 x 41 x 19 in.) and rich in ornament, indicating that it was intended for use in a synagogue. An inscription suggests that the synagogue was located in Eastern Europe, probably in Poland.

The menorah is a special candleholder or lamp holder lighted by Jews during the eight-day festival of Hanukkah, an ancient holiday commemorating the triumph of the Jews, under Judas Maccabeus, over Greek rule in 164 B.C., and celebrating Maccabeus's re-dedication of the defiled Holy Temple. It has eight receptacles for oil/candles and a further receptacle for the center light (the shamas) used for kindling the other lights. Beginning the twenty-fifth of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the central feature of Hanukkah is the lighting of candles or oil lamps each evening, one on the first night, two on the second, and so on. Though the military victory of Maccabeus is more emphasized today, the distinctive ceremony of lighting the menorah also recalls the Talmudic legend of how the small supply of non-desecrated oil—just enough for one day—miraculously burned for eight full days in the Temple until new oil could be obtained.