Judaica Kiddush Cups and Ceremonial Goblets Buying Guide
Before each main meal on Shabbats and festivals, and at various special ceremonies such as weddings and circumcisions. A blessing is recited over a cup of wine by the senior male at the table or the Rabbi of a community before he drinks from it. The cup from which the wine is drunk is one of the most treasured of family possessions. The ceremony is called Kiddush, ‘sanctification’, because the blessing over the wine and bread sanctify the meal that follows. Sabbath and festivals are also brought to a close with a ceremony called Havdalah, that involves drinking from the cup. The common of all these ceremonies is the beaker, usually made of silver, that is most often used and perhaps the most familiar of all Jewish ritual objects in the home.
Silver cups and bowls have been known since antiquity as part of ordinary domestic ware. In the middle Ages, European Jews purchased cups and bowls from non-Jewish silversmiths, the form and decoration of which varied with their date and province.
Often it is the Hebrew inscription alone that which indicates that the piece was used in Jewish rituals, so inscriptions are of primary importance for determining the origin and value of a cup.
The earliest examples a collector might encounter will probably be non-Jewish, late seventeenth century silver beakers or goblets with engraved Hebrew inscriptions. Discovering the age of an inscription is the main challenge. It is often easier to determine this once the date of the silver itself had been identified, which may be possible by means of hallmarks and stylistic features. Certain types of inscription, particularly those recording a presentation to a synagogue or Hevra Kadishah (Burial Society), include dates, but most cups, even those with inscriptions, are undated, so their style is the only guide. In general, the earlier the piece and the more contemporary the engraving, the finer and moe elaborate the engraving will be.
Thus, on a late-seventeenth century beaker or goblet one would except genuine early engravings to be beautifully executed, particularly if it comes, as most examples do, from Germany or Bohemia.
The letters are finely formed usually with the central portion shaded with meticulous cross-hatching or other decorative engraving. The letters often terminate in foliage motifs or even animal heads. A good knowledge of manuscripts and printed Hebrew calligraphic styles from between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries is vital. The inscriptions embroidered on Torah binders are invariably dated, so provide a useful guide to letter-styles. Lastly the tombstone inscription of old Jewish cemeteries in Germany, Central Europe and Poland provide a vital catalogue of dated letter forms. Many groups of stones have been published, so can be studied from photographs. Once inscription have been authenticated by museum or skilled collectors, they can be used for comparative purposes. Care is particularly important here because of many inscriptions that have been fraudulently added in recent years to increase the value of an otherwise ordinary piece. If there is good reason for the inscription to be slightly later than the object on which it appears, the dated should reflect this time-lag. In general terms, a late seventeenth- or eighteenth century beaker will be worth 5 or 10 times more if the engraving was executed within between 30 and 50 years of the making of the piece. Nineteenth-century engraving might increase the value perhaps two or threefold, modern engraving should not affect its value at all. In fact, a fine seventeenth- or eighteenth century silver object can be ruined by the addition of an ugly, modern inscription.
The exact wording of the inscription also affects its value. The best Sabbath cups bear full biblical commandment in Hebrew to ‘Remember (or “observe”) the Sabbath Day, to keep it Holy’. Others bear only the Word ‘Sabbath’ in Hebrew, or simply an owners name or initials. Unless the owner achieved fame in some respect, these inscriptions add little to the value, even when they are of the right period. Other cups bear a biblical quotation relating to the particular festival on which they were intended to be used. An attractive type of festival cups has a small vignette or symbol engraved in line with the lettering, which relates to the festival in question. A small Matsah represents Passover, a leafy hut Tabernacles and so on. One must be especially cautious on checking the authenticity of these ornaments because of the value they add to the piece.
German Kiddush Cups
Craftsmen in eighteenth-century Germany develop a new and popular form of Kiddush cup. It consists of a goblet with six or eight sides, of which the lower section is usually lobbed, and the upper portion chased with flowers. A Hebrew inscription appears at the rim. Its baluster stem is also lobbed, and the domed circular base matches in decoration on the cup. These objects were made in mainly Augsburg and Nuremberg by a few families of silversmiths who specialized in their manufacture. In Augsburg the Mittnacht family’s most active member was Hieronymus, while in Nuremberg there were the Bierfreund and Wollenberg families. Their cups should be marked on the bowl as well as on the foot, although some are marked on one or another only. The bowl should unscrew from the stem, but in many cases the joint became wobbly and has been soldered closed. Original cups are of relatively thin-gauge metal, while later copies are cast from these and are heavier and coarser. The genuine examples often shoe considerable wear and may have been repaired several times. These signs of use are quite acceptable so long as the shape of the cup has not been altered. The makers of such cups tend to be somewhat conservative in their taste. So baroque strapwork panels on the bowl, and the base sometimes continued to appear during th 1750s, and Rococo foliage lingers on onto the 1790s. A good German-Jewish cup, dating from between about 1720 and the end of eighteenth century and with matching inscriptions, is most desirable, especially when it also bears a festival motif.
Polish Kiddush Cups
Polish examples dating from between the hate eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century are also popular. These are cruder in form plainer in decoration, and tend to have Hebrew inscription that appears in a central cartouche on the side of a tulip – or bell shaped bowl, standing on a plain cylindrical or faceted stem. They usually have a ’skirt’ where the bowl meets the stem, consisting of a petal like disc of applied silver. The cups are usually of fairly heavy gauge metal. They are sometimes unmarked, but are more often struck with the quality mark ‘12’. Occasionally a maker’s mark consisting of letters or a symbol such as a leaf or a bird will appear as well.
The most familiar form of Kiddush cup is perhaps the small silver beaker, usually between 11/2 inches (4cm) and 31/2 inches (9cm) in height, which was made in profusion in Poland and Russia. Throughout the nineteenth century and until the First World War. The earlier examples are often Polish in origin, are of heavier metal, and are engraved with foliage and birds. They bear the ‘12’ quality mark and perhaps a maker’s mark as well. The cups usually date about 1820-50. After this period they mostly appear with Moscow marks, until the fall of the Russian empire in 1917. The markings include full date of objects before 1896, as well as the Moscow town mark of ST. George slaying the dragon, which is often worn down to an illegible blur. There will also be the Cyrillic maker’s initials.
The cups bear engraved decoration that includes vestigial foliage alternating with a naïve architectural vignette. The metal became thinner and the workmanship rougher as the century progressed. They were made originally as vodka cups, but were quickly adopted by the Jewish population. The smaller versions were used by children. Almost every Polish or Russian Jewish family, no matter how poor, managed to have at least one such cup, which they numbered among their most treasured possessions.
One version of this beaker is especially valuable, the ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Safed’ cup. Craftsmen in Poland or in Palestine carefully engraved a typical Polish cup with three or sometimes four vignettes of Jerusalem or of other sacred sited in the Holy Land, including the mystic center of Safed in Galilee. The names of the localities usually appear besides them. Such cups generally have a Polish or a Polish-type quality mark ‘12’ and other stamps. They date from the latter half of the nineteenth century and were made until the First World War. Also popular is a version carved out of the black, so called ‘Dead Sea Stone’ with similar scenes and captions.
A few other types of beakers deserve special attention. At weddings and circumcisions two people drink out of the same cup following a blessing. For these ceremonies a pair of vessels was sometimes provided, or occasionally a double cup, consisting of an identical pair joined at the rim. The double examples were based on those made by non-Jewish craftsman in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are most commonly in the form of a barrel, with the staves and tap realistically engraved and chased, and adorned with Hebrew inscriptions or abbreviations. Good double cups of this period are anyway rare and expensive, but Jewish specimens with original engravings can command many times their price, especially they bear the name of a guild member who is known for making Jewish ritual silver. The temptation to forge such stamps is therefore great, and care should be taken in ascertaining the date of any Hebrew lettering.
Hevrah Kadishah - Burial Society Cups
Finally we should look at a category of cups that had attracted the attention of many collectors of Judaica, The Hevrah Kadishah or Burial Society cup. The Hevrah Kadishah (literally the ‘Holy Society’) is the most prestigious of the many benevolent societies that thrive in Jewish communal life. Only the most learned and observant people are permitted to perform its duties of ministering to the dying and dead. The society’s work is considered the purest form of charity, since no thanks can be expected for performing it. Burial societies hold an annual banquet for members on the traditional anniversary of the death of Moses. New members are selected and the cup passed among them. The cups are usually used ceramics or glass examples. The silver ones are invariably inscribed and dated, and often record the name of the donor, the community and even of the members of the society. It is not unusual to find different forms of these Hevrah by which the cup was used. Early examples with almost contemporary inscriptions are the most valuable, although the quality and condition are important, as are any special occasion of the place of origin and the presence of any famous names among the list of members. These cups, which include beakers, goblets and even tankards, are often as values for their documentary interest as for their beauty.