The Sabbath Lamp
Judaica Sabbath Lamps & Candlesticks Buying Guide
The Sabbath lamp is the most potent potent symbol of the Jewish home, Its gently diffused light emblemizes the singular peace of the Sabbath eve. The family meal on Friday evening is a time apart, when the master of each house becomes its High Priest and its table an alter. A special meal will have been prepared, the finest clothes laid out and the best tableware produced. When the preparations are completed and night is falling – since Sabbath, like all Jewish feasts, lasts from evening to evening – the holy day is welcomed into the family circle by the mother, whose work has done most to make it possible. As she lights the Sabbath lamp the sacred time commences. She covers her eyes as she says a brief prayer over it, after which a mystic poem is sung, welcoming the angles of the Sabbath into the home. The father then formally blesses his children and the meal begins. Even today, when electricity has made an anachronism of oil and candles, the old lamps and candlesticks carefully polished, shed their golden reflected aura over familiar surroundings, marking off the Sabbath-eve meal from the pressures of secular life.
There are several versions of the Sabbath-lamp custom. Some families light a pair of candlesticks, others a candelabrum, some have a hanging lamp with between six and twelve wicks, and others light one candle for each member of the family. Each number of lights has a mystic meaning: the two candles are for the double command in the Bible, to ‘keep’ and to ‘remember’ the Sabbath. The six wicks are for the working days of the week clustering around the lamp of the Sabbath, and the personal candles symbolize the angles that accompany each individual throughout the Sabbath. There seems to be little standardization in usage, except that pairs of candlesticks, which are widely manufactured and easy to find, have gained ground on the oter forms of lighting.
Oil lamps, although they are less usual nowadays, are far more ancient that candles, so we shall look at them first. The earliest known lamps consisted of bowl of oil with a burning wick projecting over the side. Clay bowls, some equipped with a shallow lip – to hold the wick – which has been blackened by the guttering flame, have been discovered in the houses that date back to the Middle bronze age, when the biblical Abraham is supposed to have lived. As the centuries passed, the lip became progressively more pinched, until by the Roman times the whole lamp was enclosed except for a tiny hole for the wick and a larger one for pouring in the oil. Such lamps have even been discovered on which Jewish religious symbols are molded, but we have no way of knowing wheatear they were intended specifically for Sabbath use or for some other rituals such as burial offerings, which we are no longer familiar.
The earliest Sabbath lamps of which we are known are those illustrated in medieval manuscripts, but no lamp seems to have survived from earlier that the seventeenth century. The majority of those you are likely to find are of cast brass or bronze, and have evolved from the simple hanging bowls. Originally the potter or metalworker would have indented the rim of the bowl in order to secure the wicks whose lower ends floated in the oil-filled reservoir. Another technique involved pinching the rim to produce a series of lips around the rim of the bowl. In later lamps these lips were extended into longer nozzles, particularly in Northern Europe, so that the much-reduced bowl lay at the center of the a number of radiating arms to form a star shape. For this reason they became known as Judenstern lamps, meaning ‘Jewish Star’.
Below the star, hung a drip-pan to catch any drops of oil from the wicks. The star itself was suspended from a vertical central rod or elaborately molded tube to help reflect the light, which in turn hung from a chain, or – in the case of a German lamps – from a ratchet with which one could raise and lower the lamp when it was not in use. The catch of the rachet, usually called the pawl, was often shaped like an animal head.
You will be lucky to find a whole lamp with all its original pieces intact. Breakage has taken their toll, and many examples have been ruined by being drilled for electric light. Be on your guard also against ill-fitting sections from different lamps: the proportions should tell you if a match is a suitable one. All lamps are hard to date and to trace to their place of origin since brass is not stamped or marked. Generally speaking, the earlier examples are larger and heavier, with more elaborately turned and finished stems. They will also tend to show signs of heavy use and of generations of regularly polishing, although little-used specimen may look almost completely new, so caution will be needed if you use this dating technique. German stars have long projections with rounded or keel-shaped bottoms, while Italian ones tend to have shorter lips spaced round the rim of a larger, deeper, reservoir. Italian lamps also have thinner and more elegant hanging rods and no ratchets.
Some finer versions of the Sabbath lamp have a series of scrolling arms emerging from the hanging rods and ending in the candleholders or small decorative reflectors. Larger lamps may have been more then one tier of these. On eighteenth-century models the arm will have wedge-like insertion points which will often be individually numbered, since each arm sill fit only into its own socket. Lamps with these additions are far rarer than these without.
There is no reason for the owner of rich collection of Judaica not to use and enjoy the Sabbath lamps it contains. Although olive oil can be rather messy, it burns steadily and with a beautiful soft flame. A short piece of smooth strings severs as an ideal wick. If you prefer electricity – which is certainly cleaner that oil, but less attractive and simply wring for the purpose – you should buy a lamp that has already been wired for bulbs. You should certainly never ruin a good lamp by having it drilled for yourself. It is incidentally, possible to wire one up without damaging the metal at all.
There is a complementary little danger that a brass or bronze lamp will be a forgery, since the work required to produce them is considerable and the profits not particularly high. The same is unfortunately not true of silver examples, however, which are extremely rare and consequently very expensive. The most elaborated silver lamps come chiefly from Frankfurt-am-Main and date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The central rod is adorned with ranks of tiny figurines standing around ornate galleries. Most such lamps are now in museums, but examples appear on the market from time to time. If you see one, check first of all that it is not a simple silver lamp, that have been ornamented a much later date. Check also that all the parts are genuine and that they match. A certain amount of old damage and repair and even some later elements, are to expected. They should be considered signs of normal use and maintenance. Some replacements pieces may date from up to seventy five years later than the rest of the lamp. Less elaborate German silver lamps are not so rare but they are easier to forge. You should, therefore be on your guard. The best defense is a thorough knowledge of the silversmithing techniques current at the relevant period, coupled with an acquaintance with a number of authentic lamps in museums collections. While paying close attention to the silver marks, bear in mind that forgers are often scrupulous in reproducing these important details, so these are not in themselves proof of authenticity. This is also true of all the types of silver lamp described in the following paragraphs.
Silver lamps from Holland, dating from seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, tend to be less ornate, but no less splendid. They are usually closer in design to the brass lamps, and make their impact by means of the play of light on multi-faceted surfaces.
Since Sephardic Jews, who came originally from Spain and Portugal lived in Netherlands at the same time as the local ASHKENAZI Jews from France and Germany, both the Italian and the German types of lamps were manufactured there. Each piece of these lamps should be marked. Dating will be easier if there are any small applied Baroque or Rococo elements. The lamp tend to be of thick metal, which increases their value still further. A small number of a similar kind were made in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly in imitation of the Datuch lamps owned by some of the earliest Sephardic immigrants. These are very rare indeed.
The Italian lamps you are likely to find on the market will mostly date between the late seventeenth and the early nineteenth centuries. They stand midway between the heavy figural elaboration of the German pieces and the bold simplicity of the Dutch. The rim of the bowl is pinched at the intervals to hold the wicks, rather than having long projecting arms to form a ‘star’. The lamps are of medium-to-light gauge metal. But they make up in exuberance what they lack in weight, especially during the baroque and Rococo periods. Separate cast figures never appear. Many of the lamps have southern Italian markings, but as these are rather random, you should cross check that all pieces match in style and technique. Remember too thart in Italy olive oil remained the standard lighting fuel for far longer than in almost any other part of Europe – until late nineteenth century – so that by no means all the Italian oil lamps you will find will be Judaic.
The style of brassware changes rather more slowly than that of other types of object, so the dating is unfortunately less precise. Candlesticks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are massive and ornate, with sinuous stems, and with sockets, pierced drip-pans and guards set at the intervals in graduated tiers.
The feet too are complex, and are often composed of several elements. The screws attaching the base to the stem are a reliable guide of authenticity: they should be thick and crude, often with a shallow hole punched in the center of the base to serve as a centering point. The thread will be uneven and somewhat worn, and will fit only into the socket for which it was made. The surface of the candlestick will be smothered by centuries of polishing, and all sharp corners will have been worn down and gently rounded.
Candlesticks became progressively smaller and less massive and ornate during the nineteenth century. Many have stumpy, square bases and badly proportioned, bulbous stems. In the second half of the century a type produced in Warsaw takes precedence. They are of quite light-gauge metal, have domed circular bases which often stand on grapevine legs, and are chased or stamped with grapevines, foliage and even with depictions of swans on a lake. Many were originally silver plated, to resemble the silver candlesticks on which they were based. They are often marked with the maker’s name and with the Warszawa province stamp of Warsaw. They look handsome even when the silver has worn thin, so it is usually a mistake to re-silver them; this destroys the patina and makes an old pair of candlesticks simple look new. Careful polishing brings out their rich coloring.
The brass candelabra of eastern Europe that developed at the same time as the candlesticks usually have bulbous (multi-baluster) stems, set on broad, concave, circular bases. The earlier ones, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are of the same massive style of screw contraction as the candlesticks. The candleholders are also attached with screws. The branches which bear these candleholders are ornately pierced with designs of interlaced foliage, and occasionally with rampant lions and deer. On earlier examples the design will be supplemented with engraved details. There are between two and seven candleholders: those with eight light are for use at Hanukkah.
Large lamps were often intended for use in synagogue. Many lamps of all kinds are surmounted with a =n eagle knop, or even with a pair of heraldic eagles. There is occasionally a central cartouche with a Sabbath-light blessing in Hebrew, although it is more usual in nineteenth century examples.
We come lastly to one of the most attractive of all types of Sabbath light, which is also one of the easiest to find on the market: the silver candlesticks of Poland. They were made mostly in Warsaw from about the middle of the nineteenth century until the Second World War, and almost exclusively for Jewish use. The earliest examples date from the 1830s and 1840s and they usually have square base and mildly bulbous stems. Later the stems swell and are embossed and chased with foliage, while a domed and tiered base appears, similarly decorated. The silver-plated examples described earlier echo these candlesticks closely. Warsaw makers produced them in great numbers, particularly prior to the First World War. The surviving quantities suggest that practically every Jewish family in Eastern Europe possessed a pair. A limited production continued between the wars in Warsaw, with a little innovation or change. Later examples can usually only be identified by the lack of patina and wear, but this is most unreliable indicator of date, since some early candlesticks have been little used. One occasionally finds find pieces with both pre- and post- First World War hallmarks. This was occasionally done when pre-1914 pieces were re-assembled for a tax purpose or resale, so you need not assume piece is a forgery.
Regarding contemporary candlesticks: Ludwing Wolport, Ilya Schor and Moshe Zabari of the Toby Pashcer Workshop in the Jewish Museum, New York have succeeded in creating a modern idiom. Younger artists, one hopes will make sure that our own age is also remembered for its Sabbath lamps, as well as for collecting the Masterpieces of the earlier ages.