Spice container (besamim, tower form)
12 in. (30.5 cm)
Medium and Support:
Maurice R. and Maxine B. Forman Fund
Location: Currently on view
The Memorial Art Gallery recently acquired several outstanding examples of Jewish ceremonial art from the collection of Central Synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in continuous use in New York City. All seven objects were made in southern Germany, a region important for the production of silver as well as the original homeland for many of the early members of Central Synagogue’s congregation.
These beautifully crafted works of art represent a range of ritual objects used in Jewish religious practice. The importance of beautifying such objects is eloquently captured in the principle of hiddur mitzvah. This expression, which literally means to beautify a commandment, is biblically grounded in Moses’ words following the Israelites’ escape from Egypt: “This is my God, and I will glorify Him.” (Exodus 15:2).
The collection includes ritual objects related to the celebration of the Sabbath, the spiritual focus of Judaism: a pair of candlesticks, a Kiddush cup and two spice containers. These were once used in the home, as was the Hanukkiah, an oil lamp lit during the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah. Also included is a Tas, a decorative and functional object that originally ornamented the Torah in a synagogue.
The conclusion of the Sabbath is marked by the havdalah ceremony, which separates sacred from secular time. All the senses are evoked during this ancient ritual; to excite the sense of smell, fragrant spices, often enclosed in ceremonial objects, were passed among those present. The tower form as a spice container first appears in the 1500s.
[Adapted from gallery label text, 2006]