Ceramic Hanukkah lamp found in Lorca, Spain. 15th century. Lorca: Luces de Sefarad. Lights of Sepharad (Murcia, 2009), p 372.
by Samuel D. Gruber
Hanukkah is behind us, but not my embarrassment for a mistake on my holiday card that some readers may have received. The ceramic menorah that I labeled as coming from the important excavation of the former Jewish quarter in Lorca, Spain, is actually a similar menorah, also believed to be from the 15th century, that was found in 1977 in the area of the former Jewish quarter at Teruel and is now in the Museo de Teruel (inventory # 7167).
This menorah was seen in the United States in the 1992 exhibition Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain and will be seen again with other items associated with Jewish life in Spain before the 1492 in the upcoming exhibition Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, The Inquisition, and New World Identities, opening May 22, 2016 (tentatively through December 31, 2016) at the New Mexico History Museum.
Asunción Blasco Martínez mentions in a essay in the Lorca catalog that the menorahs were stored "in cupboards built into the walls and in closets," but it is not clear whether this is supposition of based on the actual location of the archaeological finds. (In my perusing the available excavation reports I could not determine exactly where the menorah fragments were found).
At least one ceramic oil lamps from Hanukkah are known from antiquity. It is assumed that the tradition continued unbroken through the centuries, but examples from an intervening millennium are absent, so we cannot be sure.
The use of the Hanukkah lamp in the home is mentioned in the Talmudic period, but not physical examples of such lamps have been found from before the 15th century. From as least the 11th century, there is also mention of the use of the Hanukkah lamp in the synagogue, and this use is explained in more detail by Joseph Caro in the 16th century.
There are a few 15th century manuscript illuminations from Italy that represent large menorah being lit, presumably in the synagogue. Thérèse and Mendel Metzger have noted that the Hanukkah menorahs with candles depicted in manuscripts that appear to be in synagogues, are all of the types with a straight base upon which the candles are set, not in the traditional branched form familiar from depictions of the Temple menorah dating back to the Arch of Titus in Rome. These manuscript examples are Italian, so there could be a regional preference, but it more likely an adaptation from the earlier oil lamp type.
As art historian Vivian Mann explains, synagogue menorahs are "said to have been introduced to accommodate travellers, whose needs likewise inspired the public recitation of kiddush, and sanctification over wine before the Sabbath. Other reasons (enumerated by Joseph Caro in Beit Yosef commentary to the Arbah Turim, cited by Mann) given were pirsumei nisah, publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah, and teaching congregants the correct order of the blessings."
Mann maintains, however, that "none of these rationales, however, account for the timing [late Ottonian/Early Romanesque period] of the appearance of synagogue Hanukkah lamps." She proposes that the introduction of large synagogue menorahs to commemorate Hanukkah could be a reaction to the appropriation of the Jewish menorah by Christianity in the Carolingian and Ottonian periods, when score of large menorahs were placed in churches symbolizing that the "Church was the successor to Judaism." The earliest (of more than fifty) surviving example is the menorah "dedicated to the Essen Minster by Abbess Mathilda, granddaughter of Otto the Great, around the year 1000."
In Northern and Central Europe, there was also a tradition of metal oil lamps especially made of the Hanukkah observance. Many of these have architectural motifs and it is on this basis that most of dated. A few examples, such a one in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris, have been dated to the 14th century, but most well known metal Hanukkah lamps are from the 15th and 16th century and later (and one should beware of the many copies for sale). All dates for menorahs should be accepted with caution. Unlike the Spanish ceramic menorahs, these bronze and brass menorahs would have been the exceptions, probably expensive and owned by wealthy Jews and kept as family heirlooms.
Birk, Karin; Transier, Werner; Wener, Marcus; eds. The Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages with contributions by Alfred Haverkamp et al. (Speyer: Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, 2004).
Lorca: Luces de Sefarad. Lights of Sepharad (Murcia, 2009), "Catalogo de Piezas," 372-385 [about Hanukkah lamp fragments]