Hanukkah lamp by Yihye Yemini

Yihye [Yehia] Yemini

Hanukkah lamp, 1920s, Silver, 12.5 x 10.6 x 4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2013.940, Photo © 2020 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Breaking with Tradition

Commentary by

This silver Hanukkah lamp, so striking in its highly polished backplate, applied filigree work, and coloured stones, is marked in Hebrew and English ‘Sterling; Yemini, Bezalel Jerusalem’. Yehye Yemini (1896–1983), a gifted Yemenite silversmith, was 12 years old when he joined the silver department of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem.

The relief on his lamp shows the purification of the Jerusalem Temple, with the high priest standing tall in the centre, and crouched figures busily tidying the overturned vessels. This event is also referred to in the Hebrew text directly below it: ‘And they purified the courtyard and all that was in it and they renewed all the holy vessels’ (1 Maccabees 4:48–49). The Festival of Hanukkah, in Hebrew ‘dedication’, celebrates this moment: the re-inauguration of the Temple that took place immediately following the defeat of the Seleucid army by Judas Maccabeus.

Chapter 2 foreshadows these events: in it, Mattathias abandons the holy city precisely because the Temple had been desecrated. It is his initial refusal to offer impure sacrifices, or to ‘steer right and left from God’s covenant’ (2:20–22), that comes to its eventual fruition in this lamp’s scene.

By citing Maccabees, artists of the Bezalel School challenged an old tradition: before the twentieth century, Hanukkah lamps typically featured ancient symbols (for example, the seven branched candelabra, the Tablets of the Law, and the lion of the tribe of Judah), but almost never showed narrative scenes and inscriptions from Maccabees. This omission is hardly surprising if one remembers that the books of Maccabees never entered the canon of the Hebrew Bible. But for the Bezalel School, their message of Jewish heroism inspired a sense of national pride and merited a place in the ‘visual canon’ of Hanukkah’s iconography.