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Festivals of Light - Judaism


Havdalah candlestick, made by Eli Gera. Museum no. M60&a-1981

Havdalah candlestick, made by Eli Gera. Museum no. M60&a-1981. This is a candlestick is part of a Havdalah set comprising of four items: a candlestick, a spice box and a wine cup cover. The last three form a single interlocking piece when not in use.

In the first chapter of Genesis (1:3) in the Hebrew Bible, we are told:
'Then God commanded "Let there be light" - and light appeared. God was pleased with what he saw. Then he separated light from darkness to make Day and Night.'

Light is fundamental to Judaism as a sign of God's spirit and guiding force. On a Friday night, the mother or senior woman of the household lights two candles to welcome in the Sabbath, the day of rest. The light represents hope and joy. Traditionally, in some parts of Europe an oil lamp was lit and hung above the table where the Sabbath meal took place.

The Sabbath is concluded with a service known as Havdalah (separation), in which spices, wine and a twisted candle in a special candle holder are all used to invigorate the senses and take the believer through another week. The prayers said during this service show the distinction between the light and the dark and thank God for creating the light of fire.


Hanukkah (Chanukah), or the festival of light, is probably the most well-known example of the symbol of light within Judaism. It celebrates the miracle of the light in a historical event that took place in 165 BC. Antiochus Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid empire that stretched from Anatolia to the Indus valley, had decreed that Jews should not be able to practice Judaism. He forced them to worship the Greek gods and ordered his soldiers to desecrate the temple in Jerusalem.

Hanukkah lamp, 1700-1825. Museum no. M.413-1956

Hanukkah lamp, 1700-1825. Museum no. M.413-1956. This Polish lamp was designed either to be hung on a wall or to remain free standing. Its back- plate represents a building and it is flanked on either side by lions, symbolising the tribe of Judah. It has two candleholders for Sabbath lamps.

In 166 BC Judas Maccabeus, who was living in hiding in the hills, led a Jewish rebellion with a small army and overcame the forces of Antiochus. When the Jews came to the temple on 25 Kislev (November/December in the Hebrew calendar) 165 BC, they found that it had been desecrated and the temple light extinguished. After searching hard, they discovered a small, sealed container of oil (a cruise) and used it to re-light the temple menorah (the seven-branched candlestick). The oil was only enough for one day, but the miracle was that it lasted for eight days, giving the Jews enough time to obtain more.

Hanukkah has been celebrated ever since. It starts on 25 Kislev and on each of the eight nights a candle is lit, until on the last night a row of eight candles burns. This light represents the re-kindled Jewish spirit.

Hanukkah lamps vary from region to region and sometimes reflect prevailing artistic styles. Most of the Italian Hanukkah lamps in the V&A's collection were meant to be hung from a wall. They have eight rows of containers for oil and their back plates are usually decorated with classical and Renaissance imagery, such as centaurs, cornucopia and lions.

Hanukkah lamp, 1500-1600. Museum no. M.419-1956

Hanukkah lamp, 1500-1600. Museum no. M.419-1956. The back-plate on this lamp is interesting as it bears the arms of the cardinal of the city, possibly in gratitude for allowing the Jewish inhabitants to live freely. It has the coat of arms of Inigo d'Avalos, who was created cardinal in 1561 and became chancellor of the Kingdom of Naples in 1562.

Hanukkah lamp with bucket, made by Jacob Marsh, 1747-8. Museum no. M.75

Hanukkah lamp with bucket, made by Jacob Marsh, 1747-8. Museum no. M.75&A-1949. This English Hanukkah lamp in the collection has a small bucket underneath to catch the drips of oil. It was made by a London silversmith called Jacob Marsh for a family from Gibraltar and donated to the Museum by a descendant of the original owner. The decoration, with its scrolls and shells, is typical of the Rococo style that was fashionable in the mid 18th century.

Celebratory foods - Sufganiot

It is traditional to eat fried or oily foods at Hanukkah.
They represent an abundance of oil symbolising the miracle of how the sample of oil found in the desecrated temple in Jerusalem lasted for 8 days instead of only one. Doughnuts (sufganiot) and latkes (potato pancakes made from potato, egg and onion) are the foods most commonly eaten.

Makes 60 to 72 doughnuts

3 tablespoons of  fresh yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
3 eggs
½ cup oil
½ cup sugar
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
6 to 7 cups of plain flour
Oil for frying
Caster sugar


   1. Place the eggs, oil, sugar, milk, vanilla, and grated lemon peel in a large bowl and mix well.
   2. Add the yeast mixture, adding the flour until a soft dough is formed.
   3. Knead for a few minutes until smooth.
   4. Cover and allow until doubled in bulk, about 1 to 1-½ hours.
   5. Roll out the dough ½-inch thick on a floured surface.
   6. Cut out circles with a round cutter (8 cm).
   7. Place 2 or 3 inches of oil in a deep saucepan and heat over a medium flame until hot.
   8. Place four doughnuts at a time in the oil. CAUTION: hot oil can be dangerous. Do not leave unattended.
   9. Brown on one side and then on the other. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
   10. Allow to cool.
   11. Dust with caster sugar.
   12. Serve immediately.

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