Candle Types

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Candlesticks on tombstones come in many types and styles. They range from what I would call “classic” Shabbos candles — two matched candles in individual candle-holders — to multi-branched candelabra (including seven-branched menorahs) of various types. Some of them look as if they could have come off of a household’s shelf. Others  look like classic Menorahs of antiquity, which were made following the instructions by God in Exodus 25:31-32.

And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same.

And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side

Many candlesticks are elaborately ornamental but still look like physical objects. But others still are intricate figures that weave and twist and entwine the branches of the menorah and/or the base of the menorah into fanciful convoluted forms. And some clearly combine the imagery of the Menorah with that of the Tree of Life — or, perhaps, of death, as in some examples the branches of the menorah may look like snakes.

Some stones bear images of hands blessing the flames.

In their fascinating and wonderful book Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol (Hanover NH, 2002), Joseph and Yehudit Shadur write that the intricately convoluted menorah forms appear almost exclusively  in  two places — in traditional East European Jewish paper cuts (where they are often dominant compositional elements) and on some East European Jewish tombstones. They appear to represent a development of the “endless knot” motif.

The Shadurs write (pp 170-171):

As far as we could ascertain, neither the convoluted menorah configurations nor the endless-knot motif have ever been considered as distinct visual symbols in Jewish iconography. And yet, they are so common and figure so prominently in East-European Jewish papercuts that they can hardly be regarded as mere decorative motifs.

They theorize that

the metamorphosis of the traditional menorah of antiquity and the Middle Ages into the convoluted, endless-knot configurations appearing in the papercuts coincides with the spread and growing popularization of messianic mysticism and the Kabbalah throughout the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe from the early eighteenth century on [.]

In her  book A Tribe of Stones, Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (Warsaw 1994) Monika Krajewska, a post-World War II pioneer in the study of gravestone imagery — who is also an accomplished paper-cut artist, likens the twisted menorahs to the braiding of Challah loaves — and in a way, that would mean that the images denote two of the three “women’s commandments” (lighting the Shabbos candles, “taking Challah” or removing a piece of dough when baking bread, and Niddah, or keeping menstrual purity).

On this page I post examples of various different forms. You can see many more  in the photo galleries on this site.

Bolekhiv, Ukraine. Two tall, classic candlesticks. This stone dates from 1805 and marks the grave of Esther bat Meshulam Zalman. The decoration also includes a loaf of braided Challah (between the candlesticks), two vessels of some sort, birds and grapevines with bunches of grapes. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sadhora, Ukraine: Two classic candles, amid a complex composition including a hand plucking a broken flower (a symbol of death)


Kazimierz Dolny, Poland, 2006. Two classic Shabbos candlesticks with broken candles, and, in the middle, a hand putting a coin into a charity box, indicating that the deceased was charitable. The stone is a fragment that today forms part of a Holocaust memorial. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber












Gura Humorului, Romania, September 2009. A very simple stone, showing hands blessing a five-branched candelabra. The stone to the rear was clearly carved by the same artist.





Old Cemetery, Siret. 2006. Candlesticks appear to become the Tree of Life.

Radauti, Romania, 2009. Candlesticks/Menorahs whose branches are braided and flanked by birds or griffons.

Busk, 2006

Busk, Ukraine, 2006. The base of the candelabra/menorah sprouts leaves and branches, merging it with the symbolic image of the "tree of life." Above, there appears to be a depiction of the "endless knot" that also may represent the continuum of life and death. The candlestick is flanked by what appear to be two deer -- and it looks as if there may also be butterflies in the compostion. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Botosani, Romania, 2009. The "endless knot"

1 thought on “Candle Types

  1. Pingback: New Page on Candlestick Typology « (Candle)sticks on Stone

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