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.
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