One Internship, Ten Spice Containers

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Monday November 28 2011

By Ekaterina Kalashnikova
Graduate Student in Cultural Anthropology, Oulu University, Finland

As a student of Cultural Anthropology at Oulu University in Finland, I am delighted to have had the opportunity to carry out an Internship at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life this Fall. It was very exciting for me to experience first-hand the details of museological practice and to research the ethnographic holdings of The Magnes. In this blog I would like to summarize my internship by exploring the connection between the shape of objects – in this case, “spice containers” – and their meaning.

Among the over fifteen thousand items in The Magnes Collection, those that are the most interesting to me are items connected to Jewish life. They are very interesting sources for ethnographic research, as they touch upon the spheres of personal and family rituals, of synagogue and communal life. Items collected by the Magnes have been very important to Jewish families and communities in different areas of the world, and despite their territorial distance they often are similar in their intended purpose or symbolism. Among others, these groups of objects include Passover textiles, etrog containers, mezuzot, scrolls, knives etc. One of the finest object groups is spice containers, which are used during the Havdalah ceremony, which marks the closing of the Shabbat and other holidays. I think that the variety of their shapes and decorative elements highlight the importance of this specific ceremony in the context of Jewish life.

The Jewish weekly cycle includes six weekdays and one day of celebration, the Sabbath (in Hebrew, shabat), which starts with the sunset on Friday and ends with sunset on Saturday. In Hebrew Havdalah means “separation.” The Havdalah ceremony marks the end of the holy day and beginning the weekly cycle through the reading (or chanting) of specific Biblical texts and paraliturgical poems, and the recitation of blessings over wine, spices, light, and God’s power to “make distinctions” (ha-mavdil).

The distinction between the holy and the trivial is ancient, and is based on important dichotomies: light/dark, sacred/profane, work/rest, everyday/holiday, etc. This antithesis is expressed in the ritual of Havdalah through the so-called “five-sense paradigm,” as: taste (the wine), smell (the spices), see the candle flame, feel (the flame’s heat), and hear (the blessings).

The Havdalah blessings over wine, spices and light are “performed” through the use of related ritual objects. A goblet is used for the wine (often the same cup used for the qiddush ceremony that marks the beginning of
the Sabbath), and a special candle is held to provide light. The spices (in Hebrew, besamim) are stored in a dedicated container. Their smell should be sweet, and traditionally, includes cloves, myrtle and bay leaves. . This lovely tradition somehow reminds me of a Native American “cleansing ritual” in which bundles of sweetgrass or sage (equally emanating a pleasant sweet aroma) are burnt and waved around the room, as well as the blessing the space by sprinkling around essential oil with thurible in Orthodox churches reminds inhaling spice smell. During the Sabbath, according to some Jewish traditions, a person gains an additional soul. The Havdalah ceremony also marks the loss of that spirit and the resuscitation back to mundane.

Many spice containers for Havdalah ceremony are very beautiful, and vary in shape, material and details. Some of the containers are made of precious metal and are beautifully crafted: a reminder of the importance that the Havdalah ceremony had for their makers, as well as an indicator of their owners’ social status. I became interested in narrating the “story” behind them…

I soon realized that the spice containers in The Magnes Collection can be categorized according to ten different typologies, based on their shape. Most of the spice containers in collection come from Germany; others originate from other European countries (France, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, England, Bulgaria, Moravia and Hungary), Israel and the United States. North Africa is also represented in the collection by one item.
An additional type is the “Havdalah travel set” – a group of portable cup, candle holder and spice container used by travelers – of which The Magnes collection includes five examples.

Spice Box [76.271]

The most common shape for spice containers is, interestingly enough, the tower.

The Tower
What could the tower symbolize? The tower shape could simply symbolize man’s desire to be closer to heaven, closer to God, with its tapers, turrets and flags. Another meaning could be that tower represents a stronghold, with the walls guarding the essence, the spirit, something not for others to reach or see. Tower spice containers are probably the most beautifully decorated ones in the whole group. The metalwork on the pieces is very detailed and elaborate. Along with tin, silver is used. The word tower in Hebrew shares the same root as “to grow”.

Tower-shaped spice containers come in two different versions:


Spice Box [76.240] (Russia, 1862)
Spice Box [96-46-2]
and square:
Spice Box [2000-7-2]
Towers may or may not have turrets or flags:
Spice Box [99-19-2 a-b] (Israel, Jerusalem, 20th century)
Spice Box [2005-0-10] (Germany, 19th century)

Overall, it seems that this kind of spice box shape has been popular all over Europe as well as in Israel.

The second most popular shape is round – as in egg or pear.

Round shape
Eggs are a universal symbol of the beginning of life all over the world. Russian fairy tales tell about the essence of life trapped in a duck egg. A Finnish origin story tells about a pochard that lays eggs from which earth, sky, sun, moon and clouds are born. So the eggs could symbolize life and fertility, and we shouldn’t forget about the shell either – the shell that is strong enough to hold whatever is germinating inside of it.

Spice Box [79.47.2] (North Africa, 20th century)

Other shapes

Two steam engines are found in the examples from Czech – the job of making such a beautiful spice container probably required real talent and craft, since every detail is so finely and meticulously carved:

Spice Box [91.51] (Moravia, Brno, 1872-1922)
Some shapes reflect aesthetic patterns originating from host cultures. For example, this spice box from Russia comes in the shape of the heart and has a crown on it:
Spice Box [71-9] (Russia, 20th century)
Among those traditional shapes, The Magnes Collection also includes a beautiful “Chai” -named spice box, custom-made by a contemporary artist from the United States:
Spice Box [98-37 a-c_1] (USA)

The spice containers in The Magnes Collection indeed includes masterpieces. Filigree and silver containers are the most beautiful. Talent and craft required for making them tell the story of the ceremony’s importance for the people that used them. It was a pleasure for me to get acquainted with this part of Jewish tradition and deepen my knowledge and understanding of the Jewish way of life. The collection will be open to public for research and viewing purposes. Who knows, maybe one can even find items used by his or her relatives!

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