The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Extra Ecclesiam: Possible Material Sources for the Jewish Spice Box

During the later Middle Ages, the Jewish communities in Europe witnessed the ‘invention’ of a new ceremonial object: the architectural spice box, also known as Haddas (הדס). This object, which was shaped like a small tower made of precious metals, was used during the ritual of Havdalah at the end of the Sabbath. Spices placed inside the object distributed a pleasing smell as it passed among the participants of the domestic ceremony. While the blessing over the spices forms an integral part of the ritual since the first century CE, using a designated metal object for its performance is presumably a product of the later Middle Ages. For that reason, this case offers a rare opportunity to explore how a new vessel entered the Jewish ritual and performed as part of the material culture of the Jewish home.

The Haddas, as a metal object, is mentioned in Jewish Halakhic literature for the first time in the fifteenth century, where it is described as made of silver, while other documents, such as guilds’ books and court registers, provide indications of its additional visual characteristics. So far, the research carried out to discover the origins of the Haddas looked at models and connections within the ecclesiastic context and focused on its relations with Christian liturgical vessels and their religious symbolism. However, this object’s materiality points at additional sources, which one might label as belonging to the domestic sphere. Therefore, this proposed paper will look beyond the ecclesiastic space to explore the surrounding material-cultural atmosphere of other environments, primarily domestic and courtly, to present the possible sources of the medieval spice box. The consideration of domestic spaces is vital in this regard not only for understanding these objects’ aesthetics but, more importantly, for appreciating the cultural climate shared by the Jewish communities who used them.