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Of Sacred Items And Gorgeous Tchotchkes: The Havdalah Spice Box

This is the third installment in a new monthly series, “Of Sacred Items And Gorgeous Tchotchkes,” looking closely at the Judaica items that fill our homes.

Judaism is, by and large, a religion of reason, logic, and law. 613 laws to be exact, and probably enough volumes of books breaking down every minute sub-regulation and addendum and exception to those original 613 laws to fill a library the size of a small city. It is a religion where belief, while important, is necessarily merged with understanding, where faith is married to knowledge, and wisdom is as essential as devotion.

That’s why, perhaps, I’ve always loved Havdalah, that brief, private service, performed at the end of the Sabbath to signify the return from the day of holiness to the workday week ahead. Havdalah feels somehow untethered from the usual sets of rules and regulations governing so many other Jewish rituals and services. Four short prayers, sung in half-darkness, a small gathering of family and friends surrounding a braided candle ablaze with its multi-wicked flame—it’s enchanting, entrancing, primal. We hold our hands to the fire to observe the light and shadow at once, sing the haunting melody of the prayers, and breath in the spices that reside inside a tiny silver tower, spices meant to comfort the soul as the Sabbath recedes into memory yet again.

I used to think the Sabbath Queen, whom we greet with song at the beginning of our Shabbat prayers, lived inside that tower, and returned to her home there once her weekly visit to our world was complete. It’s just the sort of thing a young girl might believe, but it’s not so far-fetched given the standard shape of the object. Originally created sometime in the 16th century, the tower form of the Havdalah spice holder gained popularity throughout Europe in the 18th century and maintained much the same form from then until today, with its pedestal, its spice container, and its spire, though variations based on country of origin and trends in silversmithing account for additions such as bells, flags, and filigree. The initial reason for making the spice holder resemble a tower isn’t clear. There’s no religious requirement that the spice box have any particular shape, or really that the spices be housed in any specific object at all. Some have noticed its resemblance to the cathedrals and churches built throughout Europe during the time when Havdalah spice towers became popular. Another popular explanation is that people wanted their spices, which were rare and often difficult to procure, to be housed in something resembling the type of buildings used to store precious treasures on a larger scale. But since there’s no real consensus as to the reason for the object’s shape, I’d like to think there’s something to my childhood interpretation that amounts to more than a simple flight of fancy.

Of course, part of my youthful reasoning was no doubt due to the influence of fairy tales, in which young princesses were often kept safe (or trapped) in high towers, awaiting the day when they would finally be freed by prince, by a kiss, by magic, or any combination therein. To me, the story of the Sabbath Queen was in keeping with this fairy tale tradition, except that instead of being freed forever, our queen was released for one day every week on the condition that she return to her tower once the sun set again (maybe this was a bit of my knowledge of Greek mythology creeping in as well). Perhaps I imagined that the spices were not there to comfort me, but to sooth the Sabbath Queen in her passage back from a day of feasting and praying and song into her cramped and quotidian weekday quarters.

The Brothers Grimm, who first published their tales in the early 1800’s, set about putting into writing the oral tales that captured the imaginations of people living throughout Europe at that time. And much as with the symbolic imagery of fairy tales — or the Bible itself, for that matter — to argue that the stories or their real-life analogs came first is often a fruitless pursuit. Our imaginations inspire our creations, and our creations fuel the stuff of our fantasies. Whether Jews were simulating the edifices of the priests and royalty who dominated the lands in which they found themselves, or whether it was something else they couldn’t quite name, they were drawn to the tower, a shape that remains our Havdalah spice holder of choice to this day.

Of course, whatever its original symbolism, the Havdalah spice tower had taken on its own meaning to those who enact its weekly ritual, a fragrant reminder that the Sabbath, with its weekly promise of holiness and rest, will return soon. And I’d like to think that there are still children for whom the spice tower is home to the Sabbath Queen, or perhaps another magical creature, something that chooses live surrounded by the smell of cinnamon and clove, a creature so small you can only see it in your mind’s eye, or a place beyond reason, a space between darkness and light.

Rachel Klein is a writer and teacher living with her husband and two children in Boston, MA. Her personal essays and editorials have appeared in Catapult, Hazlitt, The Rumpus, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media and more, and her humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Reductress. Her current project is a memoir about the seven years she lived as an Orthodox Jew. You can follow her on Twitter @racheleklein.

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