NEW YORK — When is a box not a box? When it comes to Jewish spice containers, ubiquitously known as besamim spice boxes, they certainly can be made in the shape of a box, but more often than not they are tall towers, sometimes in the form of a building; or take on other figural forms.
Spice towers are traditionally used at Sabbath meals on Saturdays and also during holiday meals. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish faith, and this year beginning at sundown on September 27th, many Jewish people will bring out their most special ritual objects, including besamim spice boxes. “Besamim” refers to the fragrant spices served at these meals.
“On the eve of Saturday night after the Sabbath ends, the Jews make a special prayer called the Havdalah, which separates the Sabbath from the work week,” said Jonathan Greenstein, a Judaica expert and the founder of J Greenstein & Co. Inc. in Cedarhurst, New York. “We make a blessing over wine, we make a blessing over spices, and we make a blessing over fire (candles).”
Whether the spice holder is a simple box or an elegant tower, they are one and the same, he said. “There is no particular [Jewish] law as to what the spices need to be housed in, so artistic expression was allowed over the course of generations,” Greenstein said. “It has been tradition to make the receptacle that holds the spices — and the spices are most commonly cloves — as beautiful as possible. It is a concept in Judaism known as hiddur mitzvah (beautification of a good deed), so spice towers and boxes have ranged from a tiny wooden box to a beautiful crazy tower in the shape of a building.”
Spice towers are usually made of silver, often filigreed or pierced. The building-form ones usually have a flag on top of their spire and are beautifully engraved, sometimes with figural elements added. They were made all over Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Polish, Russian and Ukrainian examples, to name a few, are highly sought after. Many 18th-century German ones were in the form of actual buildings in the shape of a tower. Fine American ones are also widely collected, such as this late 19th-early 20th century spice tower in filigree silver that is held in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York.
These ceremonial art objects have strong ritual significance and, as they were artistically designed, they have become attractive in their own right, with many collectors of all faiths seeking them out. First and foremost, collectors look for attractiveness when buying a spice box. “There are three things that create the value or desire to purchase: one is age, one is beauty and the other is value,” Greenstein said, adding that no country of origin holds the market share of spice towers; it’s whatever collectors are drawn to. “It’s just what is attractive and rare, whatever does not pop up at auction every two minutes.”
“As time evolved, (spice containers) became the number one collectible for Judaica. Most collectors collect three things: spice boxes, kiddush cups and menorahs,” Greenstein said.
Spice towers are typically very ornate and can range in size from about 9 inches to well over 20 inches tall. This sawed, pierced and carved silver spice tower from Central Europe, end of the 18th century, was created as a two-story rectangular tower with extensive decoration.
A curled spire tops the tower and has a knob and flag while the tower sides are decorated with a pierced decoration of a gate with a seashell at its center. The top story is designed as a facade of a church with a rosetta decoration and six long windows. It achieved $22,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2014 at Kedem Auctions.
Another beautiful example is this steeple-form silver spice tower by N. Waxszslak, Poland, circa 1830. Hand engraved with a town scene and flowers, it fetched $7,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2016 at J. Greenstein & Co., Inc. The main part is hand engraved with a town scene and flowers while the upper portion is in the shape of a steeple.
Spice towers in unusual forms (say a whimsical windmill) or having unusual elements are most desirable. This elaborately carved silver spice tower at the Jewish Museum London was made in Berlin, Germany, circa 1700, by silversmith Joachim Andreas Schaar. At the top of the spice tower there are six figures representing different ritual workers from the synagogue while on the steeple are dolphins. One wonders, why dolphins?
Figural spice boxes are also desirable and come in a range of forms from fish and birds to pianos and airplanes. This 19th Century Jewish silver spice container, probably Polish, was made in the shape of a fruit and sold for $3,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2017 at Ishtar Auctions Ltd. And sometimes a spice box is indeed a box. This portable and rectangular silver spice box, having its lid embossed with a pair of rampant lions holding a Torah scroll topped with a crown, made $600 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Ishtar Auctions LTD.
While the tradition of spice boxes goes back to the 15th century, few of them survived to the present and 18th century examples are more commonly seen among “early” examples. Owing to their rarity, craftsmanship and elegant decoration, spice boxes are very desirable and the market for antique examples remains robust.
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