Valued for their rich symbolic history, works of Judaica are a popular category among collectors today. Judaica includes ornate ceremonial objects used in the synagogue, as well as decorative objects used in the home. These objects often tell the stories of Jewish traditions through their craftsmanship and decoration.
Aside from beauty and sanctity, a primary reason why antique Judaica is so highly valued today is because so much of it was destroyed in Nazi Germany. During World War II, many ritual ornaments were melted for their silver as synagogues across Europe were destroyed and families who fled to other countries were forced to leave their belongings behind. Because so few objects of Judaica made it through the war, those that remain are all the more rare and valuable.
The most valuable sale of Judaica ever held was in 2013, when Sotheby’s offered the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, which sold for more than $8.5 million. Sotheby’s continues to offer its annual auction of Important Judaica each year in December, which includes silver, Hebrew books and manuscripts, and fine art. Other key auction houses who specialize in Judaica include Ishtar Auctions, Moreshet Auctions, and Pasarel.
Below, explore some of the most popular types of Judaica in the market, and learn each object’s distinguishing characteristics and symbolism to understand why they are so beloved among collectors today.
The menorah is one of the oldest and most recognizable Jewish ceremonial objects. The original seven-branched Menorah was used in the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem. The menorah itself symbolizes enlightenment and the Jewish people’s vision to be “a light unto the nations.”
To preserve the sanctity and purpose of the original candelabra, the seven-branched menorah is traditionally only used inside synagogues. The Hanukkah menorah (called a hanukiah), used today to celebrate the holiday in homes and public places, has eight branches (or nine, if you count the shamash candle used to light the other candles). This version of the menorah symbolizes the triumph of the Maccabees and the eight-day miracle of the oil.
Menorahs are highly collectible, with 18th- and 19th-century European examples among the most valuable. While there continues to be debate over whether the branches of the menorah should be straight or curved, it’s common to find examples created in both styles. Menorahs are most often made of silver but can also be found in brass, copper, iron, tin or even glass, wood or china. Ranging from simple to highly ornate, menorahs are very diverse in their designs. Notable examples can found at museums across the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Israel Museum and the Jewish Museum.
2. Ketubah (Marriage Contract)
An important part of the Jewish marriage ceremony, a ketubah is the traditional marriage contract signed by both the bride and the groom. Historically, the marriage contract was a binding legal document that outlined a husband’s obligations to his wife, including monetary arrangements in the case of a divorce or his death. Still used in many Jewish weddings today, the ketubah is signed prior to the marriage ceremony and is often later displayed in the home of the married couple.
Traditional ketubahs are highly decorative objects. Popular motifs found on antique ketubahs include the Temple in Jerusalem, depictions of the bridal couple and biblical scenes, along with floral designs and seasonal motifs. Both religious and secular images were often depicted on the same manuscript. Ornate, antique versions of these decorative manuscripts are rare and sought out by collectors today.
3. Tzedakah Boxes
The word “tzedakah” is Hebrew for “justice.” The tzedakah box is used in synagogues as a place to make donations to good causes. As utilitarian objects, many antique examples of Tzedakah boxes are are well worn from years of use. Early examples were made from iron, tin or copper, while other more ornate examples were made from brass or silver. Some were painted, and many were engraved or inscribed with Hebrew lettering.
Antique tzedakah boxes are some of the most highly collectible Jewish objects today. In fact, Michael Steinhardt, one of the most prominent modern collectors of Judaica, began his collection by purchasing antique tzedakah boxes during a trip to Israel with his wife. While many of his original acquisitions turned out to be fake (reproductions are very common), the relatively low purchase price of these objects makes tzedakah boxes an excellent entry point for emerging collectors of Judaica; just be sure to do your research first.
4. Kiddush Wine Cup
Kiddush is the Hebrew word for “sanctification,” and the Kiddush cup is a traditional goblet used to bless wine in the home on the eve of Shabbat (as well as on other holidays and festivals) prior to the breaking of bread. Traditionally made of gold or silver, Kiddush cups can also be made from other materials such as pewter, china, or pottery.
Many antique Kiddush cups are family heirlooms passed down through generations, while modern variations are common gifts at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other celebrations. Often ornately decorated, typical motifs found on Kiddush cups include depictions of family emblems, fruit, birds, and animals. The decorative cups are also often engraved with family names, Sabbath prayers or verses from the Torah.
5. Passover Seder Plate
The spring festival of Passover is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays. The Passover Seder plate, an integral part of tradition, displays foods symbolic of the Passover story and the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. It is traditionally displayed during Seder, a highly symbolic and sensory feast that occurs on the first and second nights of Passover.
Seder means “order,” so most customs observed during the evening are highly regulated; however, there are very few rules about the design of the ceremonial plate itself. Because of this, a Passover Seder plate can be quite diverse in style. A Passover Seder plate can range from a simple ceramic piece to a more ornate silver platter. Some are comprised of small bowls for each of the traditional foods, while others contain a shelf or special holder for matzah, in addition to the symbolic foods. Very early examples of Seder plates often contain Hebrew inscriptions, along with painted or engraved illustrations that illustrate the Passover story. Available in all different shapes and sizes, these decorative plates are often put on display when they are not in use, and are popular collectible items.
6. Shabbat Candlesticks
In the Jewish faith, Shabbat candles are lit in the home on Fridays before sunset to usher in the Sabbath. Traditionally lit in pairs of two, it is the duty of the woman of the household to light the candles: the first by match, and the second with the flame of the first candle.
While the candle itself is more symbolic than the candlestick, the use of ornate candlesticks with which to display the Shabbat candles is a demonstration of reverence to the tradition. Most often made of sterling silver, Shabbat candlesticks come in a variety of materials and designs. While some are simple and unadorned, other sets contain inscriptions or are engraved with Hebrew letters, along with popular floral motifs. Some are created in the shape of cherubs. As popular collectors items, Shabbat candlesticks are often given as gifts at weddings and other celebrations and are often prominently displayed in the home.
7. Yad (Torah Pointer)
A yad is a pointer used to mark one’s place in the text when reading from the sacred Torah parchment scrolls. Yadayim are often created in the shape of a hand with an outstretched index finger, and are commonly used in synagogues during services.
The use of a yad shows respect for the sanctity of the Torah by ensuring the sacred manuscript is not touched. Practically speaking, a yad ensures that the parchment remains clean and free of damage by fingerprints. Often made of silver, bronze, or wood, many antique yadayim are considered works of art in and of themselves. The diversity in the design of these ritual objects makes them highly collectible, and antique versions continue to be in high demand today.
Looking for more? Explore decorative art on Invaluable now.