Tuesday, November 30, 2021

There's Something Fishy About This Menorah

Last week we were in Florida, and spent time on Sanibel Island (pics coming soon!). Sanibel Island has a reputation for being a shell collector's paradise. Naturally, I collected a Ziploc baggie full of shells, but it wasn't until last night that I realized I had a use for them: to craft a Shell Menorah!

Looking at my humble findings, a couple of shells seemed perfect for holding a pool of oil to serve as a lamp. If I had collected eight of these, I could have fashioned a meaningful and effective Hanukkiah. Alas, I only had two. Last night we marked the second night of Chanukah, and so along with lighting our standard menorah, I experimented with using my beach discoveries as lamps:

I used a bit of mounting putty to align and stabilize the shells, and then filled them with olive oil and added a floating wick. I lit the wicks, and to my surprise and delight, the setup worked perfectly!

This partial menorah was not only eco-friendly and personalized, but it also served as sort of a living history demonstration of how early costal communities would have thought about their ecosystem. Seashells weren't pretty trinkets, they were essential for tool construction. Including lamps!

While I didn't collect enough shells to create a proper menorah, the process did inspire me to dig into the topic. I learned a couple of useful tidbits. First, using a menorah is optional. Lighting two lamps, plus a 3rd candle as a shamash, was a Kosher way to mark the second night of Chanukah. The requirement is to have the proper number of lights, and while this is ideally done with a menorah, you can accomplish this by using "several glasses or cups placed in a straight line.".

Second, I could repurpose the shells I collected for use as Shabbat 'candles.' While I've always lit wax candles for Shabbat, the original requirement called for lighting oil lamps, and in many communities this is still practiced. This makes sense, as wax candles weren't a thing nearly two thousand years ago.

Finally I had to ponder what relationship Jews have with seashells. The first thought that came to mind was this memory of visiting a shul in Venice:

While the shuls have been in continuous use (even to this day, they get a few uses every year), many of the reasons behind the symbols on display have been lost. Consider the case of large sea shell above the doorway in one of the shuls. What is this non-kosher item doing there? Does it represent the wash basin used by the Levi'm, or was it simply an in-vogue symbol of the time, so the architect put it in place? Nobody knows. But being Jews, we have no problem coming up with a handful of explanations, and using the one we prefer the best.

The tour had a strict no-photography rule, so I don't have a picture of this memorable decoration. But YouTube does:

There's another connection between Jews and seashells. Specifically with Murex trunculus, a particular sea snail. This little guy is believed to be the source of the blue dye used for creating tekhelet, the special blue thread that used to be included in the creation of tzitzit.

If tekhelet can come from a humble sea creature, then it seems more than appropriate to have a menorah from a similar source.

Here's to a happy and resourceful Chanukah!

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