According to rabbinic legend, each Jew receives a special soul (neshama yetera) on the Sabbath. As this extra spiritual dimension departs from the body at the close of the Sabbath, one is overcome with a certain degree of sorrow. The spices are interpreted as a means of comfort at the moment of transition to the new week. As it was customary in ancient times to welcome the Sabbath with branches of myrtle, so during the service to usher out the Sabbath — the Havdalah ceremony — people inhaled the fragrances of their branches. When the Mavdil ("He who separates") blessing distinguishing "between holy and ordinary, between light and darkness" was recited, myrtle was passed from hand to hand.

In the course of generations, aromatic spices (most popularly cinnamon and cloves in Ashkenazi communities) began to replace the myrtle, but long usage has preserved the name "myrtle" (hadas) for the spice box. In Sephardi communities, fresh sprigs are still generally used.

The use of sweet-smelling herbs and spices roused the creative instincts of artisans and they fashioned spice boxes in widely varied designs and shapes — in gold, silver, brass, glass and wood. In Ashkenazi circles, the spice box took many forms, from flowers to miniature trains. Most popular, however, from around the sixteenth century, was the tower form, which was stylistically influenced by local architecture. Rabbi Shubert Spero takes a closer look at the symbolism of the tower spice box.

I wish to suggest that once a tower-shaped spice box made its appearance at a Havdalah ceremony, its appropriateness was immediately perceived and its popularity insured. The architectural form of the spice tower with its domes and turrets, belfries and flags, represented to the medieval Jew both a military fortress with its suggestions of strength and security, as well as a magnificent religious edifice built by men to honor their deity. In both cases, these were structures which reflected rights and conditions which the Jew in that period did not possess. But while as an alien in that society he could not identify with the real palaces, fortresses, city towers and church spires which filled the medieval landscape, the Jew was able to perceive the miniature spice tower in terms of biblical imagery and to weave its meaning into the symbolic tapestry of the Havdalah ceremony.

Silver spice tower,
Nuremberg, 18th cent.
Heichal Shlomo Museum,

As he stared at the miniature tower with its aspiring lines and realistic detail, the Jew intoned: “The Lord is my strength and He is become my salvation.” Surely he reminded himself of the verse he had recited for the third time that Shabbat at the grace after the third Shabbat meal: “He is a tower of salvation to his King.” (II Samuel 22:51) Although bereft of material strength, the medieval Jew was able to experience the fusion of the representational and aesthetic elements of his tower- shaped spice box, an intimation of the divine source of his own strength and salvation: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower....” (Proverbs 18:10)

The symbolism becomes even more pointed if we recall the Midrash[1] on Psalms 18:51 which compares two versions of this verse, which differ only in the vocalization of the first word: "He is a tower of salvation" (migdol yeshuot) to his King (II Samuel 22:51); “He causes salvation to grow great (magdil yeshuot) to his King” (Psalms 18:51). According to the Midrash, if Israel is worthy, salvation will loom as a tower, sudden and all at once! If not, salvation is sure to come gradually, bit by bit. Therefore, on Shabbat, in the Grace after Meals, the verse from Samuel is said (rather than that from Psalms) since on the sacred day expectations of salvation are high and longings for redemption most intense. “He is a tower of salvation.”

Silver spice tower, Hamburg, Germany,
mid-18th cent.

Supportive of this basic symbolism is the association of the tower with the architectural elements of the Holy Temple. Salvation, messiah, restoration of the Temple – all this comes together in the consciousness of the Jew at the conclusion of the Shabbat. While in the Middle Ages he was not permitted to build monumental synagogues, the Jew could contemplate the spired tower in the flickering light of the Havdalah candle and dream of the soon-to-be-restored Temple. The spices, seen as incense, likewise evoked memories of the Temple service.

Explicit evidence of this symbolism is found in an inscription on the eighteenth-century spice box from Poland described by Israel Museum curator Chaya Benjamin: “Spice box Danzig (Gdansk), Poland, 1745-1749).... Apparently, the Jewish owner commissioned the box in the form of a tower to symbolize the Temple with an engraved inscription alluding to the rebuilding of the Temple (dvir), and Jerusalem (hamigdal, “the tower”). This inscription is connected to the hymn for the end of the Sabbath in which Elijah, the prophet of the redemption, figures prominently. Inscription: ‘The Lord will build of gold the Temple and the tower (1746).’”[2]

The appearance of bells and flags on the tower which are designed to tinkle and wave can best be explained in terms of their function as spice boxes. It cannot be maintained that the little bells and flags were simple added to all Jewish ritual containers as a matter of course, for purposes of ornamentation. I do not recall an etrog container adorned with bells and flags! The spice box, on the other hand, was used not merely to store the spices but to smell them after the benediction. The usual procedure was to shake the box so as to activate the spices, open the little doors of the container, recite the blessing and smell the spices. As one shakes the spice box, the bells jingle and the flags wave.

Similarly, the appurtenances of the Torah scrolls were sometimes adorned with bells so that as one paraded with the scrolls, the bells would be sounded. In such instances, the sound of the bells announced the performance of a mitzvah, a sacred deed, and called others to attention. However, since the etrog box is used only to store the etrog and has no role in the ritual, there would be no point in affixing bells or flags.

Our conclusion is that the popularity of the tower shape spice box, as a Jewish ritual object, has more to do with the general theme of the Havdalah ceremony than with any obvious connection between spices and a tower. Precisely with the departure of the Shabbat, the Jew needs a graphic and aesthetic symbol which will remind him of where he is to find his strength, his security and his salvation.


[1] Shokher Tou on Psalms 18:51 [back]
[2] Steiglitz Collection Catalog, no. 68. Israel Museum, Jerusalem [back]
Shubert Spero is Irving Stone Professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University, and author of God in All Seasons (1967), Morality, Halakha and the Jewish Tradition (1983), and Judaism and the Idea of History (1998). A former Clevelander, he resides in Jerusalem. [back]



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend