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In this article, we delve into the fascinating connection between Jewish ritual objects, Christian art, and the economic activities of medieval Jews. Today, we focus on the besamim box, a small item used in the Jewish havdalah ritual, and uncover its unexpected origins in Christian religious art.

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Origins of the Besamim Box

The besamim box plays a significant role in the havdalah ritual, which marks the end of the Sabbath. While this ritual is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, the design of the besamim box draws inspiration from Christian practices. The renowned art historian Mordecai Marcus first explored this connection in 1960, and his research expanded in 1981.

Christian Influences

The besamim box, with its tower-like design and a flag on top, resembles a medieval castle. This aesthetic was derived from Christian rituals and religious art. Specifically, two Christian objects, the reliquary (a special box for holding holy objects) and the incense sensor used in church processionals, merged to form the basis of the besamim box.

Jewish Economic Activities: Moneylending and Pawnbroking

To understand how this influence came about, we delve into the research of Professor Joseph Shatzmiller. His meticulous study of medieval archival records and economic transactions reveals the significant involvement of Jews in moneylending, particularly pawnbroking. Jewish moneylenders provided loans to individuals who faced challenges borrowing from Christian moneylenders due to religious restrictions. These loans often required collateral, and the details of these transactions were meticulously recorded, including the items left as collateral.

Jews and Fine Art

Through their economic activities, Jews came into contact with various forms of fine artwork, including Christian religious art. This exposure to art in their homes and workplaces influenced the development of Jewish artwork. For instance, precious artifacts like the Air Fort treasure, which dates back to the 14th century, demonstrate the artistic influence on Jewish patrons. Hebrew inscriptions found alongside coats of arms indicate the involvement of Jewish owners in guiding the artists.

Illuminated Manuscripts and Jewish Patrons

Jewish illuminated manuscripts provide further evidence of the impact of Christian art on Jewish artistic expression. Wealthy Jewish families commissioned Christian artists to create illustrations for manuscripts like the Hagada or the Bible. Despite potential conflicts with Jewish sensibilities, these manuscripts often featured Christian-style depictions. The involvement of Jewish patrons in shaping the artwork remains a subject of discussion and analysis.

Challenges and Adaptations

The intricate relationship between Jewish and Christian art is evident in various illuminated manuscripts. However, some illustrations, such as an archer firing an arrow or a representation of God giving the Torah, were deemed inappropriate by Jewish standards. In some cases, Jewish owners modified or obscured elements of the original artwork to align with Jewish beliefs.

The study of the besamim box and the broader exploration of Jewish ritual objects, Christian art, and the medieval economy shed light on the complex interactions between Jewish and Christian communities. The economic activities of medieval Jews, particularly in moneylending and pawnbroking, facilitated their exposure to fine art, leading to a cross-fertilization of artistic ideas. This unique period in Jewish history highlights a different level of coexistence between Jews and Christians and the artistic expressions that emerged as a result.