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Excavating the Herodian oil lamps

 


Oil-lampSlit the packing tape. Lift the inner box.
Slide a knife again and listen to muted rainfall:

styrofoam pebbles pouring down.
The stand emerges first, round and heavy.

Then nine swaddled packages, light
as birds' bones, sized to fit in a palm.

Scissor gently through the bubble wrap,
unfold the layers to reveal ancient clay.

What foot pedaled the wheel, what fingers
wet with slip attached each graceful spout

and smoothed it with the flat of a knife
when Herod ruled in Jerusalem?

Two thousand years ago these held light
in the gloomy season on the cusp of Kislev.

Even now, in a world of compact fluorescents
and taillights glowing in the rain like rubies

we guard our wisps of flame, whatever lets us
hope even as the days grow dark.

 


My parents bought these lamps decades ago, while visiting my middle brother who was at the time working on a kibbutz. They date back to the early years of the Common Era. The person who sold them said, "they were found all together in a house; they must have been a menorah!" I suppose it's possible; the Chanukah story comes from the second century B.C.E., so it does predate these. In any case, the simple fact that they were made that long ago takes my breath away.

These used to be in my parents' bedroom, in the house I grew up in. I remember seeing them there countless times when I was a kid, and learning what they were, and how old, and where they had come from. In unboxing it now, there's a way in which I feel as though I'm excavating not only these artifacts from their storage, but also my own childhood. They grace my synagogue office now, a reminder of our deep-seated need (on both literal and metaphorical levels) to kindle light against the darkness.

For more on the lamps in question: Ancient Pottery Database: Herodian oil lamps; Fowler Bible Collection: Herodian Oil Lamp.