For thousands of Italians who live in the southern Italian region of Calabria, the island of Sicily and the Aeolian Islands as well as for many more Italian Americans and Italian Canadians, connecting family traditions with an ancient Jewish heritage can be little more than a lucky guess. But as we continue to search for our lost and hidden Jewish roots, one ritual item, the Shabbat candlelabra offers an important clue.
The triple candlelabra pictured here is Rabbi Barbara Aiello’s family heirloom. Her grandparents descended from a Calabrian crypto-Jewish background where a three-branched candlelabra was integral for the family Shabbat table.
“The middle candle served as the “shamus” or helping candle, and just as Jews use the shamus to light the eight candles on the Chanukah memorah, a shamus candle was used to light the two candles for Shabbat,” says Rabbi Barbara, who now lives and works in Calabria where she searches for hidden traditions such as these.
The peacock motif offers another Jewish clue. For the Jews of Calabria, the peacock was an important element in Jewish design. Originating with the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of medieval times, it is the male peacock’s special feather configuration that is reminiscent of the Kabbalistic “third eye.” This symbol connects with the message of Shabbat by reminding us that with the “third eye” we can see into a person’s soul and thus bring peace to the world.
Families in Serrastretta, the tiny village where Rabbi Barbara organized “Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria in 500 years since Inquisition times, recall the three branched candlelabra at their own Friday evening dinner table. Some recall a beautiful ritual where the matron of the house first lit the middle “shamus” candle, removed it and then passed it to the youngest family member. Each person around the table had her/his own personal candle which was kindled by passing the shamus candle from person to person. Finally the shamus candle returned to “Mama” who then kindled the last two candles, the lights of Shabbat.
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