The Gold & Silver Jewish Tea Pot
A secret Tea Pot was passed from generation to generation as a family heirloom that goes all the way back to the Spanish Inquisition. It quickly becomes evident that the pitcher was not meant to brew or pour tea. Rather, it was a clever way to hide Jewish religious objects which were forbidden in a time, and place, of persecution.
Remove the top of the pitcher, and on the inside are the Hebrew letters NUN, GIMEL, HAY and SHIN: It is a Dreidl, used on Hanukah!
In the space where the Dreidl sat, we see the words BORAY MINAY BESAMIM, and we realize we have a spice box used for Havdalah
Take off the next section, and we have the verse NER HASHEM NISHMAT ADAM “The soul of a man is the light of God” – and there is a place for a wick and oil, and we have a Yahrzeit lamp.
Wrapped inside the lamp is a tiny parchment that pulls out, and reveals a miniature Megilah. The scroll containing the biblical narrative of the Book of Esther, traditionally read in synagogues to celebrate the festival of Purim.
We remove the next section and we see the words PRI ETZ HADAR – the blessing said over the lulov and etrog; the yellow citron is placed here for protection during Sukkot. As we go lower into the tea pot, two small candlesticks are nestled, to be lit every Friday night.
Deeper still, we find a series of stacked mini-plates. When we hook them together, they form a Seder plate, holding Maror, Karpas, the Shankbone, Haroset and an egg.
Finally, at the base of the pitcher, we end with a tiny Hanukkah Menorah with eight holes for wicks, and a ninth for the Shammash.
So what appeared at first glance to be a pretty ornate tea pot turns out to be in reality an elaborate ruse, to hide Jewish ritual objects that could have gotten their owner tortured, or killed.
"This teapot strikes me in much the same way. It is almost saying,
“We cannot worship in the synagogue, but we can worship at home, and it must be sufficient.
And for many, it was sufficient.
Elie Wiesel "Souls on Fire"
The Inquisition Tribunal ( Escena de Inquisición ), 1812–1819.
Francisco de Goya Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid
Spanish Inquisition, (1478–1834), judicial institution ostensibly established to combat heresy in Spain. In practice, the Spanish Inquisition served to consolidate power in the monarchy of the newly unified Spanish kingdom, but it achieved that end through infamously brutal methods.
The rise of the Spanish Inquisition:
The medieval inquisition had played a considerable role in Christian Spain during the 13th century, but the struggle against the Moors had kept the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula busy and served to strengthen their faith. When toward the end of the 15th century the Reconquista was all but complete, the desire for religious unity became more and more pronounced. Spain’s Jewish population, which was among the largest in Europe, soon became a target. Over centuries, the Jewish community in Spain had flourished and grown in numbers and influence, though anti-Semitism had surfaced from time to time. During the reign of Henry III of Castile and Leon (1390–1406), Jews faced increased persecution and were pressured to convert to Christianity. The pogroms of 1391 were especially brutal, and the threat of violence hung over the Jewish community in Spain.
Francisco Rizi (1683) Painting Depicting the "Auto-Da-Fé" held in Madrid's Plaza Mayor
In the 15th century Spain, many Jews chose – or were forced – to convert to Catholicism. Yet they wanted to remain faithful to their Jewish roots, and religion. Jews who remained Jewish were tolerated, though discriminated against. But there was zero tolerance by the church for Jews who converted, yet secretly held on to their Jewish heritage. These Jews called themselves Conversos; Christians called them Marranos – Spanish for “pigs.” While Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the Conversos remained – many of them secretly observing Jewish rituals. Five hundred years later, there are still Catholics – especially in the American Southwest, who preserve ancient family traditions that they don’t understand. Some don’t eat pork. Others are told they must only marry a cousin. Some were brought up watching their mothers light candles during Christmas.
Spanish Inquisition Torture Scene
In a rare book room in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York you can see a prayer book that was shaped and bound in a very strange way: It was about four inches high, but almost ten inches wide. If you asked yourself; Why would anyone make a book like this? The answer is that it was a Converso Siddur that could be easily, and quickly, hidden up a person’s sleeve in case the wrong people suddenly showed up at your door.
There’s an incredible story told about Don Fernando Aguilar the Jewish conductor of the Barcelona orchestra. Don Fernando had converted, but secretly remained a practicing Jew. There was one Mitzvah he wasn’t able to do: The blowing of the Shofar. The Inquisition – always on the look out for secret Jews – would have immediately seized anyone with a ram’s horn in September. But Don Fernando had “a Yiddisher Kop” – Jewish brains. He asked the King if he might schedule a concert, playing rare musical instruments from around the world. The King was delighted. So on the date that Don Fernando knew to be Rosh HaShana, he played music from China, from India, and from Africa. And among the many strange instruments, there was the Horn of a Ram. In front of the King and the Bishops, Don Fernando blew Tekiah, Shevarim, and Teruah.
Most Jews don’t realize it, but the Kol Nidre prayer itself may have originally come from Jews who were forced to convert. Each year, they gathered and said: “All the vows we were forced to make – that we were renouncing our Judaism and embracing another faith – those vows were not real. We did not mean them. We ask Your forgiveness O God. We gather tonight to tell You, and to proclaim to each other, that though we have sinned, we remain in our hearts, faithful and proud Jews.”
The Gold and Silver Jewish Tea Pot is more than just clever, and beautiful. It is inspiring. It reminds us of the preciousness of Jewish tradition, and the lengths our people were willing to go to observe the Mitzvot. It’s a story of courage, and devotion. I’m imagining a Converso home sometime in the 16th century. Not a single Jewish ritual object, or Hebrew book, or piece of religious artwork. And there sitting in the breakfront in plain sight for all to see, was the teapot – ready to be dismantled and used at the appropriate time in the year.