Ancient Judaism: Origins of Holidays and Rituals

Lesson Objectives: In this unit, students will learn about ritual, ritual objects, and holy spaces such as the tabernacle and temple in Ancient Israel. They will discuss prayers that accompany these rituals and holidays. During this unit’s hands-on project, students will learn about Hanukkah by making their own Menorah, and Havdalah by making their own spice box.

Guiding Thematic Questions:

  • Why do many religious rituals and ceremonies involve sensory experiences?
  • How does one establish the holiness of a religious space? How might ancient Middle Eastern societies have done so?
  • What sorts of objects are involved in prayer and ritual practices?

Historical Context:

  • The Tabernacle was the portable holy space used for ritual and practices by the Israelites on their journey from Egypt to Canaan.
  • In the 2nd century BC, Judea was part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt until 200 BC when King Antiochus III of Syria defeated King Ptolemy V at the Battle of Panium. According to traditional Jewish sources, Antiochus IV outlawed Judaism and defiled the temple. Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire resulting in the restoration of Jerusalem and rededication of the second temple. More recent scholarship suggests that the king was intervening in a violent civil war between the Maccabees and the assimilating Hellenized Jews.
  • Ancient stone oil lamps have been found that date back to the 10th millennium BC. It is believed that handmade lamps were initially bowl shaped and evolved to become saucer shaped, then saucer shaped with a nozzle, and finally a closed bowl with a spout.
    •  There were many types of oil lamps used in the ancient Middle East including Jerusalem oil lamps– characteristically black because they were burnt without oxygen– Herodian oil lamps– typically bare or very simply decorated, rounded with concave sides and wheel made– and Menorahs– seven nozzled and associated with Judaism.

Fun Facts:

  • In the Torah’s instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, it calls for the use of a material called tachash (תחש) which has been interpreted in many different ways because of its uncertain translation. The earliest translation of the Torah in Greek refers to tachash as “hyacinth skins,” probably referring to sheep or goat skins dyed the color of purple or blue hyacinth. In the Jerusalem Talmud, the rabbis debated alternative meanings of tachash, including dyed goatskins, the hide of weasels or ermines, or the skin of a clean kosher wild animal. Later sources interpreted the material to have come from mystical creatures like the unicorn or from other exotic animals like a badger (from the German cognate dachs) or sea mammals like seals or dolphins (from the Arabic tuchash). Recent scholarship suggests that tachash might be referring to a beaded leather material.
  • The word Havdalah means to separate, differentiate, or distinguish. It is a celebration meant to distinguish Shabbat from the week to come.

Object Images:

Five-Spouted Oil Lamp
4thc. CE
5” long
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Unguentarium (Oil Jar)
Ceasarea (Roman Period)
37BCE –4CE
5” tall
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Tetradrachm of the Bar Kochba Revolt
Asia (Roman Period)
Reign of Hadrian 134-135 AD
1 x 1/8in. (2.5 x 0.3 cm)
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Classroom Discussion Questions:

Are there any examples of spices/aromas playing a role in ritual practice today?

What is anointing? Who might be anointed?

What spaces were set aside and designated as holy in the time of the Ancient Israelites?

List a few ways that designated spaces were purified for worship?

How does the ancient practice of sacrifices translate into modern Jewish practice?

Project: Spice Box


  • small wooden boxes or other jars/containers
  • paint, markers, stickers, other decorating supplies
  • spices
  • cleaning supplies


  1. decorate your spice box
  2. fill the box up with your choice of spices

Project: Menorah


  • wood/metal base
  • nuts or other metal rings
  • hot glue gun, glue, double sided tape…
  • paint, markers, stickers, other decorating supplies
  • cardboard/cardstock, a small block of wood…


  1. decorate the base of the menorah
  2. use cardboard/cardstock or another small block to elevate the central nut above the rest (this will become the shamash candle- the helper candle used to light the other candles)
  3. attach the remaining 8 nuts onto the base with glue