Pewter vessels began to spread through Europe in the 16th century when the tin mines became more fully exploited. In the 17th century they were most commonly found in the homes of peasants, laborers, craftsmen, and middle class merchants. At that time also, pewter vessels spread to Jewish homes in Western and Eastern Europe, both among the working classes and the middle classes. Only a few of the wealthy could afford to use silver, glass, or crystal plates, and Jews in distant villages in Eastern Europe and the impoverished Jewish town dwellers continued to use pottery and wooden dishes. The smooth surface of pewter and its malleability appealed to the artist. The non-Jewish artist decorated pewter plates with subjects taken from Greek mythology, Christianity, and the Old and New Testaments; and the Jewish artist drew his inspiration from his own world, from Jewish tradition, Jewish life, and biblical stories. On the Passover seder plate, he depicted scenes such as members of a Jewish family reclining at the seder table, the Paschal sacrifice, the sages reclining at Bene Berak, and the four sons of the Haggadah. A tradition of Jewish wooden plates apparently preceded the pewter, as a 15th-century plate from Germany has been discovered. The origin of the Passover seder plate can be traced through the dress and appearance of the reclining figures. The edge of the plate was generally decorated with Passover symbols, such as the order of the seder ceremony – the washing of the hands, etc. – or there were designs of the zodiac and various plants and animals of symbolic significance. Most Jewish pewter plates are full of self-expression, charm, and individuality. Pewter plates were also used for the Purim gift offerings (mishlo'aḥ manot). These were decorated with illustrations and quotations from the Book of Esther. Mordecai was depicted riding on the king's horse which was inscribed with the Hebrew passage, "and of sending portions one to the other" (Esth. 9:22), and the plate often bore the Pisces sign of the zodiac, the sign of the month of Adar. There were pewter plates for Havdalah, bearing the Havdalah benedictions. They often showed a Jew performing the Havdalah ceremony with his family. These illustrations are based on those in minhagim books and illuminated manuscripts. There are certainly pewter plates for Kiddush, showing the father of the house making the blessing over the wine, with the whole family sitting around the Sabbath table, but many of these have been lost. Though these pewter plates served their various purposes, throughout the year they decorated the Jewish home, adding to the Jewish sentiment and atmosphere. There were also plates which were mainly intended to adorn the Jewish home. The most popular subjects for these were biblical stories such as, for example, the selling of Joseph, and this too was common in Persia. The Hebrew letter was also improved upon through the decorating of pewter plates as it had been neglected to a great extent after the invention of printing. In the late 18th century, pewter vessels were replaced by earthenware and glass, which began to spread through Europe. These were easier to clean, shinier, and more suited to the tastes of the Rococo and later periods.
L.A. Mayer, Bibliography of Jewish Art (1967), index, S.V.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.