Symbols of Israel

Chai (חי)

This symbol, commonly seen on necklaces and other jewelry and ornaments, is simply the Hebrew word Chai (living). The word Chai is written in Hebrew as Chet Yud. Every Hebrew letter has a numeric value, and Chet=8, Yud=10. Thus, the “numeric value” of Chai is 18. Gifts to charity are routinely given in multiples of 18.

Judaism as a religion is very focused on life, and the word Chai has great significance. The typical Jewish toast is l’chayim (to life).

The symbol has no special religious meaning and is actual nothing more than a souvenir or ornament, but then again some consider it as a kind of amulet.

 

Israeli Flag

The flag of The State of Israel includes two blue stripes on a white background with a Shield (Star) of David (in Hebrew: Magen David) in the center. At the celebration of the third anniversary of the founding of the agricultural village of Rishon LeZion in 1885 it was the first time a blue-and-white flag was raised. Independently of the Rishon Lezion event, a blue-and-white flag was raised in 1891 in Boston at the inauguration of the meeting hall of the Bnai Zion Educational Society. That flag had blue stripes above and below a Star of David that had the Hebrew word “Maccabee” inscribed in its center. Bnai Zion first displayed their banner publicly in October 1892, during festivities to mark the fourth centenary of the discovery of America. This time the word “Zion” replaced “Maccabee”.

The blue color in the Israeli flag is based on a tallit, a religious article of clothing. The exact color of blue meant to be used on the tallit is not known and in fact everything from black to reddish purple is used to symbolize its different religious and political connotations. The most common color (the light blue) comes from the fact that the tallit most people wear is a light blue with the deliberate statement of “this is most probably not the right color”.

The Magen David (shield of David, or as it is more commonly known, the Star of David) is the symbol most commonly associated with Judaism today, but it is actually a relatively new Jewish symbol. It is supposed to represent the shape of King David’s shield (or perhaps the emblem on it), but there is really no support for that claim in any early rabbinic literature. In fact, the symbol is so rare in early Jewish literature and artwork that art dealers suspect forgery if they find the symbol in early works.

The first person in modern times who voiced the idea that blue and white are the national colors of the Jewish people, was the Austrian Jewish poet Ludwig August Frankl (1810-1894). More than three decades before the First Zionist Congress, Frankl published a poem entitled “Judah’s Colors”:

When sublime feelings his heart fill,
He is mantled in the colors of his country
He stands in prayer, wrapped
In a sparkling robe of white.
The hems of the white robe
Are crowned with broad stripes of blue;
Like the robe of the High Priest,
Adorned with bands of blue threads.
These are the colors of the beloved country,
Blue and white are the borders of Judah;
White is the radiance of the priesthood,
And blue, the splendors of the firmament.
A. L. Frankl, “Juda’s Farben”, in Ahnenbilder (Leipzig, 1864).

Frankl’s poem was translated into flowery Hebrew and appeared in the periodical Hahavatzelet (The Rose of Sharon) in 1878. We do not know if the founders of Zionism knew the poem, but it is a fact that the flags of almost all the early Zionist associations borrowed the blue stripes of the tallit.

The Israeli flag legislation states that the official measurements are 160×220 cm. Therefore the official proportions are 8:11. Since nobody enforces this law, you can find variants at wide range of proportions.

The 1948 Flag Proclamation quoted from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Flag and Emblem webpage mentions that:

The flag is 220 cm. long and 160 cm. wide. The background is white and on it are two stripes of dark sky-blue, 25 cm. broad, over the whole length of the flag, at a distance of 15 cm. from the top and from the bottom of the flag. In the middle of the white background, between the two blue stripes and at equal distance from each stripe is a Star of David, composed of six sky-blue stripes, 5.5 cm. broad, which form two equilateral triangles, the bases of which are parallel to the two horizontal stripes.

Kippah

The most commonly known and recognized piece of Jewish garb is actually the one with the least religious significance. The word yarmulke comes from the Aramaic words “yerai malka” (fear of or respect for The King). The Hebrew word for this head covering is kippah (pronounced key-pah).

It is an ancient practice for Jews to cover their heads during prayer. This probably derives from the fact that in Eastern cultures, it is a sign of respect to cover the head (the custom in Western cultures is the opposite: it is a sign of respect to remove one’s hat). Thus, by covering the head during prayer, one showed respect for God. In addition, in ancient Rome, servants were required to cover their heads while free men did not; thus, Jews covered their heads to show that they were servants of God. In medieval times, Jews covered their heads as a reminder that God is always above them. Whatever the reason given, however, covering the head has always been regarded more as a custom rather than a commandment.

Mezuza

On the doorposts of traditional Jewish homes (and many not-so-traditional homes!), you will find a small case. This case is commonly known as a mezuzah (Heb.: doorpost), because it is placed upon the doorposts of the house. The mezuzah is not, as some suppose, a good-luck charm, nor does it have any connection with the lamb’s blood placed on the doorposts in Egypt. Rather, it is a constant reminder of God’s presence and God’s mitzvot.

The mitzvah to place mezuzot on the doorposts of Jewish houses is derived from Deut. 6:4-9, a passage commonly known as the Shema (Hear, from the first word of the passage). In that passage, God commands the Jews to keep His words constantly in their minds and in their hearts, by (among other things) writing them on the doorposts of their house. The words of the Shema are written on a tiny scroll of parchment, along with the words of a companion passage, Deut. 11:13-21. On the back of the scroll, a name of God is written. The scroll is then rolled up placed in the case, so that the first letter of the Name (the letter Shin) is visible (or, more commonly, the letter Shin is written on the outside of the case).

The scroll must be handwritten in a special style of writing and must be placed in the case to fulfill the mitzvah.

The case and scroll are then nailed or affixed to the right side doorpost on an angle, with a small ceremony called Chanukkat Ha-Beit (dedication of the house – yes, this is the same word as Chanukkah, the holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean revolt against Greece). A brief blessing is recited.

Every time one passes through a door with a mezuzah on it, touch the mezuzah and then kiss the fingers that touched it, expressing love and respect for God and his mitzvot and reminding oneself of the mitzvot contained within them.

Tfilin

The Shema also commands us to bind the words to our hands and between our eyes. We do this by laying tefillin, that is, by binding to our arms and foreheads a leather pouch containing scrolls of Torah passages.

The word “tefillin” is usually translated “phylacteries,” it means “amulet,” and suggests that tefillin are some kind of protective charm, which they clearly are not. On the contrary, the word “tefillin” is etymologically related to the word “tefilah” (prayer) and the root Pe-Lamed-Lamed (judgment).

Like the mezuzah, tefillin are meant to remind us of God’s mitzvot. At weekday morning services, one case is tied to the arm, with the scrolls at the biceps and leather straps extending down the arm to the hand, then another case is tied to the head, with the case on the forehead and the straps hanging down over the shoulders. Appropriate blessings are recited during this process. The tefillin are removed at the conclusion of the morning services.

Like the scrolls in a mezuzah, the scrolls in tefillin must be hand-written in a special style of writing. A good, valid set of tefillin can cost a few hundred dollars, but if properly cared for they can last for a lifetime.

Menorah

The Menorah is one of the oldest Jewish symbols, found engraved on rocks, depicted on mosaics, coins, and stone sarcophagi. The Menorah, among the loot being carried from the Second Temple, is famously depicted on the Arch of Titus, although some scholars question its accuracy. Outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is a large bronze menorah sculpture by Benno Elkan that depicts major events in Jewish history.

The Menorah’s shape of a central stem with branches extending from either side unmistakably evokes a plant image, and the Torah’s description of the Menorah is even in botanical terms: stems, branches, flowers, calyxes, almond-shaped cups. This has led some to suggest that the fragrant Israeli Moriah plant (Salvia palaestinae – a kind of sage) may have served as the botanical model for the menorah. The menorah is a kind of stylized tree – perhaps the origin of the symbol of the tree of life.

 

The kohanim (priests) lit the menorah in the Sanctuary every evening and cleaned it out every morning, replacing the wicks and putting fresh olive oil into the cups. Its form was, according to what is generally believed, given to Moses by God, as related in Exodus 25:31-37:

“Make a lampstand of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft; its flower-like cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand – three on one side and three on the other. Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms. One bud shall be under the first pair of branches extending from the lampstand, a second bud under the second pair, and a third bud under the third pair – six branches in all. The buds and branches shall be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold. Then make its seven lamps and set them upon it so that they light the space in front of it”.

The seven candle holders and three joints where the branches meet the central column represent the ten sefirot of the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah. The central column corresponds to the central Pillar of Equilibrium (sefirot 1, 6, 9 and 10) on the Tree, the holders to its left correspond to the Pillar of Severity (sefirot 3, 5 and 8) and the holders on its right to the Pillar of Mercy (sefirot 2, 4 and 7).

The names and numbers of the ten sefirot are given in order below. The most usual name for each sefira is given first, followed by some alternatives.

 1. Kether (Crown) or Kether Elyon (Supreme Crown)
2. Chokmah (Wisdom)
3. Binah (Understanding or Intelligence)
 4. Chesed (Mercy or Grace) or Gedullah
(Greatness)
5. Geburah (Severity or Power), Din (Judgement)
or Pahad (Fear)
6. Tifereth (Beauty) or Rahamim (Mercy)
 7. Netsach (Victory or Constancy)
8. Hod (Glory or Majesty)
9. Yesod (Foundation) or Tsedek (Justice)
10. Malkuth (Kingdom) or Shekhinah (Divine
Immanence)

The menorah was the only Tabernacle vessel that was made of solid gold (100 pounds of it according to Josephus) – the others were gold-plated wood. The pure gold of the menorah further emphasizes its symbolism of divine light. The light of the menorah made the space sacred. This light symbolism is preserved in many synagogues in the Ner Tamid, a light hanging above the Torah ark that is never put out. Light was the first element in Creation – the first step in transforming chaos into cosmic order. Light intimates both life and the Presence of the God. Psalm 104:2 describes God as “wrapped in a robe of light”. Light has always been associated with peace.

The Jewish philosopher and theologian known as Philo of Alexandria or Philo Judaeus (c.15BC-c.45) linked the seven ‘planets’ of classical astrology to the seven branches of the menorah, with the sun being at the center. The seven branches may also be considered as corresponding to the seven days of Biblical Creation.

The menorah was adopted as an official emblem of the State of Israel in 1949, and it is featured on the president’s flag. Menorahs with different numbers of branches are also encountered, the most common being the nine-branched version that relates to the Jewish festival of Chanukah.