Judaism is not just a religion – it is also an expression of the history, culture and way of living of the Jewish people. It is also the first religion which claimed the existence of a unique God.
Given the history of the Jewish people throughout time, as well as its division through space and the very much contested fundament of its nation state, the element which had the major influence in keeping the Jews together was the rich symbolism of the religion. Even though other religions display a series of symbols, the Judaic symbols are particular ones, embodying in them the essence of the evolution of the Jewish people.
A synthetic list of such symbols comprises the following: the Star of David/The Shield of David, the Menorah, the Mezuzah, Hamesh Hand, the Tzitzit and the Tullit, the Tefillin, the Yarmulke/Kippah, and the Chai symbol. Some of these symbols are known to the general public, whereas others have a more particular connection with the faith.
The Star of David, also known as the Shield of David or the “Magen David” is the most well-known symbol associated with Judaism. The fact that the Nazis forced the Jews to wear the Star of David as a form of identification added a negative connotation to the symbol, depriving it thus of its true meaning. From a historical perspective, the representation of the Shield of David, or rather of a symbol inscribed on it, dates back to the Middle Ages and bears several theories of interpretation. One interpretation refers to the two intertwining triangles, which are commonly represented as such in the Middle East and in Northern Africa and are meant to be an omen of good luck or a metaphor of the strength inherent in the Jewish people, who survived unaltered in its belief throughout all of history’s struggles. The number of sides of the triangles is also important – if one counts only three sides, then these three sides are a metaphor of the three types of Jews. If one is to count 12 sides of these triangles, then the sides are an expression of the 12 Jewish tribes.
The Star of David is currently present on the Jewish flag, despite the dispute surrounding this decision, as initially, the symbol was a herald for the Zionist movement.
The Menorah is another well-known symbol of the Jewish religion. It is a seven-branched candelabrum, used in the Temple, which was lit every evening and extinguished the following morning. Nowadays, synagogues display a lamp stand, which is called a ”ner tamid” and replaces the menorah. However, in order to prevent a duplication of the objects of the Temple, this ornamental menorah has to be altered in its design (usually having only six candles instead of seven). Its symbolism refers to the mission that the nation of Israel has, of bringing light to other nations, light being a very strong element of imprinting a message, but at the same time, a non-violent message, respecting thus God’s wishes in this regard.
Another altered menorah is that used for Chanukkah – that menorah has nine branches and celebrates the miracle that the oil used for a single day managed to last for eight days.
The Mezuzah is a small case which is traditionally to be found on the doorposts of Jewish homes. The role of the mezuzah is to remind one of God and its grace bestowed upon its people. The practice of placing this small box on the doorstep derives from a passage known as the Shema Israel, in the Deuteronomy, which states that God’s words need to be constantly in the minds and hearts of the fateful, and in order to achieve that, these words need to be inscribed on the doorsteps of their homes. The words of the Shema are inscribed on a scroll, which has on the other side written the name of God and which is later placed in this case. Usually, the inscribing was performed by hand. However, nowadays it is customary to buy a printed scroll.
The fixing of the mezuzah is done at an angle on the right side of the doorpost and a ceremony called Chanukkat Ha-Bayit is performed while fixing it. However, when moving from the respective house, one has to take the mezuzah along, as the new owners might not know its significance and brutally remove it.
The Yarmulke or the Kippah is another Judaic symbol which is highly visible, as men wear it on their heads, but its symbolism is little known. This garment dates back to the Aramaic period and is meant to symbolize an acute respect towards God (it is common practice for Jews to cover their heads while praying). Although covering the head at all times is a symbol of piety in the Jewish religious culture, nowadays it is common to only wear the yarmulke/kippah for prayers and otherwise remove it during daily chores.
The Hamesh Hand Hamsa Hand is a motif displaying a hand with an eye wide open painted in the palm, having the thumb and the pinky finger pointing outward. The symbol is very much present on pieces of Jewish jewelry, although it is hard to establish its relation to Judaism. The Hamesh Hand is also featured in Arab cultures, where it is perceived as the Hand of Fatima while in the Jewish religious culture it is depicted as the Hand of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron. Its symbolism refers to power, strength, as well as protection against the evil eye.
The Chai symbol appears often on pieces of jewelry and ornaments, consisting of the word Chai (which means living), followed by two letters Cheit and Yod. Its symbolism is two-folded, on the one hand referring to the living God and on the other to mere existence and life. The symbol is also associated with number 18 – it is common for Jews to offer gifts which are a multiple of 18.
Other Judaic symbols are the Tzitzit and the Tallit, along with the Tefillin. According to the Torah, one is to wear the tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of their garments, as a form of remembering the mitzvot. Initially, the tzitzit was dyed in blue or turquoise, but nowadays it is all white. It is also common for Jewish men to wear the tallit, a rectangular piece of cloth having tzitzit at its corners. The tallit is worn under the shirt, but leaving the tzitzit hanging so as to be visible.
According to the Shema Israel mentioned above, when praying, one needs to bind the words of God to himself. Thus, the Tefillin consists in fact of leather strings and pouches containing passages from the Torah, which are bound to one’s forehead and arms during prayer. The Tefillin is also known as “Phylacteries”.