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Religion Library: Judaism


Written by: Allan Nadler

Title: the Israeli flag, depicting the Magen David in its center Source: artistic and symbolic paucity notwithstanding, there are a few central symbols of Judaism whose display is almost ubiquitous in Jewish life. The best known of these is the Magen David, most commonly known in English as the Star of David, but more properly translated as the Shield of David. While its origins are to this day debated by historians and while it is almost certainly not the ancient icon that it purports to be, it has been, since the High Middle Ages, a very popular image that recalls the height of the Kingdom of David (c. 1000 B.C.E.) for whose restoration Jews pray on a daily basis. Title: Jewish tombstone between two Christian grave markersSource: its use on the front exterior wall, or on the roof, of synagogues has been common for almost two millennia, the adoption of this symbol for the flag of modern day State of Israel has made the Shield of David the most recognizable and universal symbol of Jews and Judaism in the modern era. The Star of David is also the most common symbol used on Jewish tombstones and other memorial tablets, where it is commonly engraved in the identical space occupied by the cross on Christian memorial stones. Title: Synagogue in Poland, depicting the menorah in front of the Holy ArkTwo other decorative symbols commonly found in Jewish houses of worship and are the seven-pronged Menorah, or candelabra, and an image of the tablets of law (i.e., the Ten Commandments) brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. Many synagogues feature these above their exterior entrance and above the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls.  Their shape alone conveys the memory of the unique moment of God's self-revelation to the Children of Israel on the Holy Mountain. Finally, the chart-of-arms of the Twelve Tribes of Ancient Israel is a common symbol found in Jewish institutions, although only rarely within the synagogue sanctuary. Source: Title: Image of the tablets with the 10 commandments, above the Holy ArkThe recollection of these tribes has a similar effect, or at least intent, of upholding the Jews' collective anticipation of the ingathering of the lost exiles to the Land of Israel and the reconstitution of the glorious days of the Kingdom of David, during which time all twelve tribes, ten of whom were "lost" in the 8th century B.C.E., dwelled securely in the Holy Land.

Study Questions:
1.     How did Judaism's understanding of paganism shape its use of symbolism?
2.     When Jewish people did create art, how was it manifested?
3.     When did the Star of David first appear as a Jewish symbol?
4.     What Jewish symbols are most often found in homes? What do they represent?


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