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The Star (Shield) of David, also called Magen David, is a relatively new Jewish symbol. Supposedly, it represents the shape of King David's shield (but there is no rabbinic support for that claim). The symbol is very rare in early Jewish literature.
Is there any theological significance to the symbol? Some claim that the top triangle strives upward, toward G-d, while the lower triangle strives downward, toward the real world. Others note that the intertwining represents the inseparable nature of the Jewish people. Still others claim the three sides stand for the three types of Jews: Kohanim, Levites and Israel. A similar claim could be made for the three major movements. However, these theories have little basis in historical fact.
What is the history?
Intertwined equilateral triangles is a common symbol in the Middle East and North Africa, where it supposedly brings good luck. Originally, it was primarily associated with magic or family/community insignia. Its geometric symmetry made the symbol popular in many cultures. A common claim is that the upward triangle represents female sexuality, and the downward triangle represents male sexuality; combined, they symbolize unity and harmony. In alchemy, the two triangles symbolize "fire" and "water"; together, they represent the reconciliation of opposites.
Where did Judaism come into the picture? The earliest known Jewish use of the star was as a seal in ancient Palestine (6th century B.C.E.). It was next used eight centuries later in a synagogue frieze in Capernaum. These may have only been ornamental designs. In the Middle Ages, the star appears frequently on churches, but rarely in synagogues or on Jewish ritual objects. Also note that Jews of this time often wore badges proclaiming their Judaism (similar to those in Nazi Germany). However, these badges used a six-pointed badge similar to an asterisk, as illustrated in a fifteenth century painting by Nuno Goncalves. The menorah served as the primary Jewish symbol, not the star.
Some historians have attempted to trace the star back to King David; others trace it to Rabbi Akiva and the Bar Kokhba ("son of the star") rebellion (135 CE); still others trace it to the kabbalists, especially Rabbi Isaac Luria (16th century). However, there is no documented evidence of these claim. Instead, evidence suggests that the early use of the star was limited to "practical Kabbalah", probably dating back to the 6th century. It is connected in legend with the "Seal of Solomon," which was a signet ring used by Solomon to supposedly control demons and spirits.The original ring was inscribed with the Tetragrammaton; but medieval amulets imitating the ring substituted the six-pointed star or five-pointed star, often accompanied by rampant lions. Hence, the star was called the "Seal of Solomon."
Additionally, medieval Jewish texts spoke of a magic shield possessed by King David that protected him from his enemies. These texts claim the shield was inscribed with the seventy-two letter name of G-d, or with Shaddai (Almighty) or angelic names, and was eventually passed down to Judah Maccabee. The kabbalist Isaac Arama (15th century) claimed that Psalm 67, later known as the "Menorah Psalm", was engraved on David's shield in the form of a menorah. Others suggest that Isaiah 11:2, enumerating the six aspects of the divine spirit, was inscribed on the shield in the outer six triangles of the star. In any case, over time, the star replaced this menorah in popular legends about David's shield, while the five-pointed pentagram became identified with the Seal of Solomon. The star was also widely regarded as a messianic symbol, because of its legendary connection with David, ancestor of the Messiah. On Sabbath eve, German Jews would light a star-shaped brass oil lamp called a Judenstern (Jewish star), emblematic of the idea that Shabbat was a foretaste of the Messianic Age. The star was also popular among the followers of Shabbatai Tzevi, the false messiah of the 17th century, because of its messianic associations. Among Jewish mystics and wonderworkers, the star was most commonly used as a magical protection against demons, often inscribed on the outside of mezuzot and on amulets.
Another use of the star in medieval times was as a Jewish printer's mark, especially in Prague and among members of the Jewish Foa family, who lived in Italy and Holland. In 1354, Emperor Charles IV of Prague granted the Jews of his city the privilege of displaying their own flag on state occasions. Their flag displayed a large six-pointed star in its center. A similar flag remains to this day in the Altneuschul, the oldest synagogue in Prague. From Prague, the star spread to the Jewish communities of Moravia and Bohemia, and then eventually to Eastern Europe.
The star has achieved its status as the most common and universally recognized sign of Judaism and Jewish identity only since 1800. In the 17th century, it became a popular practice to put Magen Davids on the outside of synagogues, to identify them as Jewish houses of worship in much the same way that a cross identified a Christian house of worship. In Vienna, the Jewish quarter was separated from the Christian quarter by a boundary stone inscribed with a hexagram on one side and a cross on the other, the first instance of the six-pointed star being used to represent Judaism as a whole, rather than an individual community.
With Jewish emancipation following the French Revolution, Jews began to look for a symbol to represent themselves comparable to the cross used by their Christian neighbors. They settled upon the six-pointed star, principally because of its heraldic associations. Its geometric design and architectural features greatly appealed to synagogue architects, most of whom were non-Jews. Ironically, the religious Jews of Europe and the Orient, already accustomed to seeing hexagrams on kabbalistic amulets, accepted this secularized emblem of the enlightened Jews as a legitimate Jewish symbol, even though it had no religious content or scriptural basis.
The star gained additional popularity as a symbol of Judaism when it was adopted as the emblem of the Zionist movement in 1897. Theodor Herzl chose the Star of David because it was so well known and also because it had no religious associations. In time, it appeared in the center of the flag of the new Jewish state of Israel and has become associated with national redemption. The symbol continued to be controversial for many years afterward. When the modern state of Israel was founded, there was much debate over whether this symbol should be used on the flag.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis chose the yellow star as an identifying badge required on the garments of all Jews. After the war, Jews turned this symbol of humiliation and death into a badge of honor.
Nowadays, the Star of David is the most universally recognized symbol of the Jewish People.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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© (c) 1993-2004
Daniel P. Faigin <firstname.lastname@example.org>