Judaism is one of the oldest religions of the world, and believes that there is only one God. Though there are many aspects to this faith, this SpiritualRay article discusses some of the main Judaism symbols and their meanings, that play an important role in the life of each and every Jew.
Did You Know?
Judaism happens to be the oldest monotheistic religions of the world, with its historic origins to be as old as 1812 BC when a covenant was established between God and Abraham. As per the 2013 estimate, there are only 13.9 million Jews in the world, which account for merely 0.2% of the total world population.
Being founded in Israel almost 4,000 years ago, Judaism comes with some interesting historical background. Abraham is considered as the founder of Judaism. In fact, it is one of those few religions, including Christianity and Islam, in which Abraham plays a very important role. Being a monotheistic religion, Judaism believes that there is only one God, the very God who created this universe. The Jewish calendar begins at the sixth day of creation, when Adam and Eve were created by God. Interestingly, the year 2015 is actually AM 5775, AM being the abbreviation for Anno Mundi, a calendar era used in the Jewish calendar. AM 5776 shall begin at sunset on September 13, 2015.
Perhaps it is because of the few followers of this faith today, that the Jews give a lot of importance to their culture and customs, cherishing and preserving their heritage in all ways possible. Their life is governed by the commandments of God that are inscribed in the Torah, a sacred scroll that forms the primary basis of their religious teachings. The following section explains the main Jewish symbols and signs, including the Torah, and helps us gain a better understanding of the beliefs and practices associated with this religious group.
Jewish Religious Symbols and Their Meanings Explained
The life of each and every Jewish person is governed by a set of rules, customs, and traditions, that need to be followed in order to live as per the commandments of God. They believe that those who follow God and His commandments are the ones who will be rewarded, and those who don’t, will be punished. There are various signs and symbols that act as constant reminders to the Jews, so as to follow the will of God and live their lives according to His will, all the time. Some of these symbols are listed as follows.
Star of David
Also known as the Magen David or the Shield of David , this is the emblem of the Jews. You would be surprised to know that the symbolic representation of the Star of David in Judaism began quite recently, in the 17th century. As the Christians took the Cross as their representative symbol, the Jews chose the Star of David to represent their community. There is no reason as to why only this symbol was chosen, however, in the Middle East and North Africa, the shield of King David was considered to bring good luck.
Experts also say that the top triangle of the star represents the upward direction towards God, and the lower triangle symbolizes the real world that exists below. Also, the Star of David has all the triangles intertwined, which represents that each and everything is inseparable and interrelated to each other. Alternately, there is also a speculation that the three sides of the star are symbolic of the three types of Jews that exist:Kohanim, Levites, and Israel.
A Menorah is not only the most important, but the oldest symbol in Judaism. In the early Jewish Temple, it was a tradition to light the seven-branched Menorah (the candelabrum with 7 stands) every evening and clean it every morning. Fresh olive oil was filled in cups and wicks were replaced. All this was done in accordance with the Biblical instructions mentioned in Exodus 25:31-40.
However, after the destruction of the Temple, the synagogues began using a six-branched menorah, as it was forbidden to replicate the belongings of the Temple. A nine-branched menorah is usually lit during Hanukkah, which is an 8-day festival celebrated in memory of the re-dedication of the Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This festival commemorates the miracle where, after the Seleucid desecration of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews had sealed oil, which in quantity, was only enough to light the Menorah for one night, but miraculously, the light lasted for eight days. The ninth holder is known as the Shamash, which means the helper which lights up the rest of the eight candles. Other symbolism of the Menorah is to represent the mission of Israel mentioned in Isaiah 42:6, which is to be a light unto all nations.
The mezuzah is a small case which contains the handwritten scroll withShema inscribed on it. Shema is referred to the passage wherein God commands His people to remind themselves again and again about His presence and commandments, mentioned in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. It is He who states that His commandment should be written and placed on the doorposts of every house. However, it is forbidden to place the mezuzah on the doors of the closets and bathrooms.
The mezuzah has two parts: (1) The container and (2) The parchment known as Klaf, which has the Shema written on it. The container is inscribed with the letter Shin, which is the first letter of God’s name. The mezuzah is placed at the doorpost at a tilted angle, which is neither horizontal nor vertical. Unlike the common belief, it is not a good luck charm, but it rather acts as a reminiscent that those who dwell in the household are bound by God’s command to obey the law of the Torah.
The Torah is the first of the three parts of the Hebrew Bible known as theTaNaCH. The word ‘TaNaCH’ is derived from the three sections of the Jewish Scripture, wherein ‘T’ is for Torah, ‘N’ is for Nevi’im, and ‘CH’ is forKetuvim―Nevi’im and Ketuvim being the second and third part of the Hebrew Bible.
The Torah constitutes the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This sacred scroll consists of the primary records of the relationship of Jews with God and the covenant hence established. It lays the foundation of the way God expects His believers to live their lives and explains the moral and religious obligations that they are bound to. Another interesting thing about the Torah scroll is that it is always kept in an Ark, and no one is allowed to touch it. Which is why, a special metallic pointer known as the Yad is used while reading the Torah.
Tallit and Tzitzit
The Torah states that in order to be reminded of the mitzvot , which means ‘commandments’, one must wear tzitzit (meaning fringes) in the corner of the garments. This is mentioned in Numbers 15:38-40. The tallit is a four-cornered shawl that contains the tzitzit.
Also known as the Jewish Prayer Shawl, it is worn by Jewish men during prayers and other religious ceremonies. In some Jewish denominations, women may wear it too. The tallit should be long enough to be worn over the shoulders, and not just wrapped around as a scarf on the neck. Also, the tzitzit should not touch the ground. Oftentimes, the words of blessings are inscribed on the tallit, on the part that covers the neck. This is the reason why it is forbidden to take the tallit inside the bathroom because of its holy symbolism and the sacred writings inscribed on it.
Yet another symbolic representation of remembering God and His commandments are the tefillin. They are a set of small leather cubic boxes with straps, that contain the handwritten sacred verses of the Torah. The Jews tie up the tefillin to follow the commandment of the Torah mentioned in Deuteronomy 11:18 that says, “You shall put these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall tie them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as Totafot between your eyes.“
The two cases of the tefillin are worn on the head and hand, respectively. The hand case, as shown in the image above, is wrapped around the arm, hands, and fingers, whereas the head case is placed over the forehead with the straps around the head that hang down the shoulders. These are worn while praying to be reminded of God’s presence and power, and are symbolic representation of serving God with one’s body and mind. A study done by Jewish acupuncturist, Steven Schram , concludes that the tefillin is designed in such a manner that it stimulates the acupuncture points that clear the mind and harmonize the spirit during prayers. Interesting, indeed!
Also known as Yarmulke , a kippah is a small skullcap worn by the Jews; however, in Orthodox synagogues, only males wear it. The head is covered as a sign of humility and the acknowledgment of God as the supreme power. Also, it is mentioned in the Talmud to “Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you.” Therefore, another symbolism of wearing the kippah is to feel the presence of God over you all the time. It is a tradition to wear the kippah at all times, especially during prayer, as it ‘honors the presence of God’.
Young Jewish boys are encouraged to wear it so that the fear of God always resides in them, and that they do not engage in bad habits. Traditional families wear it all the time, while some put it on only during eating, praying, and studying. Nonetheless, wearing yarmulke is symbolic of being under the presence of God and being bound to His commandments at all times.
A shofar, as you can see in the picture, is a horn which is blown by the Jews during Rosh Hashanah , the Jewish New Year. It is celebrated during the first two days of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, known as the Tishrei. The Torah refers to these days as Yom Teruah , which means, “day [of] shouting/raising a noise.” Yom Kippur is another important day when the shofar is blown.
The shofar should be a naturally hollow material which produces sound with the human breath, just like God breathes life into humans. It is usually the horn of a kosher animal, mostly of a ram. The natural curve of the horn represents the bending of the human heart for repentance towards God. It also symbolizes the eternal sacrifice of Abraham when he was willing to sacrifice his only son, and when God saw this, He allowed him to sacrifice a ram instead. Another symbolism of blowing the shofar on New Year is the call to repentance, and that each and everyone should wake up to the call of the shofar and repent. The blowing of the shofar is also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the Rabbinic literature, and the Talmud.
The symbol ‘Chai’, as shown in the picture, is a combination of two Hebrew letters, Chet (ח) and Yod (י). The word Chai means “living” in Hebrew, and this term holds a very important place in the life of each and every Jew, as it represents the importance of life, life that is a gift from the living God. You will usually see this symbol in Jewish jewelry.
In addition to that, numerically, the letters of chai add up to the number 18, which in Judaism is a spiritual number that brings good luck. This is the reason why, when it comes to charity, the Jews always offer gifts in the multiples of 18 (18, 36,54, and so on). Giving charity in the multiples of 18 represents the ‘gift of life’.
Also known as the Hamesh Hand, Khamsa, and Hand of Fatima, in Judaism, this symbol represents the five books of Torah. The number five is known as hamesh in Hebrew, and the Torah consists of five books. The hamesh hand also reminds that a believer should use all five senses to praise God.
This symbol also represents the Hebrew alphabet Heh, which is a representation of one of God’s holy names, thereby making this hand, symbolic of God’s hand itself. The hamsa hand can be found in various religious jewelry, artifacts, and decoration items. It consists of an eye in the middle, symbolizing protection against the evil eye.
The Four Species play an integral part in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. During this seven-day holiday, the Jews take the Four Species of plants as described in the Torah. Leviticus 23:40 states, “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.“
The Four species consist of etrog (the fruit of a citron tree), lulav (a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree), hadass (boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree), and aravah (branches with leaves from the willow tree). The symbolic meaning of these four species is this: The lulav has a taste, but it possesses no fragrance. This symbolizes those who study the Torah but do not possess any goodness in them. The hadass, on the other hand, has a good fragrance, but no taste. This is symbolic of those Jews who have goodness in them, but they don’t study the Torah. The aravahlacks both taste and smell, representing those who don’t have either goodness, nor do they study the Torah. And finally, the etrog possesses both taste and fragrance, symbolic of those who have both the knowledge of the Torah and good deeds. Binding all these four species together symbolizes the unification of all kinds of Jews in the service of God. It is customary to wave these four species in all directions and recite prayers while doing so, to ask God for abundant rainfall and vegetation in the following year.
A dreidel is a symbol that has become synonymous with the festivities of Hanukkah. This four-sided spinning top is used to win as many coins, chocolate coins, candies, etc., in the traditional gambling game played on this day. The winning/losing depends upon the four letters that are inscribed on each side of the dreidel― נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hay), and ש(Shin). However, in Israel, the fourth side of the dreidel has the letter פ(Pei). The reason behind this alteration is explained in the following paragraph.
Nun means ‘nothing’, Gimel means ‘all’, Hay signifies ‘half’, and Shin stands for ‘put in’. Interestingly, all these letters together form an acronym that stands for A great miracle happened there . However, the dreidel of Israel forms the acronym for the statement, A great miracle happened here. This refers to the miracle of the cruse of oil, mentioned earlier in this article
The roots of Judaism date back to the time when other monotheistic religions didn’t exist at all. Considering the fact that today also, the number of followers of this culture are relatively fewer in number, those who are a part of it, even after thousands of years, obey the commandments of God word by word and treasure each and every writing of the Torah. Their life is a living example of their faith in God and their dependency on Him, and all these symbols just help them to be reminded of the promise of God and the reward that awaits for them to be faithful to Him, irrespective of all odds.