Light to the Nations
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Light to the Nations*

By now, this heraldic symbol is so familiar that it seems as if it has been there forever. At the centre of a blue crest stands a seven-branched menorah, flanked on both sides by leafy branches, with a simple Hebrew caption underneath: “Yisra’el”—Israel.

The reborn state of Israel did not come into existence with a ready-made coat of arms (whereas to some extent, it did already have a design for the national flag in the blue and white banner that had long since been adopted by the Zionist movement). It therefore remained for the fledgling state’s parliament, the Knesset, to devise an appropriate symbol that would be placed on national monuments, diplomatic correspondence, official stationery and other ceremonial venues that required a visual representation of Jewish statehood.

As a first step in the process, the provisional government published an advertisement on February 11 1949 inviting proposals for the national coat of arms. In a manner reminiscent of Henry Ford’s statement that his customers could purchase their automobiles “in any colour as long as it’s black,” the announcement specified that submissions should be blue and white and include both the seven-branched candelabrum and seven six-pointed stars; it then went on to state that the prospective designers were free not only to add more colours, but also that the adjudication committee would give consideration to other suggestions or ideas. The announcement attracted 450 entries from some 164 participants.

Though the choice of the menorah to be the national symbol is not particularly surprising (albeit not as obvious as you might have expected), the mention of a seven-stars motif now strikes us as odd, to say the least. The reference was to a suggestion that had been made by the visionary of political Zionism Theodor Herzl in his seminal pamphlet der Judenstaat in which he declared proudly that the greatest contribution of his utopian state would consist of its giving the world a seven-hour work day; hence the stars on its flag would symbolize “the seven golden hours of our working day.”

It would appear that the initial proposal to include both the Menorah and the seven stars reflected some sort of compromise or trade-off between proponents of religious and secular-socialist perceptions of the Jewish state’s mission. As we shall see, tensions between these two ideologies continued to make themselves evident throughout the process of negotiating the Israeli coat of arms. In fact considering the depth of the division between the camps, it is quite surprising to observe how the menorah—a key artifact of the cultic worship in the holy Temple of Jerusalem—was accepted by a virtual consensus as the preferred symbol for the state of Israel (though a few of the competing submissions included such religiously rooted alternatives as the lion of Judah, the dove of peace or the tablets of the ten commandments).

The menorah won out as a uniquely recognizable Jewish symbol that was deeply entrenched in traditional Jewish iconography and popular consciousness; and yet it also remained amenable enough to secular interpretations as a symbol of enlightenment and freedom.

The candelabrum that appears on the official Israeli seal is based on the depiction on the Arch of Titus in Rome, where it is being borne prominently among the glittering spoils looted by the victorious Imperial legions. Even after it had been accepted that there should be a menorah on the Israeli emblem, it was far from obvious that that version was the best choice. In ancient Jewish synagogue mosaics and coins, as well as in the descriptions in rabbinic texts, the menorah is portrayed somewhat differently; especially with respect to the shape of its base. The Arch of Titus places it on a solid, tiered foundation whose decorations include un-Jewish symbols like eagles and dragons; whereas most Jewish representations place it on a stand with three or four legs. Religious spokesmen, including Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, objected because it did not conform to the descriptions in the Talmud. Furthermore, Titus’s arch perpetuated a moment of immense tragedy and humiliation for the Jewish nation, and for that reason alone it deserved to be rejected. It is therefore understandable that some designers proposed different renderings of the menorah, including stylized minimalist drawings in the modern spirit that all but eliminated any associations with ancient religious artifacts.

On the other hand, there was one suggestion, inspired profoundly by motifs from ancient Jewish art, that came very close to being adopted. Alongside the menorah and the seven stars, this proposal also displayed two venerable Jewish ritual symbols: a shofar and lulav. The caption beneath the menorah read “Shalom ‘al Yisra’el— "peace upon Israel," a very popular concluding formula in ancient Jewish dedicatory inscriptions. The graphic was set inside a rounded rectangular shape after the manner of ancient seal rings. The advocates of this design noted that the text (from Psalms 125:6) was of no mere antiquarian interest, but served as a programmatic declaration of the state’s fundamental commitment to seeking peace with its neighbours.

The style and combination of motifs in this proposal bore an unmistakable resemblance to the mosaic images that adorned the synagogue floor from Byzantine Jericho. This was no coincidence. A prominent member of the official Coat of Arms committee was the renowned archaeologist Eleazar Lipa Sukenik of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who was very familiar with the findings at the Jericho synagogue that had first been excavated in 1936.

Prof. Sukenik is regarded as the virtual founder of a discipline of “Jewish archeology” that he envisaged as an invaluable tool for evoking the continuity between Israel’s ancestral soil and the reborn Hebrew nation. In a 1923 article, writing about the limestone menorah unearthed at Hammat Tiberias, he had declared with palpable excitement that “every interpreter of the Bible must take into account the image of this menorah that was buried in the past, during a period of danger, and revealed to us in the first Hebrew excavations in the land of Israel.”

Even scholars and nationalists who had no sympathies for traditional religion realized early in their enterprise that the archeology of Jewish life in late antiquity would necessarily focus on the evidence of synagogue sites that preserved symbols of indisputably Jewish provenance.

In the final version of the Israel coat of arms, the textual reference to peace was removed from the caption (which was now limited to the single word “Israel”) and transformed into a graphic symbol of olive branches on the two outer edges. In addition to its association with peace, the image of the olive branches was also likely—though this was never stated explicitly—to evoke the vision of the prophet Zechariah of a candlestick flanked by two olive trees, representing the religious and civil leaderships that sustained the Jews in their return from the Babylonian captivity.

As for the decision to portray the candelabrum as it appears on Titus’s arch rather than according to the Jewish iconography, this was apparently due to the influence of Transport Minister David Remez who persuaded the committee that it could thereby serve as a forthright refutation of the Roman boast that their legions had put an end to the national aspirations of the Jewish people.

I hope that this provocative in-your-face demonstration of Israel’s national vitality has indeed induced Titus, along with any other obstinate ancient Romans, to finally see the light.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Time for Every Purpose
A Time for Every Purpose

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 24, 2015, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Fine, Steven. “The Old-New Land: Jewish Archaeology and the Zionist Narrative.” In Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology, by Steven Fine, 22–34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
    • Hachlili, Rachel. Ancient Mosaic Pavements: Themes, Issues, and Trends: Selected Studies. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009.
    • ———. Ancient Synagogues - Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research. Brill, 2013.
    • ———. “The Menorah, the Ancient Seven-Armed Candelabrum: Origin, Form, and Significance.” Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 68. Leiden: Brill, 2001.
    • Mishory, Alexander. “Designing of the State of Israel’s Official Emblem.” Cathedra for the History of Eretz Israel and its Yishuv 46 (1987): 169–87. [Hebrew]
    • Shavit, Yaacov. “‘Truth Shall Spring Out of the Earth’: The Development of Jewish Popular Interest in Archaeology in Eretz-Israel.” Cathedra for the History of Eretz Israel and its Yishuv 44 (1987): 27–54. [Hebrew]
    • Sperber, Daniel. “History of the Menorah.” Journal of Jewish Studies, no. 16 (1965): 135–159.
    • ———. “Nispaḥ: ‘Al Ha-Menorah Shebbe-Semel Ha-Medinah.” In Minhagei Yisra’el: Meḳorot Ve-Toledot, 5:205–212. Vol. 5. 8 vols. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1995.
    • Sukenik, Eliezer Lipa. “Ancient Synagogues in Palestine.” Rimon: A Hebrew Magazine of Art and Letters 5 (1923): 19. [Hebrew]
    • Yarden, Leon. “The Tree of Light: A Study of the Menorah, the Seven-Branched Lampstand.” London]: East and West Library, 1971.