This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Seeing Stars*

What pictorial symbol would you choose to represent Judaism?

If you were living in ancient times, it would probably be an image connected with Israel's most revered religious shrine, the Jerusalem Temple. Thus, when we survey the ornamentation on coins and funeral memorials from the Second Commonwealth era, we encounter representations of the Temple gates, incense-burners or musical instruments, and an occasional lulav and etrog. It was the seven-branched candelabrum that would emerge as the most widely accepted image of Jewish faith and peoplehood.

Conspicuously absent from the above list is the six-pointed star that is now referred to as the Magen David, the "shield of David." Indeed, our ubiquitous Magen David has only a dubious claim to authenticity as a Jewish symbol. It was not until well into the medieval era that anyone would have dreamed of associating it with Judaism--and the nature of that association was not necessarily a favourable or complimentary one.

The earliest known incarnations of the star of David are not found in Jewish sources, but in Christian and Muslim traditions, albeit in works that borrowed freely from Hebrew prototypes. In those sources, the shield is not associated with King David, but with his son Solomon. And the star in question has five points, not six.

According to a popular legend related by Josephus Flavius and in the Talmud, Solomon was able to exercise control over the demonic realms by means of a magical ring. The legends about King Solomon's ring were elaborated in extensive detail in "the Testament of Solomon," a Greek pseudepigraphic work of undetermined date. Several versions of this work contain precise descriptions of the ring, and in some of them it is described as a "pentalpha," a star composed of five interlaced A's. The pentalpha reappears in several Byzantine amulets.

Stories about the "seal of Solomon" were also mentioned by Arabic writers, and through them they became known to Jews. The twelfth-century Karaite scholar Judah Hadassi was apparently the first to allude to this magical sign by its alternative name, the "shield of David," a usage that might have originated in the Qur'an's depiction of David as a fashioner of armour.

For the most part, references to the shields of Solomon and David, and their use in occult practices, are found in non-Jewish sources, and they frequently reinforce the medieval stereotypes of a Jewish predilection for sorcery. This is not to say that Jews were totally removed from the practice of the magic. Like everyone else in those times, our medieval ancestors made ample use of protective amulets and mezuzahs, etc. Variations on the star shape--including the six-pointed kind--appeared with some frequency in those contexts. However there was nothing uniquely Jewish in such superstitions.

The earliest known appearance of the Magen David as a specifically Jewish icon was on the official emblem of the Prague Jewish community in the seventeenth century. By then the shield's association with King David had became sufficiently established for it to serve as a symbol of national pride. In the eyes of many gentiles, it presumably confirmed their suspicions that Jews were generally involved in the dark arts.

In truth however, it was the Christian adepts of alchemy and the occult who were most likely to draw upon Hebrew images, real or imagined, in order to lend their work an aura of authoritative mystery. This tendency gave rise to a widespread impression among outsiders that the Kabbalah was primarily a system of magic.

Nonetheless, the popularity of the Magen David spread rapidly over the subsequent years. The Jews of Vienna adopted it in 1655 to symbolize their own community, and following their expulsion in 1755 they bore it to their new homes in other central European towns. It did not take long for it to achieve immense popularity as a motif of synagogue ornamentation.

Of course in the eyes of Jews, the figure of King David has a special significance as the paradigm of national glory and the ancestor of the Messiah. In the latter part of the seventeenth century this motif was cultivated by the devotees of the mystical messiah Shabbetai Zvi, and the Shield of David would appear as a secret sign on amulets produced by the faithful, particularly after it had gone underground.

Thus there is no small measure of irony in the fact that, when nineteenth-century Jews were looking for a recognizable trademark to serve as the equivalent of the cross or crescent, their choice was a symbol whose associations with Judaism owed more to anti-Jewish stereotyping than to any meaningful links with our national or religious values.

However such is the vigour of symbols that, whatever their original purpose, they can be infused with profound and inspiring meaning. For Jewish nationalists, this occurred when the Zionist movement positioned it at the centre of their new national flag. In the domain of the spirit, the imagery of the six-pointed star stimulated Franz Rosenzweig to formulate a brilliant religious philosophy in which the realms of God, Humanity and the World are linked together through the religious axes of Creation, Revelation and Redemption.

Notwithstanding these development, my overall feeling is that the Magen David makes a poor choice of symbol. It has no tangible roots in Jewish tradition, and even evokes some themes that are antithetical to healthy Jewish values.

Let me therefore take this opportunity to issue a call to my readers to forgo the Star of David in favour of more authentic Jewish images the next time you are in the market for an item of jewelry or a wedding invitation. Perhaps the change can be accomplished if enough of us rally behind its banner--a banner that will, of course, display a menorah and not a Magen David.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, November 20, 1997, pp. 6-7.

  • Bibliography:
    • J. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Garden City, 1985.
    • N. H. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig, His Life and Thought, New York, 1961.
    • G. Scholem, Kabbalah, New York, 1974.
    • G. Sholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays, New York, 1971.
    • J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, New York, 1970.