Category Archives: Jewish symbols

In God’s Presence: Succot & Shmini Atzeret

Dear Josep,

So after all the intense action of the first ten days of Tishrei, you’d think God would give us a nice break for the rest of the month.


The night after Yom Kippur, the banging聽of hammers and clinking of metal rods begins to sound聽throughout the Jewish neighborhoods.

We put those kids to work this year!
We put those kids to work this year!


We put those kids to work this year!


And very soon, strange little booths begin to pop up in yards and on balconies. Some with metal frames and walls of cloth; some made of wood; some covered in palm branches, some in bamboo mats.

Ta-da! (All that stuff lying around is our neighbors’. Really.) (Okay, except the red scooter.) (Whatever. You’ve been here. There’s no pretense that our house is neat. 馃槢 )

The children bring home a pile of paper chains, mobiles and other decorations聽from school.

photo (24)
It’ll be even prettier at night when we turn on the lights.

And this morning we woke up, all partied out from聽Shabbat (and Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and the two days of Rosh Hashana in the past two weeks…), to face yet. another. Jewish. holiday.

Succot is one of the lesser-known, yet nonetheless聽important Jewish holidays. “Succot” means “booths,” and the holiday is called that because聽the main commandment of the holiday is to build an impermanent structure–a succah–outside our homes, and basically live in it for seven days.

…Okay, what on earth is this about? I mean, we’ve got the other two聽regalim, Passover and Shavuot, and each one commemorates a very important event in the forming of the Jewish nation. What happened on the 15th of Tishrei that involved moving out of our homes into a “booth”?

Well, nothing actually happened on the 15th of Tishrei. But while Passover commemorates the Exodus, and Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, Succot commemorates something else, something less momentous, and more subtle, but nonetheless crucial to our daily lives. The聽succot聽represent the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the Israelites聽as they walked through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land.聽In the text of the Torah it says that the Israelites were led through the desert by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night. The Sages teach us that they were actually surrounded by this protective cloud on all sides–above, to protect from the brutal desert sun; below, to protect them聽from scorpions and snakes; 聽and on all sides, to protect them from bandits and wild animals.

So what makes me say that聽is this so relevant to our daily lives?

Because this holiday is really about understanding that like fish who can’t see the water in which they swim, we are constantly immersed in God’s presence. After a month and a half of introspection, breaking down the barriers between us and God and between ourselves and who we want to be, the time has come to simply bask in God’s glory and remind ourselves that He is always with us.

So for seven days, we move out of the comfort and security of our permanent homes, into these little impermanent structures. While they represent the Clouds of Glory protecting us, they also聽represent the impermanence of this physical world. And in the typical style of Judaism, we focus our attention and our lives on our existence within that world, celebrating all the goodness God has given us within it.

As usual聽in Jewish law, there are strict specifications for what qualifies as a聽succah. It must have at least two and a half walls that are at least 80 cm high and do not move around too much in the wind. The interior must measure at least 56cmx56cm. Its roof must be made out of organic material–branches or leaves, that are disconnected from their source, and parts of the聽succah that are covered聽by a permanent roof or a living tree do not qualify. The branches or leaves must be sparse enough so that the rain can come through and the stars are visible through them. 聽The idea is that though it is impermanent, and insecure, and at the mercy of the elements, we fear no evil, for God is with us.

Succot begins with a聽Yom Tov (or two outside Israel, as explained聽here). Then follow six days of聽chol hamo’ed, 聽“the mundane of the holiday,” in which we are not restricted from all the acts of creation like on Shabbat and Yom Tov, but are supposed to refrain from working as much as we can. During these seven (or eight) days, we must eat all our meals in the聽succah, and sleep in it if possible. It is highly encouraged–as always–to host guests in one’s succah, and there is a Kabbalistic concept聽that a special spiritual “guest” comes to “visit” us for each day of the holiday: Abraham the first day, Isaac the second, then Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and finally聽David. We call them “ushpizin” (Aramaic for “guests”), and聽recite a special passage “inviting” them in (or, more accurately, the spiritual attribute each of them represent–which correspond to the Kabbalistic spheres as I explained in the entry on counting the Omer).

There is a great Israeli movie called “Ushpizin” (“The Guests”) that is set in a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem during the Succot holiday. If you have the time, I highly recommend it. (You can see it here on YouTube with English subtitles.)

The other special commandment of Succot is “taking聽the four species.”

The Four Species

When I was collecting ideas for “weird things Jews do,” this one came up a lot, but I left it out of that list because it’s not just a weird habit or tradition–it’s an actual mitzvah, a Torah commandment.

So what are the four species?

…Think Palm Sunday on steroids.1

Leviticus 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the citrus tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period.”

That聽cluster of three types of branches is called a lulav. It is composed of聽a date palm frond in the center (also called a lulav), three myrtle branches on the right (hadassim), and two willow branches (aravot) on the left. The聽etrog聽is a citron (el poncem for you), a lemon-like citrus fruit with a thick rind. Together, they comprise the聽arba minim, the four species.

So, um… what do we do with them?

While we pray聽during聽the holiday, we聽hold them together, and at specified聽points in the prayers, shake them in all directions–the lulav in the right hand, and the etrog in the left, opposite the heart. The idea is, again, to remind us of God’s presence all around us.

Now, for anybody (with the possible exception of a religious Christian!), this makes for a pretty bizarre-looking scene: a bunch of guys parading聽around the synagogue holding a clump聽of plants聽and chanting.

Look, no one ever said we had to be normal. Meir624 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Look, no one ever said we had to be normal.
Meir624 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
So what’s the symbolism here? Why these plants?

The two most common explanations are as follows: one states that plants symbolize the different parts of the body. The etrog represents the heart; the lulav, the spine; the myrtle,聽the eyes, and the willow, the mouth (each because of the shape of their leaves). The idea is that we are subjugating all these parts of our bodies–our hearts and minds, our limbs, our eyes and power of sight, and our mouths and power of speech to service of God. The other explanation is that the plants symbolize four different kinds of Jews. The etrog, which has a fragrance and a flavor, represents a Jew who studies Torah and performs good deeds. The date palm, which has a flavor but no fragrance, represents one who performs good deeds but does not study Torah. The myrtle, which has a fragrance but no flavor, represents聽the opposite; and the willow, which has no fragrance and no flavor, represents a Jew who does neither. We are to strive to be like the etrog.

So the four species symbolize the different components of who we are–as individuals and as a community. And the idea of holding and shaking them during the prayers is that during this particular celebration of God’s presence, we are coming together and devoting everything we are to聽the continuous pursuit of His closeness. We seek Him in our diverse community, in our words, in our deeds, in our thoughts, and in our hearts.

Shmini Atzeret & Sim岣t Torah

So you’d think that after the intense first ten days of the month of Tishrei聽and the seven or eight days of Succot, then we would finally get a break!


Often lumped together with Succot, the Yom Tov聽that follows immediately after its conclusion is not actually part of Succot, but a separate holiday in its own right. We do not eat in the succah on this day, and聽it doesn’t have any unique commandments of its own. The name Shmini Atzeret means something like “the final eighth day.” It’s kind of like the “after-party” of the Tishrei Holiday Extravaganza. You know how it’s like one聽in the morning and you聽just finished a lovely meal with your new friends from the USA and Israel, and the one from Israel聽is going to be聽flying home聽in the morning and you don’t know when you’ll ever see her again, and you’ve had such a lovely time getting to know each other and getting back to your normal routine is going to be so depressing… so you suggest going to hang out at a pub on La Rambla, to spend just a little more time together? Like that. 馃槈

But because there is no specific commandment associated with Shmini Atzeret, the Sages decided to designate it as the holiday to celebrate renewing the聽cycle of the聽weekly Torah portions. You see, the Torah (as in the first five books of the Bible) is divided into portions, and a different one is read each week. It takes a year to get through all the portions, and Shmini Atzeret is when we read the last portion and celebrate the completion of the Torah readings. For that reason, it is also called Sim岣t Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah”.

I should point out that they are only on the same day in Israel. Outside of Israel, because of the need for two days of Yom Tov (which I explain about here), they are split. The first day is Shmini Atzeret, and the second day, Sim岣t Torah.

So what does celebrating the completion of the聽Torah readings involve? A聽whole lot of dancing and singing! The congregation takes out all the Torah scrolls and dances with them, shoving all the chairs and benches in the synagogue to the side. This part of the services can last for hours on Sim岣t Torah, and it occurs both during the evening services and the morning services.聽Parents involve the children by dancing with them (fathers often put their kids on their shoulders), and candy is frequently distributed.

In the morning, after all the dancing, the last portion of the Torah is read, followed by the beginning of the first portion of Genesis. Kind of like how you finish a really great book and you can’t help but just start it all over again right away! (Okay, actually, it’s exactly that.)

And then…聽we finally get a break! The month after Tishrei,聽岣shvan, is devoid of holidays, and the holiday in the following month is at the end of it (the 25th of Kislev=岣nukah!). Other than finally getting back to our normal routines, we use this time to focus on praying for rain, as the rainy season in Israel begins at this time. And that, my friend, is a topic for another letter. 馃槈

Hey–good luck with the elections today. I won’t see the results until tomorrow evening because of Yom Tov, and I expect you to keep me informed! 馃槈



1. For the Jews, Muslims or otherwise uninformed among you: Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, and in many traditions, it is聽celebrated by holding聽a procession of the congregants聽carrying聽palm fronds, in commemoration of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem before the crucifixion.

"Palm sunday" by english wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Palm sunday” by english wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Bunch of guys parading around with palm fronds. Yeah, that looks about right. No one ever said聽you had to be normal…

Passover, Part II: Seder Night 101

Dear Josep,

In Part I, I mentioned that the Seder (and Passover in general) are all about interactive and experiential learning that is usually directed towards the next generation: the kids. This actually does not begin on Seder night, but on the night before, with a special ritual we call聽bedikat chametz.

Bedikat Chametz

In the weeks and days before Passover, as mentioned in Part I, we thoroughly clean and check our homes for any recognizable traces of chametz (leavened products; see part I for explanation). On the evening before Passover, we hold a special ritual to symbolically finish this task, called聽bedikat chametz, “checking for chametz”. We make a blessing, and then turn off all the lights in the house, and by the light of candles and flashlights, search for little pieces of chametz that were intentionally hidden by one of the family members (traditionally it’s 10 pieces). Obviously, this would be an extremely inefficient way to聽actually check for chametz; this is more symbolic than anything else, and it’s a fun game for the kids, kind of like a treasure hunt in the dark! When all the pieces of chametz have been found, we recite a passage in Aramaic that effectively nullifies any chametz that we have missed in our search. We declare that if there is any chametz left, to us it will be like “the dust of the earth”.

The following day, any remaining chametz (that will not be sold) must be burned or otherwise destroyed in a way that makes it unusable (such as pouring bleach all over it).

(True story: I cleaned, searched, vacuumed, and scrubbed my house top to bottom, and first day of Passover this year, I discovered two granola bars of dust in my purse. Thanks to the above declaration, it’s all good–I simply destroyed the evidence and removed it from the premises. 馃槢 )

The Seder

The holiday begins with lighting candles at sundown, as with every other Biblical holiday. A service is held at the synagogue, and then all families return to their homes to begin the Seder. It is a very strong tradition to have the Seder with lots of people, generally with one’s extended family, and/or lots of guests. When an Israeli asks me what I’m doing for Seder this year and I say, “Just the five of us,” s/he gives me a look that is halfway between pity and horror. Even Jews with very little connection to tradition and halakha tend to attend some kind of Seder. I guess the parallel would be like how Christmas is celebrated so widely even by people who don’t really consider themselves Christian. We like to have quiet, intimate Seders, so there is room for discussion but things don’t drag out too long, and especially when our kids got old enough to participate, we really want to keep their attention as long as possible. Back in the USA, we generally had our Seders with my dad’s parents in New York and whatever aunts and uncles were around.

The word “Seder” means “order”, referring to the ten steps to the ritual meal that must be carried out in order. The Haggadah, briefly mentioned in the entry about the Jewish holy books, guides us through these steps, which mostly involve reading the passages aloud聽and eating symbolic foods that help us commemorate聽those events. The symbolic foods are arranged at the center of the table on the Seder plate:

Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.
Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.

We also set three matzot on the table in a pile and covered by a cloth.

The table is set, the kids and guests are seated, and we begin:

Kadesh (Sanctification)

The leader of the Seder (usually the head of the household) recites the聽kiddush over a cup of wine. This is the same kind of “declaration” of the sanctity of the day that we perform on Shabbat and other holidays. If the Seder falls on a Friday night (as it did this year), the聽kiddush for Shabbat is recited as well. Then, we all drink our first cup of wine while reclining. This聽is symbolic of our freedom, as royals used to eat while reclining. (Yes, I said “first” cup of wine. There are four. It’s gonna be a long night. 馃槈 ) (Grape juice is okay for those of us who would rather remain sober…)

Urchatz (Washing)

We wash our hands as though for bread, but without the blessing. We are not about to eat bread, but there is a custom to wash our hands this way before eating a food that is dipped in liquid.

Karpas (Green Vegetable)

We eat a green vegetable, usually parsley or celery, dipped in salt water. The green vegetable symbolizes spring, and the salt water symbolizes the tears we shed under the oppression of slavery. The Polish tradition is to do this with potato, which is not a green vegetable, but good luck finding anything green in Poland at this time of year 馃槢

Yachatz (Splitting in Half)

The leader of the Seder takes the middle matza from the pile and breaks it in half. The bigger half is hidden聽away as the聽afikoman, which will be eaten later.

Maggid (Retelling)

Maggid is the centerpiece聽of the Haggadah; the section聽that actually contains the retelling of the story of the Exodus.聽There is no way I’m going to cover all its contents here. For that, you’ll have to actually read a Haggadah. (Conveniently, Chabad has a full English version here.)聽You’ll notice that it doesn’t really follow the narrative the way you would expect. To understand why… well, you’ll just have to come to our Seder someday, and we can discuss it long into the night–as per the tradition. 馃檪

So by this point in the evening, if you have never been to a Seder before, you are going to be really confused. What is going on? Why are we eating these weird things? Why is this holiday聽so different from other holidays?

Well, that’s how Maggid kicks off the story. The smallest child at the table recites the Four Questions:聽Why is this night different from all the other nights–that on all other nights, we eat chametz and matza, but on this night, only matza? That on all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night, we eat bitter herbs? That on all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, but on this night, we dip it twice? That聽on all other nights, we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline?

The idea of the Seder is to make the children curious so they will ask questions like these.

The answer to those questions comes right away: Once, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and God saved us from their hands. The text then dwells a little on the concept of retelling the story and educating our children about the Exodus, and then goes on to describe聽the story of the Exodus and interpretations of the passages and events by various sages. (Remember, the Haggadah is an extremely old text that was written around the time of the Talmud, so the passages reflect rabbinic discourse of that period.)

The most poignant part of the Seder, in my view, is the following passage, recited in the middle of Maggid: “And it is [that promise] that has stood for our fathers and for us, for not only one has arisen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they arise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” This line, written so many centuries ago, has rung true at every single Seder since. This is a beautiful version composed by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Yonatan Razel, who here changes some of the lyrics to present and future tense to emphasize how relevant this ancient passage still feels.

Rachtza (Washing)

We wash our hands again, this time actually for bread–that is, for…

Motzi Matza

That first word refers to the blessing we make over bread,聽hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, “…who brings bread out of the ground”. We make two聽blessings over the matza–one for the enjoyment of food, and one for the mitzva–and eat the proscribed amount of it while reclining.

Maror (Bitter Herbs)

These are eaten to represent the bitterness of slavery. We usually eat either romaine lettuce or horseradish or some mixture of both. (The horseradish on the plate is that purple stuff. It’s purple because it’s mixed with… la remolatxa1. 馃槢 That is how it’s usually served with the famous (or is it infamous…?) gefilte fish.) We first dip the lettuce or horseradish into that brown mush, which is called聽charoset, and represents the mortar used by the slaves to make the bricks. It is traditionally made with apples, wine, nuts, and/or dates, and is supposed to be sweet, so it sweetens the bitterness of the herb representing slavery.

Apparently Ben & Jerry’s produced a charoset-flavored ice cream this year. o.O

Korech (Sandwich)

Now we follow a tradition established by Hillel the Elder in the days of the Second Temple. Tradition has it that Hillel sandwiched all the symbolic foods of Passover–the matza, the maror, the聽charoset, and the Passover sacrifice (a lamb)–and ate them together. Since we have no Temple, we cannot make the sacrifice, so we leave out the lamb. BTW, if you’re still wondering about the shankbone and the egg on the plate–the bone represents the Passover sacrifice, and the egg represents the Chagiga (holiday) sacrifice.

Shulchan Orech (Setting the Table)

This is where we have the feast! Everybody’s favorite part. 馃槢 Traditional foods include聽knaidlach, or matza balls, dumplings made of ground matza, in chicken soup; the aforementioned gefilte fish, which are balls of ground fish, usually carp; and lamb, in commemoration of the sacrifice. (I happen to dislike lamb. So, beef or chicken it is. As to gefilte fish, usually I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy it as a special Passover thing.)

Tzafun (Hidden)

So remember the piece of matza the leader of the Seder聽hid away way back before Maggid? Now is the time to find it: it’s the聽afikoman聽(that word apparently comes from the ancient Greek for “dessert”). We are required to have聽a proscribed amount of it as the last thing we eat. But first, the kids have to find it! Another treasure hunt. 馃檪 This is a great way to keep them awake and engaged. Another tradition developed out of this that the children then hold the聽afikoman聽“captive”, thereby indefinitely delaying the end of the Seder, and “bargaining” to give it back in return for a gift or a treat.

Barech (Bless)

Now we recite Grace After Meals, over a third聽cup of wine (the second聽was drunk at the end of聽Maggid), and then drink that cup and recite the blessing after drinking wine. The final cup of wine is poured.

Hallel (Praise)

Hallel is a special prayer recited on holidays, comprised of Psalms 113-118. The first part of Hallel is recited at the synagogue, and it is continued here, and then we go on to read additional Psalms along the same general theme of God being awesome. The final cup of wine is now drunk. (And if it’s really wine, so are we. 馃槢 )

Nirtzah (Acceptance)

The name is referring to God accepting聽our completion of the Seder. This is when the Seder officially ends. (There are opinions that this is not a distinct section of the Seder, but that this and the previous are one section–“Hallel Nirtza”.) We sing聽l’shana haba’ah b’yirushalayim habnuya–next year in rebuilt Jerusalem! Then there are a few more traditional Passover songs, which are generally fun and lively and get everybody’s energy up for the final leg of the Seder. (Great for keeping the kids awake, too.)

The very last song of the Seder, at least in Ashkenazi tradition… you’d think it would be something profound, about freedom, or the purpose of the Jewish people, or maybe even about the holiday itself. But it’s this:

A cumulative song in Aramaic about a little goat that Dad bought for two zuzim (units of money), which gets eaten by a cat, which gets bit by a dog, which gets hit by a stick, which gets burned by a fire, which gets doused by water, which gets drunk by an ox, which gets slaughtered by a聽shochet聽(ritual slaughterer), who gets killed by the Angel of Death, who gets destroyed by the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

(And you betcha we sing it with sound effects. 馃槢 )

…I know. Why on earth are we ending the Seder with this silly little ditty?

Obviously, as with everything in the Seder, because it is has important聽symbolism. The idea of the song is that there is justice in the world, even if we don’t see it at the time; that every action has a consequence, and that, as the Talmud says: “There is justice and there is a Judge“.

Believe it or not, this silly animal song contains the deepest, most fundamental message of the Seder.

Why is it so important for us to remember that God freed us from slavery and brought us out of Egypt?

Because we must remember that there is justice, and there is a Judge, and even when the world seems unjust and terrible things are happening to good people, there is a reason for everything, and it’s all for the ultimate good. Even when we’re at the profoundest聽depths of despair, God’s redemption can occur in the blink of an eye.

That is the message of the Seder, and that is why the tradition of the Seder聽has carried us through many other “Egypts” throughout history.

So… that’s the Seder, in a nutshell. Outside of Israel, you “get” to do the whole thing all over again the following night. (I’m sure there are advantages to this, but to me it just sounds exhausting and I am grateful to be here!)

A blessed and happy Passover!



1. La remolatxa is “beet” in Catalan. The only reason I know this word is because I served a Moroccan beet salad to Josep when he was here for Shabbat, and he asked me what it was, but we did not have a common language in which we both knew the word for this vegetable. 馃槢 After Shabbat I Googled it, and now I’ll never forget. (When I clarified, he was like, “Not something I eat every day!” Was that a polite way to tell me he hated it? 馃槢 I decided not to press the issue.)

Time out, on account of a difficult loss.

Dear Josep,

I was going to write Part II of the Passover series, but I think it’ll have to wait.

You may recall me mentioning that my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly before my trip to the USA. So, she passed away Monday night.

I would probably write about how Judaism deals with death and mourning, but right now I’m just feeling even more strongly what I wrote in that letter. My heart is perpetually broken, and there is nothing like losing a family member halfway across the world while you are deep in Passover preparations and trying to entertain your kids (who have been on vacation since Sunday. Thanks a bunch, Ministry of Education) to emphasize how unnatural and painful聽it is to be so far away from your family. I am so jealous of my Israeli friends whose families can converge within a few hours when something like this happens. The Jewish mourning practices–on which I’m sure I will elaborate eventually–are really very sensitive to this need for family to mourn together, and to be with friends and loved ones, without necessarily needing to speak. Funerals and the surrounding customs provide a context for your grief, they surround you with your loved ones, there’s a catharsis. That is what can’t be fulfilled by the miracles of modern technology.聽I couldn’t attend the funeral. I couldn’t be there to聽hug my mother and grandfather and sister. I wasn’t even able to be with my father or brothers, who are here. You know how much I struggle with the pain of distance even without the added pain of loss.聽It’s agonizing, Josep. It聽truly is. It makes聽the process of grieving ten times more painful.

It sounds so cliche to say my grandmother was an amazing lady, but she really was, and there is so much to say about her, I can’t even begin. I think you would have loved her, and she you. You would聽have talked about Shakespeare and聽both of your world travels聽over a glass of fine wine. The “chai” necklace I mentioned (the gold one in this entry about Jewish symbols) is around my neck, and I think that symbol really embodies so much of what she was–full of life, to the very end. She used to wear that necklace all the time, and when I was a baby I would always play with it and put it in my mouth, so she decided she would give it to me when I got older. She gave it to me before my wedding day. A couple months ago when I spoke to her on FaceTime聽I was wearing it, and she pointed out that I was fiddling with it exactly the same way… I hadn’t even noticed 馃槈

I was lucky to get to say goodbye to her. Three weeks ago, I was at her apartment in Florida, and we talked about her life and her family. “You come from a long line of strong women,” she told me, “and I see that spark in every one of you.”

When time came to part for the last time, she held both of my hands, smiled, and said, “We will be in touch. Forever.” I started to cry. She told me not to, and we hugged.

I inherited her smile. I can only hope to emulate聽some of the positivity and joyful strength of spirit that shined from that smile.

This is her on her [second] wedding day. (She and my grandfather eloped, and then had another wedding for the family.) Strikingly like me, right?
This is her as a young woman. Striking resemblance, right?
This is us a few weeks ago.
This is us a few weeks ago.

I loved her very much, and I miss her, and I am a total mess and I have no idea how I’m going to survive this holiday. Honestly I have no idea how I’ve survived to this point, either.

Anyway. That’s why part II is postponed for now. I hope I’ll get to it sometime during Passover. If not… there’s always next year.

Sending you my love and blessings for Holy Week,


Jewish Symbols, or: A Rummage Through My Jewelry Box

Dear Josep,

I have a jewelry box a friend bought me while serving in Iraq for the US Army. One of the things that struck me when I saw it was this decorative motif that runs along the perimeter:

There used to be a design with a camel and palm tree in that white space, but it peeled off...
There used to be a design with a camel and palm tree in that white space, but it peeled off…

What is a six-pointed star–widely known as the Jewish Star, the Star of David, or the Shield of David–doing on a box made by a Muslim in a country with virtually no Jews?

As it turns out, the association between the six-pointed star and Judaism is a fairly recent one. The same shape was a popular decoration motif in the Middle Ages and it could be found in churches and mosques as well as in synagogues. It is not clear why it became associated with Jews, or why we began to refer to it as the “Shield of David” (“Magen David“). It has been a Kabbalistic symbol since the 16th century, sometimes called the “Seal of Solomon”. Some think it became associated specifically with Jews because of the patches we were forced to wear in the late Middle Ages, which were sometimes shaped something like the six-pointed star. (In Spain, before the expulsion, it was a red circle.) In the 17th century it appeared on synagogues, probably used the same way crosses were used to identify Christian places of worship. At any rate,聽it was only聽in the late 19th century that the Star of David became a universally accepted Jewish symbol–when the Zionist movement adopted it. Apparently there was some controversy over using it as the symbol in the center of the flag of the State of Israel.

In any case, as you know, today it is exclusively associated with Jews, and a popular motif for clothing or jewelry expressing Jewish identity.

A few samples from my jewelry box...
A few samples from my jewelry box…

As I’ve mentioned, the original symbol of Jews was not the Star of David, but the menorah; the seven-branched candelabra that was lit in the Temple. It is that symbol that is displayed on the Arch of Titus to identify the slaves portrayed there as Judeans.

Photo credit: 讘讬转 讛砖诇讜诐

That is why it was chosen as the centerpiece of the emblem of the State of Israel:

Another symbol commonly associated with Jews is the chamsa, usually spelled hamsa.

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Actually, it’s a widely used symbol of good luck in the Middle East and North Africa, and not exclusively for Jews. The right hand is a positive symbol in many cultures. Jews in particular associate the five fingers with experiencing God with the five senses, or the five books of the Torah. The word “hamsa” means “five” in Arabic.

A more exclusively Jewish symbol is the word 讞讬, “chai“, which means “live”.

In Hebrew, each letter corresponds to a number. The numerical value of the letters 讞 and 讬 is 18, so 18 is considered an auspicious number and Jews often give gift money or charity in multiples of 18.

As you know, Jews love life, and the typical Jewish toast is “L’chaim”–to life!

We also often use other Hebrew writing–quotes from the Tanakh or from rabbinic writings–as decoration. You can see this on the walls of many ancient (and modern) synagogues. Pictured here are a necklace my in-laws bought me with the Priestly Blessing engraved on it, and a locket in which I inserted a favorite phrase from a poem by Rabbi Judah the Levi, an 11th-century rabbi, poet, scholar, doctor and philosopher who lived in Toledo.

The phrase in the locket reads, "And when I came out towards You, I found You coming towards me". The Priestly Blessing on the other pendant reads, "May God bless you and keep you; may God shine His countenance on you, and bestow goodness upon you; may God lift His countenance to you", and on the other side of the pendant, "and grant you peace".
The phrase in the locket reads, “And when I came out towards You, I found You coming towards me”. The Priestly Blessing on the other pendant reads, “May God bless you and keep you; may God shine His countenance on you, and bestow goodness upon you; may God lift His countenance to you”, and on the other side of the pendant, “and grant you peace”.

Another symbol commonly found on Jewish buildings is the Tablets of the Covenant:

Photo credit: Ji-Elle, under CC BY-SA 3.0

Usually they appear rounded on top. Not sure why. They usually either have the first ten Hebrew letters representing the Ten Commandments, or the first two or three words of each commandment, as pictured here.

And the last symbol I will mention here, is the Choshen. That was the special breastplate worn by the High Priest in the days of the Temple, which had twelve precious stones, each stone representing one of the Twelve Tribes. Its meaning and significance are obscure, but seem to have something to do with atonement and judgement. This is a Choshen set into a Hamsa…

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All these symbols are incorporated into our decor, jewelry, or household items, and can be found pretty much everywhere in Israel.

My keys.
Like, for example, my random assortment of keychains.

Here you see two Hamsas and a keychain with Tefillat HaDerekh (the Traveler’s Prayer) on one side and a Choshen on the other side… which used聽to have rhinestones and now just looks like a weird grid 馃槢

(…The flip-flop that says “Drama Queen” is a symbol of me, not Judaism. 馃槢 )

While we’re here, I have a great story about that Hamsa with the coin on the end. In Israeli supermarkets, you need a five-shekel coin to use a shopping cart… or something shaped like a five-shekel coin. So they make keychains like the above that you can use instead, so you always have one with you and don’t need to聽count on having the right change. The other Hamsa used to have one of those coins but it broke off, and without having a replacement I was sick of needing to find a five-shekel coin every time I went grocery shopping. So I posted on Facebook asking if anyone knew where to get one of those keychains.

Here’s what I posted the next day.

(parnassa=financial sustenance)
(parnassa=financial sustenance)





Blog readers: Which is your favorite? Tell us about symbols from your culture or religion!