Star and menorah: Understanding the two symbols of Jewish identity

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Terumah (Exodus 25:1—27:19)

“You shall make a Lampstand (Menorah) of pure gold; the Lampstand shall be made of hammered work; . . . six branches shall issue from its side; three branches from one side of the Lampstand and three branches from the other side of the Lampstand. . . . it shall be made . . . . out of an ingot of pure gold. Note well the design of it that you are being shown on the mountain (Exodus 25.31-32, 39-40).”

Throughout the majority of the educated world, few are unaware of the symbolic representation of Christianity; it is, of course, a Cross. The Cross. On one level it depicts in highly-simplified form a Crucifix; which, in turn, represents the Crucifixion of Jesus. Thus, it becomes a symbolic representation of both Christianity and Christendon. Similarly, the most widely-known recognized symbolism of Jewry and Judaism is the six-pointed star known as the Magen David, the “Star of David.”

But the history of Jewish symbols is more complicated. Whereas in Christianity there is one symbol, the Cross; in Judaism in contrast, there are two symbols: the six-pointed star, (Magen David) and the seven-branch candelabrum (the Menorah).

It is instructive for the self-understanding of Jews and for non-Jews to understand Jews and Judaism to look into the similarities and differences between these two Jewish symbols, the Magen David, the six-pointed star and the Candelabrum, the Menorah.

The first distinction is chronological. The seven-branched candelabrum is far more ancient. It is prescribed in the Bible, and carefully described in both Exodus and Leviticus. It is an important element already in the tenth of Tent of Assembly the moving tabernacle in the wilderness wanderings of the ancient Israelites. There are rows of candelabra in Solomon’s temple, and, of course, in the Second Temple, the great candelabrum depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome as an expression of both the conquest of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.

Further, we find candelabra on both sides of the Ark of the Torah and in depictions of synagogues in the early middle ages, in the Byzantine period. A great example is the celebrated mosaic floor of the Bet Alpha Synagogue at the foot of Mount Gilboa. Since that time, well into modern times, there’s hardly a synagogue anywhere in the world that does not prominently display a seven-branched candelabrum.

In terms of chronology, the Star of David as a symbolic Jewish representation is far more recent in time. It is just a decorative element along with Hindu swastikas in rows at the base of all kinds of public monuments.

The earliest, particularly Jewish usage of the Star of David came rather late in Jewish history. It appears at the center of a flag donated to the Jewish citizens of Prague by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV in the early 14th century and is still displayed in the for Altneu Schul; a six-pointed star on a blue and white striped background just as in the Jewish flag today.

When the Nazis in Germany launched their demonic attack which led to the Holocaust of six million Jews, they began by forcing Jews to wear six-pointed yellow stars on their garments in order to subject them to a ignominy and later to easily identify them for commitment to the concentration camps. The Jewish star on Jewish businesses in Germany and Jewish institutions throughout German cities and villages was a warning to non-Jewish Germans not to frequent these places but rather to boycott them, and later to assault, burn, and trash them, an event, which took place on Krystalnacht in 1934.

European Jewish communities had for centuries adopted the Magen David, the six-pointed star, as a proud symbol of their identity so that later on Magen David appears on the blue and white flag of the State of Israel as a symbol of nationhood.

The Menorah continues from ancient times to this day as a required element in that most enduring of all Jewish institutions, the synagogue, which is a specifically religious institution; whereas the “Star of David” can indicate either religious or secular Jewish ethnic identity. The Menorah is much more a religious marker of Jewish identity.

Over the years I have learned to respect the different ways that Jews identify themselves. Many Jews of my generation, after all, have strong Jewish identifications devoid of any religious dimension whatsoever. For example, many have thought of themselves as Jews by Yiddishists, a cultural, secular attachment, or socialist Jews who grew up in groups like the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeiter Ring, or the Jewish Bundists, or Farband) as is also the case with those who called themselves Labor Zionists. Some Jews today offer the same devotion and loyalty to the State of Israel which generations of religious Jews gave to G-d and Torah.

How can we combine the best of Magen David Jewish identity with Menorah?

There is a hint in the fact that in very recent times the Star of David is used as a religious symbol in Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. And in the fact that in front of the Parliament of the State of Israel is a large Menorah the branches of which depict major events of Jewish religious history.

So the best expression in content of Jewish identity might be to unite the best of Torah Judaism with the best of Jewish peoplehood. On the one hand, concern for Jewish community institutions, secular or religious and on the other hand, support of Jewish education, study of Torah, Jewish social justice and compassion for the weakest or oppressed in society.

This combination is expressed well in a text found in the Reform Jewish prayer book of the mid 1940s.

Uphold also the hands of our brethren who toil to rebuild Zion. In their pilgrimage among the nations thy people have always turned in love to the land where Israel was born, where our prophets taught their imperishable message of justice and brotherhood and where our psalmists sang their songs of love for Thee and all humanity. Ever enshrined in the hearts of Israel was the hope that Zion might be restored, not for their own pride or vainglory, but as a living witness to the truth of Thy word which shall lead the nations to peace. Grant us strength that with Thy help we may bring a new light to shine upon Zion. Imbue us who live in Thy lands of freedom with a sense of Israel’s spiritual unity that we may share joyously in the work of redemption so that out of Zion shall go forth, the Teaching and the word of God from Jerusalem.”

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).

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