Judaism

THE STAR OF DAVID

37The Review of Religions – May 2007 Introduction The six-pointed star, consisting of two interlocking triangles, has become the most common and universally recognised sign of Judaism and Jewish identity. The star, most commonly referred to as the ‘Star of David’, in Hebrew is called ‘The Magen David’, which literally translates as the ‘Shield of David’. Interestingly, on closer examination we find that the star has only achieved the status of being the ‘official emblem’ of Judaism in the last two hundred years. Before this it rarely appeared in Jewish works. In fact, the symbol is not exclusive to Judaism. Rather its usage pre- dates Judaism and can be found in architectural and literary works of other religions and organisations throughout history. This article will discuss some of the theories relating to the origins of the symbol. In doing so, the article will explore several key questions: does the symbol have a common origin? Can the symbol really be associated with the great King David, the Israelite Prophet? Or has the symbol been used by different religions and organi- sations merely because of its simple and attractive geometric design? Without providing any definitive answers, the article serves as an introduction to the history of this universal symbol. Jewish use of the symbol In modern times the Star of David has become the prime Jewish symbol. It appears on the flag of the Jewish state of Israel and the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross and is known as the Magen David Adom (ie the Red Star of David). However, the important question to be asked is what is the earliest known record of the usage of the Star of David? The earliest known Jewish use of the Star, or hexagram, was as a The Star of David Fact or Fiction? By Maidah Ahmad – Canada 38 The Review of Religions – May 2007 THE STAR OF DAVID – FACT OR FICTION? seal in ancient Israel in the 6th Century BCE and then eight centuries later in a synagogue in Capernaum. But these early hexagrams may have only been architectural features rather than having any religious significance. This is reinforced by the fact that the hexagram appears more frequently on churches and other religious and even non-religious buildings than on synagogues and Jewish ritual objects. In fact it was the menorah (the seven branched candelabrum) which served as the primary Jewish symbol until the post-Renaissance period around the 1600s, not the six-sided star. Interestingly, the use of the menorah as a Jewish symbol can be traced back to the Bible. The design itself is taken from instructions for construction of the menorah found in Exodus 25:31- 40. Can the same be said for the six-sided star? Does the Bible mention the symbol or its association with King David(as)? On close examination, we find that there is no Biblical evidence whatsoever that such a symbol existed in ancient Judaism. In fact the Jewish view of God, which permits no images of God, is opposed to the use of any symbols and neither the Bible nor the Talmud recognises their existence.i Furthermore, although King David(as) is recognised as a mighty warrior King, no mention is made of him possessing a specific type of shield. Rather, as mentioned previously, we find that it was only in the 17th Century, following Jewish emancipation after the French revolution, that Jewish com- munities chose the Star of David to represent themselves, compa- rable to the cross used by most Christians. It was also in this time- period that it became common practice to put the hexagram on the outside of synagogues. In both cases, the primary purpose was as a means of identity. The Magen David gained popularity as a symbol of Judaism when it was adopted as the emblem of the Zionist movement in 1897. Moreover, when Theodor Herzl, founder of modern day Zionism, chose the Star it was because it was so well-known and 39The Review of Religions – May 2007 THE STAR OF DAVID – FACT OR FICTION? also because it had no religious associations. Today, although it appears in the centre of the Israeli flag, there was much debate over whether this symbol should be used at all. Having looked at its Jewish usage, before we look at its occurrence in other religions, we need to answer the question of why it is called the Star of David. In other words is the symbol associated with Prophet David(as), and if so, how? Association with Prophet David(as)? There is no shortage of scholars who attempt to trace the Star back to Prophet David(as) as the name itself suggests. Jewish legendsii speak of a magical shield possessed by King David(as) which protected him from his enemies. Other legends taken from Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions,iii speak of a magical five-sided or some times six-sided star ring of Prophet Solomon(as), son of King David, which protected him from evil spirits. This ring is often referred to as the Seal of Solomon and has been used by Muslims from different countries and cultures as a symbol of magic to adorn and decorate artefacts and buildings. In fact, so entrenched has the symbol become in Muslim societies that the seal of Solomon appears on the national flag and coat of arms of Morocco. Another theory about the origin of the shape is that it is simply 2 of the 3 letters in the name David. In its Hebrew spelling, David contains only 3 characters, 2 of which are ‘D’. In ancient times, this letter was written in a form much like a triangle, similar to the Greek letter ‘Delta’. The symbol may have formed by flipping and juxtaposing the two most prominent letters in the name. Some researchers have theorised that the Star of David represents the astrological chart at the time of David’s birth or anointment as king. However, there is no evidence to support these claims. Prophet David(as) in the Holy Qur’an Islam is also another religion which speaks highly of King David(as), and although the Holy Qur’an speaks of the great feats which King David(as) made, no 40 The Review of Religions – May 2007 THE STAR OF DAVID – FACT OR FICTION? mention is made of a supposedly magical shield possessed by him. In chapter 27 verse 16 the Holy Qur’an states: And we gave knowledge to David and Solomon, and they said, ‘All praise belongs to Allah, Who has exalted us above many of His believing servants. Thus, David(as) was certainly a true messenger of God. In fact the Holy Qur’an tells us he was a great warrior and statesmen. He was the founder of the Judean dynasty and it was in his reign that the Israelites reached the zenith of their power and prosperity. In another chapter of the Holy Qur’an,iv Allah states that the mountains and birds were subjected to David(as). Rather than taking literally the meaning of the verse and thus alluding magical powers to King David(as), one explanation given for this verse is that David(as) subjugated wild and savage mountain tribes.v Indeed in his reign all the tribes of Israel became united. The next verse states ‘…And We taught him the making of coats of mail…’ This again is reference to the military might of David(as) and to his great skill in making implements of war and coats of mail. Prophet David(as) invented and developed various kinds of armour by means of which he made great conquests. Developing this description, chapter 34 verse 11 states, ‘And certainly, We bestowed grace upon David from Ourselves… And we made iron soft for him’. This reinforces the idea that David was particularly gifted in the art of war and making of weaponry. So, perhaps he developed a shield which had some form of triangular structure? However, if these theories were true and King David(as) had invented a revolutionary shield design, there would be further evidence in the form of pictures, drawings and instructions for con- struction. After all, three of the world’s major religions claim association with King David(as). Meanings attributed to the symbol Explanations also exist on the 41The Review of Religions – May 2007 THE STAR OF DAVID – FACT OR FICTION? meaning of the symbol, which are not necessarily specific to Judaism. One idea is that a six-pointed star receives form and substance from its solid center. This inner core represents the spiritual dimension, surrounded by the six universal directions. Another idea is that the six points of the Star symbolise God’s rule over the universe in all six directions: north, south, east, west, up and down.vi Anthropologists claim that the triangle pointing downward represents female sexuality, and the triangle pointing upward, male sexuality; thus, their combination symbolises unity and harmony. Use of symbol around the world The different meanings attributed to the symbol reinforce the idea that the symbol has been used by different people around the world. One thing is quite certain, that the six-sided star pre-dates Judaism and is not exclusive to Judaism but rather is common around the world and throughout history. It can be found on ancient Indian temples and appears in cosmological dia- grams in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In Hinduism, for example, the hexagram is called the Shatkona, a combination of the elements of fire, representing female energy and water, representing masculine energy.vii The hexagram is also known as the ‘King’s Star’ in astrological circles and was an important astrological symbol in Zoroastrianism. In a non-religious context, the hexagram is considered the most powerful of all the signs of the occult. It is a symbol associated with magic and the Satan. It is used mainly in witchcraft to summon demons from the world. In fact, the word ‘hex’ which means to place a curse on someone, originated from this word. Conclusion Given the lack of evidence for the symbol’s existence in religious scriptures, it is difficult to associate the symbol with Divine origins or its being in any way related to King David. In fact, as mentioned previously, Judaism specifically forbids the use of symbols. Although, it can be said 42 The Review of Religions – May 2007 THE STAR OF DAVID – FACT OR FICTION? that the Hexagram has been mentioned in early Jewish legends, as well as Christian and Islamic traditions, in all three cases the symbol is associated with magic, mysticism and folklore, rather than having any philosophical religious meaning. Similarly, the hexagram appears in other religions and non-religious organisations, but again mainly as a symbol of magic or merely because of its attractive geometric design. The near-universal recognition of the symbol today as being a Jewish symbol, by Jews and non- Jews alike, does not necessarily mean that it is intrinsic to Judaism. It is, perhaps, more so a reflection of the importance and power of identity politics in this age. References i. Jewish Encyclopaedia, p.251. ii. The oldest Jewish text mentioning a shield of David is contained in an explanation of a magical ‘alphabet of the angel Metatron’ … among the Hasidei Ashkenaz of the 12th Century, Jewish Encyc- lopaedia. iii. It is for instance mentioned in Arabian Nights, the Medieval Middle Eastern literary epic. iv. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 21: Verse 80. Edited by Malik Ghulam Farid, Published 2002. v. English Commentary of the Holy Qur’an by Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Chapter 21, Edited by Malik Ghulam Farid, Published 2002. vi. Mark O’Connell, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Signs & Symbols, (2005: London). vii. Mahendra Jani, What you will see inside a Hindu Temple, (2005: Vermont).