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Status Symbol: The Real Story Behind the Magen David

Updated: Apr 9

The Magen David, the Star of David - whatever you choose to call it, the six-point star is the universal symbol that is synonymous with Judaism, transcending language and representing Jewish pride around the world. Judaism is an immensely historical and culturally rich tradition, and within it, we Jews find reasons or narratives to explain nearly every aspect of our actions. The six-pointed symbol that represents our religion follows this pattern, yet, consistent with the nature of Judaism, interpretations of the Star of David's history and significance often diverge and occasionally even conflict. While the symbol is unmistakably associated with Jewish identity worldwide, its origins remain somewhat mysterious. Nevertheless, the real meaning of the Star of David is found in its various interpretations, all of which support the same idea: Today, the star unequivocally symbolizes Jewish strength and unity.


“Magen David”

So where did it all begin? While descriptively called “the Star of David” in English, the Hebrew term Magen David literally translates to “Shield of David”, referring to the biblical figure King David, the leader of ancient Israel in 1000 BCE.  The earliest mention of this phrase can be found in the Babylonian Talmud when referring to G-d’s shield of protection over David and his descendent Messiah (Pesachim 117b). “The shield of David” is used to refer to God in traditional Jewish prayer.


The Star of David

Similar to many topics within Jewish culture, there are conflicting opinions regarding the historical origin of the six-pointed star. Lore has it that the shield of King David himself depicted the shape - or, as another opinion posits, was made of two overlapping leather triangles, which together formed the hexagram of the six-point star. Another legend claims that the star was worn by fighters in the Bar Kochba revolts (rebellion of a group of Jews against their Roman rulers in 132-135 CE), in line with the fact that “Bar Kochba” means “Son of the Star”.


Historically speaking, the six-point star has been found as decorations on synagogues dating as far back to 2nd century CE (although it was also used to decorate churches around the same time, so religious significance is questionable). There are also numerous manuscripts of Tanach dating back to 11th century CE that are decorated with the Magen David.


In the Middle Ages, there was a surge in the usage of the design as Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, began to take off. It was popular to decorate mezuzot (traditional small rolled parchment of Biblical verses hung on doorposts in Jewish homes) with the Star of David in an effort to add spiritual protection against evil forces.


The Star of David was also used to represent Jewish peoplehood.  In 14th century Prague, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted the right for the Jewish community to carry its own flag. The symbol they chose? The six-pointed star. As more and more Jewish communities within Prague were allowed their own flag in the 17th and 18th centuries, the symbol spread. It wasn't until the 19th century that the Magen David gained popularity in other parts of Europe, with its use in synagogues and Jewish printing houses becoming widespread.


 Significantly, the six-point Magen David was selected as a symbol for Zionism at the Basle Congress of 1897. At that point, the star’s identity was universal enough that it was recognizable as Jewish symbol, while its open-ended historical significance meant it could be an untainted beacon of hope to build a Zionist future. The Jewish star was later adapted in 1948 upon the birth of today’s modern state of Israel and used in the current blue-and-white, star-centric flag that we all know and love today.


It would be remiss not to mention another infamous usage of the six-point star which solidified its Jewish status: Its use as the primary form of identification for Jews in Nazi Germany. The Star of David, in the context of Hitler’s regime, was chosen as a sign of humiliation, of degradation, and with the goal of extermination. As the Jewish nation prevailed, however, the six-point star has been reclaimed, and signifies strength, perseverance, and meaning for what our ancestors have endured. Before Hitler appropriated our star, Jewish Zionists had already embraced it as a symbol of redemption.


Symbolism

History aside, what does the star shape itself stand to represent?


One central idea is that the six points of the Star of David symbolize God's rule over the universe in all six directions: north, south, east, west, up and down. Additionally, the six-pointed star derives its form and substance from its solid center. This represents the six universal directions as being grounded by a central core of the spiritual dimension. In fact, the Hebrew name of the star “Magen David” is composed of six letters, corresponding to the six directions.


Another suggestion is sourced in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). The dual nature of the triangles represent the dichotomies inherent in human beings: good and evil, spiritual and physical, and so on. 


The two triangles themselves indicate the bilateral relationship between the Jewish nation and God himself. The upwards-pointing triangle symbolizes our good deeds which go up to heaven, while the downward-facing one represents God’s flow of goodness that is brought back down to our world.


Varying mystical meanings, historical facts, and folklore aside, there is one thing that is certain: The Star of David today is rich with Jewish hope and unity. So display your Magen David loud and proud, and let the star shine as a light unto the nations.










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