TWELVE INTERPRETATIONS OF THE MAGEN DAVID
The Common Vein
I met R’Yitzi Weiner at his home in Sharon Masachusetts when he and his wife Chaya, and colleague Rabbi Netanel Friedman and his wife Reva who hosted a lunch for the community in the middle of July 2012 . I have been intrigued by the shapes around us and particularlly how these shapes are used in symbols. I asked him about the origins and meanings of the Magen David in an email below and the response was a beautiful explanation – and a few surprises!
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Thank you for your note and for graciously hosting the BBQ at your home Our family really enjoyed the afternoon. You and your wife and colleagues have a beautiful vision and mission and you all have the right demeanour and spirit to carry it out and on. Kol Hakavod
I would love to meet you and chat about the meaning and symbolism of the Magen David. It would be best discussed over a cup of coffee in Starbucks but we live in Newton so not practical in the next week or so
…My first take and intuition is the sense that roundness and wholeness go together and roundness = 360 degrees and two triangles = 180 +180 = 360 degrees. Does this fit with anything you have read? Ashley
TWELVE INTERPRETATIONS OF THE MAGEN DAVID
The symbol of the Magen David is not mentioned in Rabbinic literature until the middle ages, and is so rare in early Jewish literature and artwork that art dealers suspect forgery if they find the symbol in early Jewish works.
Yet, the hexagram does appear occasionally in Jewish contexts since antiquity, apparently as a decorative motif. For example, in Israel, there is a stone bearing a hexagram from the arch of a 3rd–4th century synagogue in the Galilee.
A Shield of David has been noted on a Jewish tombstone in Taranto, Apulia in Southern Italy, which may date as early as the third century CE. The Jews of Apulia were noted for their scholarship in Kabbalah, which has been connected to the use of the Star of David.
Medieval Kabbalistic grimoires show hexagrams among the tables of segulot, but without identifying them as “Shield of David”.
In 1354, King of Bohemia Charles IV prescribed for the Jews of Prague a red flag with both David’s shield and Solomon’s seal,
In 1460, the Jews of Ofen (Budapest, Hungary) received King Matthias Corvinus with a red flag on which were two Shields of David and two stars.
In the first Hebrew prayer book, printed in Prague in 1512, a large Shield of David appears on the cover. In the colophon is written: “Each man beneath his flag according to the house of their fathers…and he will merit to bestow a bountiful gift on anyone who grasps the Shield of David.” In 1592, Mordechai Maizel was allowed to affix “a flag of King David, similar to that located on the Main Synagogue” on his synagogue in Prague. In 1648, the Jews of Prague were again allowed a flag, in acknowledgment of their part in defending the city against the Swedes in the Battle of Prague (1648). On a red background was a yellow Shield of David, in the center of which was a Swedish star.
In the 17th century, the Shield of David as the hexagram began to represent the Jewish community generally, when the Jewish quarter of Vienna was formally distinguished from the rest of the city by a boundary stone having the hexagram on one side and the Christian cross on the other. By the 18th century, the Shield appeared to represent the Jewish people in both secular (politics) and religious (synagogue) contexts. The Star of David can be found on the tombstones of religious Jews in Europe since the 18th century.
The following are twelve interpretations of this Jewish symbol.
A SYMBOL OF THE SPIRITUAL CORE THAT SUSTAINS AND SUPPORTS ALL OF THE MATERIAL
1. The Magen David is a six-pointed star that receives form and substance from its solid center. This inner core represents the spiritual dimension, surrounded by the six universal directions. In Judaism, six is a number that represents the physical realm because of its connection with the 6 days of creation. Interestingly, the words “Magen David,” in Hebrew, are made up of six letters.(A similar idea applies to Shabbat ― the seventh day which gives balance and perspective to the six weekdays.)
Geometrically, the Magen David is very unique and interesting; A Magen David can be circumscribed by a hexagon. The inside of a Magen David is also a hexagon and therefore one can draw another similar Magen David inside it. This process may be carried on ad infinitum. The bottom line is that the Magen David actually contains an infinity of hexagons! Moreover, it is the smallest polygon (i.e. the one with the fewest sides) which has this property. This can convey that the center- the core of spirituality is really the infinite source of all existence
The Magen David is associated with the number seven and thus with the Menorah. The Magen David conveys the same idea as the seven branched menorah – 6 branches that stemmed from a 7th, center branch- that all of the material and mundane aspects of the physical world do flow and should flow from the spiritual core, the center that represents spirituality.
A SYMBOL OF THE SHABBAT THAT SUSTAINS THE SIX WORKING DAYS
2. The six sides represent the six working days and the hexagon at the center represents Sabbath which gives balance and perspective to the six weekdays.
A SYMBOL OF BITACHON – TRUST IN GOD’S OMNIPOTENT PROVIDENCE AND UNIVERSAL RULE
3. The Magen David (literally ‘shield of David’) poetically refers to G-d. This six sided figure, symbolizes that God rules over the universe and protects us from all six directions: North, South, East, West, Up and Down with the middle of the hexagram providing the spiritual dimension. It conveys the same idea as the shaking of the lulav in six directions on succot. This symbol helps remind us that despite our efforts to accomplish in this world, just like it was God who decided that King David would be successful in defeating armies much greater than his own, so too it is god who help us accomplish our goals. This symbol acknowledges that our military hero, King David, did not win by his own might, but by the support of the Almighty. This is why we say, “Blessed are you G-d, Shield of David” in the third blessing recited over the reading of the Prophets every Sabbath.
A SYMBOL OF JEWISH ONE-NESS
4. The Magen David is not simply two triangles, but it is two interwoven triangles. It is a symbol of unity of the Jewish people. The triangles are inseparable, like the Jewish people. The three sides represent the three types of Jews: Kohanim, Levites and Israel. (We have a similar parallel with three matzot on Pesach, and three aliyot for the weekday torah reading, each represent the three groups of Jews.) In addition the Magen David has 12 sides, representing the 12 tribes or patriarchs of Israel. We respect diversity within Judaism, and within the context of this diversity we are still one people.
The Magen David Two Intertwined Triangles
A SYMBOL OF THE CONNECTION BETWEEN GOD AND THE JEWISH PEOPLE
5. The structure of the Magen David, with two overlapping triangles, has also been thought to represent the intimate relationship between God and the Jewish people. The star that points up symbolizes God and the star that points down represents us here on earth. God and the Jewish people are interlocked.
A SYMBOL OF THE INNER AND OUTER TORAH THAT CREATES A BOND BETWEEN GOD AND THE JEWISH PEOPLE
6. The Zohar (vol. III 73a) states, “There are three knots connecting [three entities] one to another: the Holy One, blessed be He; Torah and Israel.” The Jewish soul connects to its Creator through the study and observance of Torah. The triangle represents the connection between these three entities. It further states that “Yisrael, Torah and God are all one”
These three entities are each comprised of a pnimiyut (inner dimension) and a chitzoniyut (external dimension): The Torah is comprised of both exoteric teachings (the Talmud, Jewish law, etc.) as well as esoteric teachings (the Kabbalah). G d’s “revealed” energy permeates and provides existence to all worlds, but His essence is completely hidden, transcending all of creation. Similarly, the soul (which is a reflection of G d) has a revealed element, that level that expresses itself within and vivifies the body, as well as an essence that transcends the body.
The double triangle of the Star of David (Magen David) symbolizes the connection of both dimensions of G d, Torah and Israel: The external level of the soul connects to the external expression of G d via studying the exoteric parts of Torah; the essence of the soul connects with G d’s essence through the study – and application of – the teachings of Kabbalah.
A KABALISTIC SYMBOL OF HOW OUR WORLDLY ACTIONS DRAW DOWN HEAVENLY SPIRITUAL ENERGY TO PERFECT THE WORLD
7. In Kabala, the two interlocking triangles represent the reciprocal relationship between man and G-d. The Magen David is composed of two triangles, one pointing upward and one pointing downward. The triangle that points upwards toward G-d is a symbol of good deeds that reach the heaven and attract goodness to the world. This attraction of goodness is symbolized by the downward pointing triangle. G-d reciprocates by allowing holiness and beneficence to flow towards us. This conveys two important kabalistic ideas. Firstly, that the purpose of the mitzvot is to bring down a heavenly energy that helps to perfect and sanctify the world. Secondly, although Judaism believes that God runs the world, He only does so in response to the choices that humans make. We make a hitoreruta d’letata- a lower arousal, and God reciprocates with a Hitoreruta d’lelaila – an upper arousal.
YIN AND YANG – THE DIALECTICAL FORCES IN MAN AND IN THE WORLD
8. The two opposing triangles represent the dichotomies inherent in man: good vs. evil, spiritual vs. physical, etc.
(One cynical suggestion is that the Star of David is an appropriate symbol for the internal strife that often afflicts Jewish nation: two triangles pointing in opposite directions!). However despite the dual nature of man and the universe, we are to unite them together and make them one.
A SYMBOL OF ALL OF THE LETTERS OF THE TORAH
9. The Magen David quite remarkably contains all of the letters of the Torah
Magen David and the Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet
A SYMBOL OF OUR 7 ANCESTORS WHO’S MERIT HAS SUSTAINED US THROUGHOUT HISTORY
10. Some people have the tradition of hanging a Magen David in their Sukka. Perhaps the six sides and center allude to the Seven “Ushpizen” spiritual guests who visit during the days of Sukkot: Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Moshe, Aharon, and Yosef. The star as a unified whole symbolizes the seventh “Ushpizen” — David — the “king” who unifies the whole. Furthermore, the Magen David has 12 sides: David as king unified the 12 tribes.
A KABALISTIC SYMBOL OF THE SEVEN SEFIROT
11. Kabbalah teaches that G d created the world with seven spiritual building blocks—His seven emotional attributes. Accordingly, the entire creation is a reflection of these seven foundational attributes.
They are: Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Severity), Tiferet (Harmony), Netzach (Perseverance), Hod (Splendor), Yesod (Foundation) and Malchut (Royalty).
These attributes have been divided into three columns: right, center and left:
Gevurah Tiferet Chesed
Hod Yesod Netzach
Correspondingly, the Star of David contains seven compartments—six peaks protruding from a center.
The upper right wing is Chesed.
The upper left wing is Gevurah.
The upper center peak is Tiferet. Kabbalah teaches that Tiferet finds its source in Ketter, “the Crown,” which is infinitely higher than all the divine attributes which are involved in the “mundane” pursuit of creating worlds.
The lower right wing is Netzach.
The lower left wing is Hod.
The center is Yesod. Yesod is “Foundation,” and as such all the other attributes are rooted in, and give rise from, this attribute.
The star’s bottom that descends from its belly is Malchut—the attribute that absorbs the energies of the higher six attributes and uses them to actually descend and create everything—and “reign” over them.
AN EARLY GEODESIC DESIGN FOR A SHIELD
12. A more practical theory about the Magen David is that during the Bar Kochba rebellion (first century), a new technology was developed for shields using the inherent stability of the triangle. Behind the shield were two interlocking triangles, forming a hexagonal pattern of support points. (Buckminster Fuller showed how strong triangle-based designs are with his geodesics. A geodesic dome is a spherical or partial-spherical shell structure or lattice shell based on a network of great circles (geodesics) on the surface of a sphere. The geodesics intersect to form triangular elements that have local triangular rigidity and also distribute the stress across the structure.)