Magen David

Question: Why didn’t Jews invent the wheel?

Answer: They introduced the Mogen Dovid instead! True, it gives a bumpy ride but, one day, when everything stops running and all the wheels stop turning, the Mogen Dovid will still be bumping along its road to eternity.

JEWISH SYMBOL

After the State of Israel adopted the Mogen Dovid as the main motif of the Israeli flag, a non-religious researcher made fun of the idea, arguing that despite the Mogen Dovid’s importance in Kabbalah and Jewish history, no one regarded it as a universal Jewish symbol until the 19th century.

The long centuries of anti-Semitism seem to lend credence to this contention. The idea of forcing Jews to wear distinctive clothing and badges goes back to the eighth century, when Caliph Omar I decreed that dhimmi (non-Moslems) must wear distinguishing marks on their clothing, and the Christians avidly adopted this idea as well.

Moreover, throughout the centuries, there is little indication that the Jewish badges ever took the form of the Mogen Dovid. Old illustrations indicate that they were generally rectangular, circular, or in the shape of the luchos habris. And in the one instance where a badge has a star as its motif, the star looks more like an asterisk than a true Mogen Dovid.

Apparently, the first anti-Semites to use the Mogen Dovid as a symbol of discrimination, oppression and murder were the Nazis since, by their time, it had become the quintessential Jewish emblem.

As already mentioned, the Mogen Dovid, geometrically known as the hexagram (six- sided shape), has been associated with the Jewish people for countless generations.

The first clear physical trace of this symbol dates back to the seventh century BCE, when the Ten Tribes were being exiled from Eretz Yisroel. In Sidon in modern-day Lebanon, a seal was found bearing the emblem of a Mogen Dovid and the name of its owner, Yehoshua ben Asayahu.

Another Mogen Dovid was unearthed
in the ruins of the famous second century CE shul of Kfar Nachum, near the shores of Lake Kinneret. Interestingly, the shul s mural also includes a pentagram (five-sided star) and a swastika that, in those times, had no sinister connotations and was considered a symbol of peace and plenty.

During medieval times, the Mogen Dovid became rare in the archeological record although they are found on shuls in Hamelin, Germany (c. 5040/1280) and Budweis in Bohemia (c. 14th century), and also appear as decorations in manuscripts.

MOGEN DOVID OR MENORAH?

Despite the Mogen Dovid’s long history, whether King Dovid used it as an emblem on his shield seems subject to debate since Akeidas Yitzchok (written in the 15 th century by Rav Yitzchok Arama of Spain) describes the Mogen Dovid not as a hexagram but as the shape of a menorah, comprising the seven verses of Psalm 67.

The 17thcentury sefer Menoras Hazahav writes that Dovid emblazoned this menorah on his shield in order to gain extra protection from his enemies:

“This psalm on the menorah hints at great concepts… King Dovid used to carry this psalm, written, drawn and engraved on his shield on a golden plate in the shape of a menorah when he went to war, and meditated on its secrets and was victorious.”

Writings from the Gaonic era also describe the Mogen Dovid as a combination of special letters inscribed on a shield although the Chassidei Ashkenaz contend that these letters were not the verses of Psalm 67 but a Holy Name of 72 letters.

Of course, there are those who disagree and insist that the emblem on King Dovid’s shield was our familiar hexagram. As the sefer Eretz Hachayim (5510/1750) records:

“There was a difference between the shields of the kings of Yisroel and those of the kings of the house of Dovid: the kings of Yisroel had a shield of three corners while the kingdom of Dovid had a shield of six corners, to indicate that he had a hold of the attribute of malchus (kingship) and received an influx from
the six corners, and Dovid was the seventh.”

(This article will make no attempt to explain this kabbalistic notion, nor any other kabbalistic explorations of the Mogen Dovid’s significance.)

Although the hexagram is nowadays unanimously known as a Mogen Dovid, this was not always the case since, in earlier times, it was often called “Chosam Shlomo” (Shlomo’s Seal). An early record of the hexagram being called a Mogen Dovid is in Sefer Hagevul, written at the beginning of the 14th century by Rav Dovid ben Yehudah, a grandson of the Ramban, where two depictions of the hexagram are explicitly described as Mogen Dovids. Between 5060/1300 and 5460/1700, the terms Chosam Shlomo and Mogen Dovid were used indiscriminately until the latter name predominated.

Just as Dovid used the hexagram as a shield against his enemies, so later generations used this symbol as a segula against danger, particularly, during the early Middle Ages (10th to 14th centuries) when many kemi’os included the hexagram among their motifs. One especially well-known kemi’a was widely used to protect people’s homes from fire.

Rav Eliezer of Metz writes in Sefer Yerei’im that many people even included these types of motifs in the margins of their mezuzos:

“The people have become accustomed, in order to add to the protection of the house, to write seals and names of angels at the end of the lines; this does not invalidate and is not a mitzvah but it is an additional security.”

The Rambam cried out against people who inserted these additions in ways that invalidated their mezuzos, writing,

“It is a widespread custom that people write Sha-ai on the mezuzah outside, opposite the space between parshah and parshah. This is no loss as it is outside.

“But those who write names of angels or holy names or a verse or a symbol inside are included among those who have no portion in the World to Come. Because these fools have not only invalidated the mitzvah but have also made the great mitzvah, the unification of Hashem and His love and service, as if it is a kemi’a for their own personal benefit.”

In later years, Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz also incorporated the Mogen Dovid in many of his kemi’os, discussing the rationale behind this in his sefer, Luchos Eidus. As he writes about one of them:

“It includes a depiction of the Mogen Dovid since it is a segula and advantage for a kemi’a [to protect] against all dangers as you will find in the sefer, Raziel [Hamalach], and especially in the Eitz Chaim of the Arizal, in the Sha’ar Hayichudim, etc.”

FROM PRAGUE TO THE EAST

As mentioned earlier, it has been claimed that the Mogen Dovid’s ubiquitous status as a symbol of Judaism and Jewishness is relatively new. In earlier times, its use as an emblem on shuls, tombstones and suchlike was so rare that there is even a medieval church that has a Mogen Dovid prominently engraved on one of its walls.

The Mogen Dovid began its rise in
status during the 14th century when it became a communal symbol for the first time. This was in 5314/1354, when King Charles IV granted the Jews of Prague permission to have a special communal flag emblazoned with an emblem of the Mogen Dovid. This famous flag was periodically replaced as it wore out, and was stored in the Alteneuschul until recent times.

The Prague kehillah later adopted the Mogen Dovid as its communal seal, carved it on its council building, and began using it for tombstones and shuls.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the Mogen Dovid was slowly spreading throughout Europe. By 5415/1655, we find it on the Viennese community’s seal, and the following year it was inscribed on the famous boundary stone that separates the Jewish quarters from the rest of the town in unique fashion with its depiction of a cross on top of a Mogen Dovid below, crying out, as it were, “Here is the dividing point between the two faiths!”

For the next 150 years or so, the Mogen Dovid remained limited mainly to Austria-Moravia. It first exploded in popularity during the 19th century, spreading eastwards to the huge kehillos of Poland and Russia and used profusely on shuls, sifrei Torah, tombstones and seforim. After a while, hardly any shul could be found without this symbol.

The Zionists first appropriated this symbol in 5657/1897 when it appeared on the first cover of their magazine, “Die Welt.” It was officially appointed as their symbol at the Zionist Congress, and was officially designated as the Zionist flag at the 18th Zionist Congress in August 5693/1933. In 5708/1948, it was finally adopted as the flag of Israel.

Simultaneously, it became both the name and symbol of the Jewish first emergency service organization, Magen David Adom, the Jewish version of the Red Cross. Seventy-six years passed, from the organization’s inception in 5690/1930 until 5766/2006, when the “International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement” agreed to grant membership to its Jewish cousin. And even this was only after the American Red Cross held back millions of dollars from the international organization.

Once the Mogen Dovid became a symbol of Zionism, many Torah- observant Jews ceased using it for their shuls, sifrei Torah and tombstones. For example, Rav Chaim Elazear Shapira of Munkatch cries out against it in his sefer, Divrei Torah (Chapter 92), writing that it is no different than the matzeivah (sacrificial pillar) that was beloved to Hashem in the days of the forefathers but then became hated after idolaters made it part of their ritual; similarly, because the Zionists have turned it into their motif, it is now hated to all G-d-fearing Jews.

He testifies there that he heard of a certain tzaddik who even removed Mogen Dovids from Sefer Torah covers and ark curtains even though they had been there previously.

On the other hand, many Torah- observant Jews will no doubt continue to use the Mogen Dovid as a constant partner in Jewish joy and sorrow until the end of days.

(Sources: 1) Lewy, Rav Yosef,Minhag Yisroel Torah. New York, 1997. 2) The Jewish Encyclopedia. [also some of the sources mentioned in the footnotes])

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