Jewish symbolism

Jewish symbolism

The Hebrew word for symbol is "ot" which in early Judaism denoted not only a sign, but also a visible religious token of the relation between God and man.

habbat and circumcision

Ancient Israel had two fundamental symbols, each regarded as representing the pledge of the covenant made by God with His people. These were (1) Shabbat, the Sabbath, and (2) male circumcision(cutting the foreskin off), the token of the covenant made by God with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. xvii. 11; comp. Ex. xiii. 9 and Deut. vi. 8).

The Tabernacle

According to the Hebrew Bible, while the Israelites were living in the Sinai for forty years, they built a Tabernacle ( _he. משכן translit: "mishkan", "Place of [Divine] dwelling"); this was viewed as the abode of God's presence on Earth, and the place where the priests could most directly serve God.

The sacrifices

Abraham ibn Ezra, in his commentary to Leviticus, considered the "olah" sacrifice as the atonement of the heart for sinful thoughts.

The thank-offering ("todah," "zebah," "shelamim"), together with the meal-offering and the wave-offering, typified the relation of fellowship and friendship between God and Israel; and since God was also the Creator of the universe, the act of turning toward every side symbolized the conviction that God held all the world and the ends thereof.

The sin-offering denoted complete atonement, and the mercy-seat was accordingly sprinkled seven times. The guilt-offering ("asham") was brought to arouse and maintain a sense of sin; it was divided by Maimonides into sacrifices for doubtful and for certain guilt,while Philo asserted that the guilt-offering could be brought only by one whose awakened conscience and conviction of guilt had obliged him to accuse himself.

The priests

The Hebrew for priest is "Kohen"; the "Kohanim" (plural) mediated between God and man by offering sacrifices, and by other services in the Temple. The leader of them the "Kohen Gadol", the high priest.

The vestments of the high priest were interpreted in three ways. The explanation of Philo is as follows ("Vita Mosis," iii. 209): His upper garment was the symbol of the ether, while the blossoms represented the earth, the pomegranates typified running water, and the bells denoted the music of the water. The ephod corresponded to heaven, and the stones on both shoulders to the two hemispheres, one above and the other below the earth. The six names on each of the stones were the six signs of the zodiac, which were denoted also by the twelve names on the breastplate. The miter was the sign of the crown which exalted the high priest above all earthly kings.

Josephus' explanation is this ("Ant." iii. 7, § 7): The coat was the symbol of the earth, the upper garment emblemized heaven, while the bells and pomegranates represented thunder and lightning. The ephod typified the four elements, and the interwoven gold denoted the glory of God. The breastplate was in the center of the ephod, as the earth formed the center of the universe; the girdle symbolized the ocean, the stones on the shoulders the sun and moon, and the jewels in the breastplate the twelve signs of the zodiac, while the miter was a token of heaven.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Menachot vii. 1) and Midrash "Leviticus Rabbah" (x.) give the following interpretation: The coat symbolized atonement for murder or for the sin of wearing mixed garments, and the undergarment typified atonement for unchastity. The miter denoted atonement for pride, and the belt for theft or trickery. The breastplate represented atonement for any perversion of the Law, the ephod for idolatry, and the robe for slander.

The symbolic values of numbers

The number three was the symbol of holiness. The Holy of Holies occupied one-third, and the Holy Place two-thirds, of the entire Temple. The tapestries were ten times three ells in length, and there were three vessels each for the altar of burnt offering, the altar of incense, and the Ark. The candlestick had twice three arms (besides the shaft, which also held a lamp), and each arm had three knobs. The blessing of the priest consisted of three sections (Num. vi. 24, 25), and in the invocation of God the word "holy" was repeated thrice.

The symbolism of the number four was based on the contemplation of the quaternity as found in the universe, which included both heaven and earth (comp. Job xxxvii. I Copied from wikipedia3; Isa. xi. 12; Ezek. vii. 2; I Chron. ix. 24; Dan. viii. 8.) The number four connoted heaven as the throne of God.

The Holy of Holies was in the form of a cube, and the Holy Place was a double cube in length. All the vessels of the Temple in Jerusalem (except the candlestick) were rectangular. According to Ezekiel i. 26-28, the number four symbolized the divine revelation, while in the view of Philo it was the number of complete harmony ("De Opificio Mundi," pp. 13-15).

The number five typified semicompletion. The dimensions of the curtain of the Holy of Holies were four ells by five; the altar in the court covered a surface of five square ells; and there were five pillars at the entrance to the Tabernacle.I Copied from wikipedia

The number six symbolizes imperfection.

The number seven was the general symbol for all association with God, and was the favorite religious number of Judaism, typifying the covenant of holiness and sanctification, and also all that was holy and sanctifying in purpose. The candlestick had seven lamps, and the acts of atonement and purification were accompanied by a sevenfold sprinkling. The establishment of the Sabbath, the Sabbatical year, and the year of jubilee was based on the number seven, as were the periods of purification and of mourning.The number 7 is the Divine number of completion.

The number eight symbolizes new beginnings.

The number ten symbolized absolute completeness. The court to the Tabernacle was ten times ten ells long, and five times ten ells wide, and in the Holy of Holies the Ten Commandments were preserved.

The number twelve, being the product of three and four, typified the union of the people with God. On the table were twelve loaves of show-bread, and the breastplate of the priest contained twelve precious stones as emblems of the twelve tribes of Israel, which camped round about the Sanctuary.

The number eighteen is considered significant because the Hebrew word for "life" is חי ("chai"), which has a numerical value of 18.

Metals and minerals

Gold was the symbol of the divine or celestial light, the glory of God (Zech. vi. 11; Dan. xi. 21). Silver was the emblem of moral innocence and of holiness (Isa. i. 22; Jer. vi. 30). Brass symbolized hardness, strength, and firmness (Lev. xxvi. 19; Jer. xv. 12; Job xl. 18). Brass was a substitute for gold, and iron for silver (Isa. lx. 17).

Salt was declared to be necessary in every meal-offering, in which it takes the place of the blood in the animal sacrifices (Lev. ii. 13; but comp. Ezek. xliii. 24). In the Talmud salt symbolizes the Torah, for as the world can not exist without salt, so it can not endure without the Torah (Soferim xv. 8).


The Israelites used an indigo-colored dye called "tekhelet"; this dye was likely made from snail "murex trunculus". This dye was very important in both Jewish and non-Jewish cultures of this time, and was used by royalty and the upper-class in dyeing their clothing, sheets, curtains, etc. This dye is known as Tyrian purple.

In the Torah the Israelites are commanded to dye on of the threads of their tallit (prayer shawl) with tekhelet; when they look at this dye they will think of the blue sky, and of the God above them in Heaven. Tekhelet corresponds to the color of the divine revelation (Midrash Numbers Rabbah xv.) Blue in Judaism has thus had an important significance throughout the history of Jewish culture up to the present.

"Argaman" was the symbol of power, and of glory (Isa. lx. 6; Judges viii. 26), so that Alexander Balas robed Jonathan in purple (I Macc. x. 20), which was especially used to designate royal dignity (I Macc. x. 20, xi. 58).

"Tola'at" and "shani" ("scarlet," "crimson") symbolized blood, and thus frequently typified life, although this color often designated sin, as well as joy and happiness (Gen. xxxviii. 28; Josh. ii. 18, 21; Jer. iv. 30).

Purification from sin was also symbolized by purple (Lev. xvi. 10).

"Shesh" (white) was the symbol of physical and intellectual purity, being the true color of light, without any modification (Cant. v. 10; Dan. iv. 10, 14, 20; Zech. xiv. 5). White also symbolizes death. In some cases, it can also symbolize life.

Festivals and holy days

The Torah delineates three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot (The Feats of Weeks) and Sukkot (Tabernacles). Each of these was tied to the agricultural cycle of the Israelites, and was also given a theological symbolism.

Passover celebrated the rebirth of nature, and symbolized the origin of the Jewish people.

The eating of bitter herbs symbolized the miseries of the Egyptian bondage. In the evenings four cups of wine were drunk, to symbolize the four world-kingdoms (Talmud Yerushalmi Pesachim 37c; Midrash Gen. Rabbah lxxx.) People eating during the Passover meal reclined, in the style of free rich aristocrats, to represent their liberation from slavery.

A discussion of the meaning of Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) and of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, is found in the entries on those subjects.

A discussion of symbolism inherent in Rosh Hashanah (The New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is found in the entries on those subjects. The Day of Atonement was considered the most holy day of the entire year, and was regarded as the symbol of the complete atonement of the people and of their absolution from their sins committed against God.

ymbolic visions of the Prophets

Jeremiah beheld an almond-tree as a token of the speedy fulfillment of the word of God.

Amos saw a basket of summer fruit as a symbol of the approaching end of Israel. (Amos viii. 1).

Ahijah the Shilonite tore Jeroboam's mantle into twelve pieces, to typify the division of the kingdom of Israel (I Kings xi. 30), and Zedekiah made horns of iron to encourage Ahab to engage in war with Ramoth-gilead (I Kings xxii. 11). King Joash, at the command of the prophet Elisha, shot arrows from the open window into the air, to symbolize the destruction of his enemies (II Kings xiii. 15-19).

Isaiah walked naked and barefoot to show how the Egyptians and Ethiopians would be treated when taken captive by the Assyrians (Isa. xx. 2), while Jeremiah wore a yoke upon his neck to induce the nations to submit to the King of Assyria (Jer. xxvii. 2-4, 10-12).

Ezekiel was commanded to inscribe the names of certain tribes upon separate pieces of wood, to show that God would reunite those tribes (Ezek. xxxvii. 15).

The Star of David

Over time the Star of David became identified with the Jews, and has long since been used as a symbol of Judaism, as a religion, and of the Jewish people as a whole.

Jewish lore links the symbol to the "Seal of Solomon", the magical signet ring used by King Solomon to control demons and spirits. Jewish lore also links the symbol to a magic shield owned by King David that protected him from enemies. Following Jewish emancipation after the French revolution, Jewish communities chose the Star of David as their symbol. The star is found on the Flag of Israel.

On tombstones

Some common themes appear on many Jewish tombstones. Two hands with outspread fingers indicated that the dead man was descended from priestly stock ("Kohanim") who blessed the people in this fashion, and a jug was carved on the tombstones of the Levites as an emblem of the those who washed the priest's hands before he pronounced the blessing.

Some gravestones show a tree with branches either outspread or broken off, symbolizing the death of a young man or an old man respectively; or they have a cluster of grapes as an emblem of Israel.

The Star of David ("Magen David") occurs frequently.

Sometimes figures symbolized the name of the deceased, as the figure of a lion for Loeb, a wolf for Benjamin, and a rose for the name Bluma/Blume.

Influence on Christian symbols

The influence of Judaism upon Christian symbolism as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., is apparent both in painting and in sculpture, the most frequent motives being those which occur in the Mishnah as formulas for prayer on fast-days. The prayer beginning with the words "Mi she-'anah," which was included in the selihah at an early date, was adopted in the Christian ritual as the litany "Libera domine." This litany was figuratively used in a certain sequence as a symbol, for the sacrifice of Isaac was regarded as a symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus, since the early Church considered Isaac the prototype of Jesus, and the act of sacrifice emblemized the death on the cross.

Abraham was represented as the symbol of the power of faith and Isaac as the sacrificed redeemer. The ascension of Elijah was believed to typify the ascension of Jesus, who was regarded by Christian symbolism as an analogue to Elijah, although this ascension was also taken as a type of the general resurrection from the dead. Job sitting among the ashes was the symbol of patience and of the power of resistance of the flesh; and Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in the fiery furnace typified steadfastness in persecution and faith in the aid of God. Christian sarcophagi contained artistic representations of the fall of man, Noah and the ark, scenes from the life of Moses in three variations, Joshua, David, and Daniel.

The land of Zion

Zion is a Biblical term that refers to the Land of Israel, and is the source for the modern term Zionism.

Lions of Judah

The Tanakh compares the tribes of Judah and Dan to lions: "Judah is a lion's whelp." (Book of Genesis 49:9)

ee also

* Jewish services
* Menorah
* Religious symbolism

External links

* [ Lions in Jewish art]
* [ Jewish Heraldry]

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