Magen David: Shield or Star?

Chalk up a victory for the Star of David — or, as it is called in Hebrew, the magen David or “Shield of David.” Long boycotted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which refused to grant Israel’s “Red Shield of David” organization membership in its ranks because it did not recognize the medical and humanitarian use of this Jewish symbol alongside the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent, the magen David was finally voted in at a Red Cross meeting in Geneva last week. It’s true that it will have to appear, on Israeli ambulances and elsewhere, on a smaller scale than the cross and crescent and within a diamond-shaped “crystal,” but compromise is the stuff of politics, and the Geneva decision was nothing if not political.

What should pique our interest in this column, however, is something else. Why is the same symbol called a shield in Hebrew and a star in English and in other languages? How did one of these images turn into the other?

To explain this, one has to go a long way back — back indeed to a time when the six-pointed hexagon composed of two interlocking triangles was not a specifically Jewish symbol at all. This means going back to at least earlier than the 12th century, when stars or shields of David first began turning up in Jewish practice as magical signs on the parchments of mezuzas. This usage was attacked by no less an authority than Maimonides. Before this period, there was little in the way of such a symbol in Jewish tradition. Although we find it in a smattering of ancient synagogues and Jewish tombstones, it is rare there, and its use for apotropaic purposes (that is, for the warding off of evil spirits) was far more common among other peoples, ranging from ancient India to ancient Italy.

Nor, even after it became popular in mezuzas, did Jews first know this symbol as a “Shield of David.” The earliest recorded Jewish name for it is h.otam Shelomo or “seal of Solomon,” a term that entered Hebrew and many European languages as a translation of the Arabic khatam Suleyman . Solomon, who was reputed to have had seven different supernatural “seals” with which he worked miracles, was a much-revered figure in Arab and Muslim lore, known especially — as he was in Jewish tradition also — for his magical powers; hexagonal and pentagonal talismans attributed to him were widely used in medieval Islam, both in works of alchemy and mysticism and on amulets, rings and other paraphernalia, and from there they spread to Jews and Christians. Moreover, the Arabs called another of Solomon’s seals najmat Da’ud or “the Star of David,” and eventually, taken over by Christian Europe, these two terms became differentiated, with “seal of Solomon” referring to a five-pointed pentagon and “star of David” to a six-pointed hexagon.

This re-attribution of the double-triangled hexagon to David rather than to Solomon caught on among Jews, too, yet in the form of a shield rather than of a star. Such an allusion to it first occurs in a book written by kabbalist David ben Judah the Pious, who lived in Spain in the 14th century. And it was in this same century that the magen David was also first used as the emblem of an entire Jewish community when, in 1354, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted the Jews of Prague the right to fly it on their flag as their coat of arms. This right was reaffirmed by Ferdinand I in 1527, and from Prague the use of the magen David as a Jewish symbol gradually spread elsewhere — first to other Jewish communities in Moravia and Germany, then all over Europe and, finally, to the flag of a Jewish state, for which it was chosen by the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.

Why did medieval Jews change David’s star to a shield? The obvious answer is that whereas stars have no great resonance in Jewish religious tradition, shields do. In numerous passages in the Bible, God is referred to as the shield of those who trust in Him, including more than a dozen times in the book of Psalms, of which the supposed author was David himself. And in the Songs of Songs we have the verse, referring to the mail-like plates in the necklace of the poem’s beloved, “Thy neck is like the tower of David built for an armory, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers [ magen ], all shields of [ shiltei , the plural possessive of shelet ] mighty men.”

It is undoubtedly a pure coincidence that shelet, which is a biblical synonym for magen , sounds very much like the English “shield” and the German and Yiddish Schild, which means both “shield” and “coat of arms” or “sign.” (It was under the influence of Schild, in fact, that shelet came to mean a store or street sign in contemporary Hebrew.) But can it be that the double-triangled hexagon, which was adopted by Yiddish-speaking Prague Jews as the emblem of their flag, was first called by these Jews of Prague a Schild, in the sense of a coat of arms, and then translated into Hebrew as magen and re-interpreted as the warrior’s shield that protected David? I wouldn’t rule out this possibility

Anyway, the next time you see an ambulance in Israel with a Magen David inside a diamond, you’ll know how it came to be there.

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Magen David: Shield or Star?

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