From the Introduction to Part One
There is no doubt that the Magen David is the symbol most immediately associated today with Jews everywhere in the world and with the Jewish state, the State of Israel, in particular. Also known as the Star – or more literally, the Shield – of David, the Magen David contains a central hexagon formed from the interlinked composite of two opposite equilateral triangles. The modern State of Israel’s founders embedded this symbol in the world’s consciousness when they chose it to appear on the nation’s flag. I wrote this book in order to trace the Magen David’s development not merely as one of many Jewish symbols but to explain how and why the Magen David has become the symbol of the Jewish people today. As we will see, the six-pointed star was common to many ancient peoples. The Jewish people’s wholesale adoption of this symbol in our era belies a complex relationship between the Jewish people and the Magen David that is full of many surprising twists and turns. This fascinating story – spanning ancient to modern times – will be traced in the first part of this book using both textual and archeological evidence.
Many historians have been misled by the fact that the Magen David was not adopted as the preeminent Jewish symbol until relatively recently and for this reason paint a very superficial picture of how and why this occurred. Therefore, after presenting a historical overview that will include an analysis of the intellectual biases which apparently led many historians to their conclusions, I will present an alternative explanation for the Magen David’s rise to preeminence, highlighting a process deeply rooted in Jewish culture, religion, and history.
Yet despite these very important and intriguing discussions the main reason that I wrote this book now is because I believe the time has come to reveal the profound secrets, embodied by this deceptively simple symbol, in an articulate and accessible manner. These essential Jewish teachings, alluded to by the shape of the Magen David, shed light on many fundamental Jewish concepts, especially the profound spiritual wisdom of the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. These include the paradoxical unity of God and the appearance of duality in a pluralistic world; the relationship between God and humanity; the relationship between the physical and the spiritual; and the relationship between the soul and the body. Additionally, the Magen David reveals the symmetry and harmony in nature and serves as a visual paradigm enabling us to understand the secrets of creation and the Divine creative process. Indeed, the Magen David as a visual symbol allows us to meditate on the messages it bears so that we can reach higher levels of spirituality.
From the Chapter:
The Six-Pointed Star in World Culture
The six-pointed star or hexagram, known today as the Magen David, is found in many ancient world cultures. In fact, it is not even clear where and when the symbol originated. There may have been one common source or the symbol may have been adopted independently by various societies and cultures. The Magen David’s fairly simple and symmetrical shape may have contributed to its broad appeal. While different societies used it to represent different ideas, its iconic form of two opposite and interlocking triangles led most to associate it with the duality and polarity of forces in the universe.
The hexagram’s usage in the East stretches back into antiquity. Six-pointed stars or hexagrams are frequently employed in ancient mandalas and cosmological diagrams in the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The hexagram is also commonly displayed in the Shinto belief system in Japan. The I-Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and divination contains sixty-four hexagrams. Strangely enough, given the Nazi appropriation of the swastika, there are many cases in Buddhist ritual art of a swastika appearing in the middle of a six-pointed star. This symbol was also an important astrological figure in Zoroastrianism, a religion centered in ancient Persia.
Christianity and even more so Islam adopted this symbol in ritual art and architecture. Even today, churches and mosques contain examples of this usage, and Islamic art, which thrives on symmetry, is particularly partial to this figure. In addition to its use by the major organized religions, the six-pointed star was adopted throughout the ages by many different Western occult and mystical groups and was an important symbol in the practice of alchemy. The Theosophical Society, established in 1875 to investigate the common roots of Western and Eastern religions, incorporated the Star of David into its emblem. Most of these groups, societies, and institutions drew upon various legends and traditions about King Solomon and the five- and six-pointed stars, the pentagram and the hexagram. These legends will be discussed towards the end of the next section.
Freemasons who drew their inspiration and traditions from King Solomon and the Temple in Jerusalem used the figure extensively. Many of the founding fathers of the United States were Freemasons, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Hancock, and Nathanael Greene, while many others were influenced by their philosophy and symbols. Much has been written about the various symbols, including the hexagram, that appear on the American one-dollar bill. The thirteen stars representing the original thirteen colonies are arranged in the shape of a Magen David on the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the dollar bill.
The Rastafari movement, a modern religion which developed in Jamaica, draws upon biblical imagery and uses the Magen David as a major symbol of its beliefs. This symbol is also used extensively in sacred geometry to construct a wide variety of religious structures – an endeavor rooted in the observation of natural forms and shapes and an analysis of their associated mathematical principles.
Even without mentioning every usage of the Star of David throughout history, this very brief survey highlights how broad its appeal has been to religions and cultures worldwide. Very few symbols if any can make a similar claim. It is this phenomenon which makes the history of the Magen David all the more intriguing. While this book will primarily focus on the Magen David’s role in Judaism, the likelihood and reality of cross-cultural influences will be discussed and a fascinating possibility will be entertained in the concluding chapter.
From the chapter:
The Magen David in Classical Jewish Texts
The Sages attested to the connection between David and the term “shield” when they composed a blessing that concludes “Blessed are You God, Shield of David.” This blessing, composed approximately a thousand years after David lived, is recited on Shabbat and holidays after the reading of the Haftorah (the supplementary reading from the Prophets, which relates in some manner to the weekly Torah reading). In fact, the Haftorah read on the seventh day of Pesach and on Shabbat Ha’azinu is the aforementioned song from the book of Samuel that David composed to thank God for delivering him from all his enemies.
While the first instance of the term “Magen David” only appears a thousand years after King David’s death, the metaphor of God as a shield was clearly always associated with David. This connection was so strong that at various points in history numerous legends arose depicting David going into battle with a shield either shaped like a six-pointed star or with a six-pointed star emblazoned on it. Though there is no textual proof for the existence of this shield, the mere fact that people associated David with an actual physical shield led to the eventual naming of the symbol on that legendary shield as the Magen David. This process also helped the Jews internalize the message that God’s protection is real and tangible, not just a metaphor. (Some conjecture that during the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans [c. 135 CE] someone invented a new and stronger shield composed of two interlocking triangles. Though there is no textual proof for such a claim, it is certainly within the realm of possibility).
The Sages, in addition to composing the “Shield of David” blessing after the Haftorah, also introduced the notion of God being a shield of salvation into the daily prayers. As mentioned above, the conclusion of the first blessing of the Amidah is “Blessed are You God, Shield of Abraham,” and the concept is also mentioned towards the end of the Amidah as well. Furthermore, in the blessings, recited before and after the morning Shema, the cardinal statement of Jewish faith, this idea is repeated several times. It also appears in the blessings recited after the evening Shema. Thus, the Jewish people recite numerous times a day the conviction that God is truly a shield and protector. The fact that the Jewish people has survived and even thrived despite the many attempts to destroy it testifies to God’s protection and the eternal covenant He first made with Abraham.
An important Talmudic discussion (Pesachim 117b) confirms the connection between the two shields and blessings discussed above: the Shields of Abraham and David. Rabbah bar Shila begins by pointing out that the blessing in the Amidah regarding our hope that the kingship of the house of David will be restored concludes: “Blessed are You God, Who causes the horn of salvation to sprout,” whereas the blessing regarding David’s kingship, recited at the conclusion of the Haftorah, reads: “Blessed are You God, Shield of David (Magen David).” One would have expected the same concluding blessing. Explaining the difference, Rashbam comments that the blessing in the Amidah is more than just a plea for David, it is a prayer for the salvation of the entire Jewish people, thus it is appropriate to conclude with a general appeal for salvation; however, the blessing at the conclusion of the Haftorah is specifically focused on the Davidic dynasty. Rashi provides a more technical answer. The blessing after the Haftorah is indeed preferable, but since the Amidah already contains the blessing “Magen Avraham,” it would be improper to also recite “Magen David.”
The Talmud continues by citing a verse as a proof text for the formulation of the blessing “Magen David”: “I have made for you [David] a great name, like the name of the great ones” (2 Samuel 7:9). The “great ones” in this verse are, according to the Talmud, the three patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – for God had promised Abraham that He would “make his name great” (Genesis 12:2).
This Talmudic passage establishes an important link between David and Abraham. When David, the Sweet Singer of Israel, searched for a way to express how he felt about God’s protection, he adopted the language God used in promising Abraham that He would deliver and protect him. David, as the Talmud relates elsewhere, longed to reach the level of the patriarchs in God’s eyes. He too sought that intimate, covenantal relationship with God. God explains to David that the patriarchs only attained such a spiritual level by undergoing tests. David then asks God to test him as well to establish his worth (Sanhedrin 107a-b). (Another tradition in Midrash Tehillim (18:25) actually reports that David asked God why the formula used in prayer would be the “Shield of Abraham” and not the “Shield of David.”)
The Talmud records that God subsequently tested David with Bathsheba, and David finally admitted that he failed the test. Yet David clung to God throughout and because of his sincere repentance remained beloved in God’s eyes. In fact, as the Talmud explains, the blessing of Magen David links David indelibly to the patriarchs, and even more impressively, God establishes the Davidic dynasty in perpetuity.
From the Introduction to Part Two
In order to reveal the multiple layers of symbolism inherent in the Magen David in an organized fashion, our review of the concepts these layers represent will be arranged in the ascending order of the numbers associated with the Magen David: 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 12, 13. We will begin by exploring the numbers one and two: examining the Magen David’s familiar composite figure, which corresponds with the number one, and addressing the fact that this unified figure consists of two opposite-facing triangles, corresponding to the number two. Having established the notions of unity and multiplicity, we will then delve into the integration that can be achieved by the number three, symbolized by the three-sided triangle, and the rich meaning the number three possesses in Judaism. Finally, we will look at less obvious aspects of the Magen David’s form: first, by investigating the six smaller triangles surrounding a seventh, central, hexagonal space, and then by exploring the meanings associated with the twelve triangles, meeting at a central thirteenth point, which are formed when the six smaller triangles are folded inward.
Each of these numbers intrinsic to the Magen David’s inner meaning embodies profound teachings related to Judaism, in general, and to creation and its ultimate purpose (including the Divine and human creative processes), in particular. Although the first part of this book provided the historical overview essential to understanding the Magen David, this book was really written so that Jews and non-Jews alike could reach a deeper understanding of this potent symbol’s inner dimensions.
Hexagons in Nature
The hexagon is not merely a product of the human mind – a mathematical flight of fancy, a symmetrical form employed in art and architecture; rather, it is inherent in nature. The snowflake is perhaps the most famous example of the hexagon in nature. As the snowflakes’ water molecules solidify and bind to one another, snowflakes take on an almost infinite array of hexagonal forms! These forms vary greatly but adhere to a basic six-sided shape because ice’s crystalline structure is six-fold. A close second in nature are the honeycombs made by bees in order to store the honey they produce. All bees create honeycombs composed of small, perfectly interlocking, wax hexagons. Likewise, many turtle species display a hexagonal design on their dome-like protective shell. In fact, the hexagon serves a central role in a host of different molecular structures. When contemplating the Magen David’s importance as a symbol uniting the physical and spiritual worlds, this fact must not be forgotten.
One of the State of Israel’s most famous natural wonders is the Hexagon Pool (Breichat Hameshushim), named for the hexagonal basalt pillars that form the walls surrounding this pool of water. I have been privileged to visit this beautiful site twice in the last few years and was amazed at this geometric phenomenon. Similar hexagonal stone structures have been found in Northern Ireland’s Giant Causeway where most of the 40,000 interlocking basalt columns formed by ancient volcanic eruptions are hexagonal. Similar hexagonal rock formations have been found at Devils Postpile in California and in other locations across the globe.
The frequent appearance of the hexagon in nature has inspired many architects to replicate this form in their creative endeavors. Frank Lloyd Wright, the celebrated American architect, employed the hexagon in his innovative design of the Hanna Residence in Stanford, California, also known as the Honeycomb House. In 1952, he created hexagonal furniture for the H.C. Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which matched the geometric shape of the building. Another house he designed that was based on the hexagon was the Richardson House built in 1951 in Essex County, New Jersey. Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence on modern architecture was enormous and his designs inspired other architects around the world.
Another famous twentieth-century architect, Buckminster Fuller, made his name by constructing and popularizing the geodesic dome, a sphere-like structure constructed from a complex network of triangles that combine to form pentagons and hexagons. In addition to being strikingly unique and beautiful in appearance, the geodesic dome is an extremely sturdy structure.
Many mathematicians, particularly those interested in geometry, have gained inspiration from the natural world, identifying forms, patterns, and models present in nature. For example the series of numbers and their parallel geometric forms revealed by Fibonacci, called the Golden Section, are evident in a wide array of natural phenomena, including sunflowers, pine cones, the pineapple’s fruit sprouts, the arrangement of flower petals, the array of leaves on stems, the spiral shape of the nautilus shell, and the spiral formation of galaxies.
The hexagon due to its intrinsic connection to triangles is among the most important geometric forms. As we discussed in the previous section, the cube (a six-sided geometric form related to the hexagon) alludes to great spiritual secrets concerning time and space, as does the Magen David.
Hexagons are also inherently connected to circles due to the fact that six equal objects perfectly surround a seventh middle space. This phenomenon termed “maximal compactness” only occurs when six equal objects surround a middle seventh space. This geometric occurrence, like the six triangles of the Magen David surrounding its inner hexagon, finds its spiritual counterpart in the six days or periods of creation surrounding the Shabbat of creation, the six days of the week surrounding Shabbat, and the six branches of the menorah surrounding the central column, symbolizing Shabbat. This geometric phenomenon is one more of the many secrets of the Magen David.