Jewish Terminology

Written and Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz

The Magen David – or Star of David – was not always evocative of Judaism. It was placed on temples and seals as early as 7th century BCE, utilized by Jews and non-Jews alike. It was made an official emblem in 1354 as the flag of the Jewish community of Prague, and was further popularized in the 1800s. The six-pointed star was also used on the Moroccan flag in 1795, without an explicit connection to Judaism, and was changed to a five-pointed star in 1912. In more recent years, the Magen David is a symbol of the Zionist movement. It also represents a general connection to Judaism regardless of Zionist connections, and was used to stigmatize Jews during the Holocaust. It is present on the Israeli flag today.  

 

Chai is the Hebrew word for living or alive. The word also has a third meaning: eighteen. This is because the letters that spell the word – het and yud – are the eighth and tenth letters of the Hebrew alphabet, respectively. A symbol worn on necklaces and other types of jewelry, its meaning is tied to the number it represents; there are stories of the number eighteen and its multiples being good luck, which is one of the contributing factors to why the Chai is both worn and donations in $18 increments are not uncommon.

 

 

Menorah is the Hebrew word for lamp, or candelabra, and has seven branches. A hanukkiah is a type of menorah with eight branches, and a ninth candle to light the others. It was used in the ancient temple of Jerusalem and in the modern celebration of Hanukkah. Before the Star of David was a widely used symbol of Judaism, the menorah represented Jews on buildings and in coats of arms, likely because its creation is described in Exodus. It represents both light and knowledge.

 

 Hamsa

This hand, significant not only to Jews, but Muslims as well, is tied to the number five, and is said to ward off the evil eye. The number five is significant in Islamic tradition as it is tied to the Five Pillars of Islam, and the number also represents the five fingers. In Jewish Talmudic writing, the hand may have referred to the hand of G-d. Its history may be tied up in superstition, but that history is a long one, dating back to at least the 14th century. It was inscribed on fortresses in Islamic Spain, where, several centuries before, Jewish literature and poetry also flourished.

 

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