Tag Archives: Islam

The Jewish View on Cards and Gambling

In this week’s parasha, Matot-Massei, we read how the Israelites were supposed to divide up the Holy Land between the Twelve Tribes:

And you shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the more [numerous] you shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give the lesser inheritance; wherever the lot falls to any man, that shall be his…

We learn that the land of Israel was apportioned based on family size, with larger families logically receiving a larger share. Now, to determine which chunk of land a family would receive, the Israelites cast lots. The Talmud (Bava Batra 122a) describes how this was done: two urns were prepared, one containing the names of the Twelve Tribes, and the other containing the names of the various allotments of land. Elazar the High Priest would pick one name from each urn, thus designating a piece of land for a particular tribe.

Casting lots was very common in Biblical times, and is mentioned frequently in the Tanakh. For example, the Torah commands casting lots to determine which goat is sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:8). In the Book of Jonah (1:7), the sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to determine who was guilty of causing the storm. In the time of King David, the kohanim were thus divided into 24 groups (I Chronicles 24). Haman cast lots to determine the best day to attack the Jews, and this is why the holiday is called “Purim”, since purim was the Persian word for “lots” (Esther 3:7).

Casting lots suggests a large degree of chance or randomness in the process. Yet, people of faith are naturally quite averse to the concept of random chance, for isn’t everything determined by God? Not surprisingly, the word “lot” (goral) also takes on the meaning of “fate” in the Tanakh. For instance, Isaiah (17:14) prophesies: “At evening there will be terror, and before morning they are not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the goral of them that rob us.” The ultimate fate of those that harm the Jewish people will be utter destruction. The Sages, too, were uncomfortable with the idea of dividing the Holy Land by seemingly random lots. They therefore stated (ibid.) that the lots were really just a show for the people to see what God intended. In reality:

Elazar was wearing the Urim and Tumim, while Joshua and all Israel stood before him… Animated by the Holy Spirit, he gave directions, exclaiming: “Zevulun” is coming up and the boundary lines of Acco are coming up with it. [Thereupon], he shook well the urn of the tribes and Zevulun came up in his hand. [Likewise] he shook well the urn of the boundaries and the boundary lines of Acco came up in his hand…

Elazar would prophetically see which tribe needed which land, and when he then shook the urns those exact pairs that he foresaw would emerge! So, the process was not random at all, but simply a materialization of the Divine Will. Still, the Sages insist that in the messianic era the Holy Land will not be apportioned through this method of casting lots, but rather “The Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, will divide it among them; for it is said [Ezekiel 48:29], ‘And these are their portions, says the Lord God.’”

If the Sages were not fond of casting random lots by chance, how would they feel about playing games of chance and gambling?

Gambling in the Talmud

In 1999 and 2000, the Muslim Waqf (Temple Mount authority) dug up 9000 tons of Temple Mount soil and unceremoniously dumped it in the Kidron Valley, creating one of the largest archaeological catastrophes in history. Thankfully, archaeologists did not give up on this precious soil, and began the “Temple Mount Sifting Project”. Among the many incredible finds are these Second Temple-era playing dice.

In a list of people that are ineligible to serve as witnesses or as judges, the Mishnah includes a mesachek b’kubia, a person who plays with dice, and mafrichei yonim, “pigeon flyers”. According to the Talmud, the latter most likely refers to people who bet on pigeon races, which were apparently common in those days. We know from historical sources that gambling with various dice games was very popular in Greek and Roman times. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24b) goes on to discuss what the problem with such people is.

Rami bar Hama teaches that the issue with gambling is that it is essentially built on a lie: each player agrees to pay a certain sum of money if they lose, yet they hope (and fully intend) not to lose at all! That means the initial agreement made by the players is not even valid. The losing gambler is entirely dejected, and gives up their money reluctantly, often with a nagging feeling of being robbed or cheated out of their money.

Rav Sheshet disagrees. After all, there may be some people who are not so sad to part with their money, or are simply addicted to the game itself. Whatever the case, Rav Sheshet holds that gambling is inappropriate because it is a terribly unproductive waste of time, and the gambler contributes nothing to “the welfare of the world”. This is why, Rav Sheshet says, the Mishnah above concludes by saying that only a full-time gambler is prohibited, but one who has an actual job and just plays for fun on the side is permitted.

Nonetheless, Rav Yehudah holds that regardless of whether the gambler has an occupation or not, or whether he is a full-time player or not, a gambler is disqualified from being a kosher witness or judge. Rav Yehudah bases his statement on a related teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, and on this Rashi comments that a gambler is likened to a thief. The Midrash is even more vocal, saying that gamblers “calculate with their left hand, and press with their right, and rob and wrong one another” (Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 26:10).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) goes on to state that the prohibitions above don’t only refer to a literal dice-player, but any kind of gambler, including one who plays with pebbles (or checkers), and even with nuts. The Sages state that such a person is only readmitted when they do a complete repentance, and refuse to play the game even just for fun without any money!

Halachically-speaking, the Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 370:2-3) first states that any kind of gambling is like theft and is forbidden, but then suggests that while it may not exactly be theft it is certainly a waste of time and not something anyone should engage in.

A Ban on Gambling

While the Talmud does not explicitly forbid gambling, later rabbis recognized its addictive nature and sought to ban the practice entirely. In 1628, for example, the rabbis of Venice issued a decree (to last six years) excommunicating any Jew who gambled. Part of the motivation for this decree was the case of Leon da Modena (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena, 1571-1648).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

Born in Venice to a family of Sephardic exiles, da Modena went on to become a respected rabbi and the hazzan of Venice’s main synagogue for forty years. A noted scholar, he wrote about a dozen important treatises. In Magen v’Herev, he systematically tore down the major tenets of Christianity, while in Ari Nohem he sought to discredit Kabbalah and prove that the Zohar has no ancient or divine origin. (The latter is probably why he isn’t as well-known in Jewish circles today as he should be.)

In 1637, he published Historia de’riti hebraici, an overview of Judaism for the European world, meant to dispel myths about Judaism and quell anti-Semitism. Historians credit this with being the first Jewish text written for the non-Jewish world in over a millennium, since the time of Josephus. The book was incredibly popular, and played a key role in England’s readmitting Jews to the country in the 1650s (after having being expelled in 1290).

More pertinent to the present discussion, Rabbi da Modena wrote Sur miRa (“Desist from Evil”), outlining the problems with gambling. He would know, since he was horribly addicted to gambling himself. He wrote of this problem in his own autobiography, Chayei Yehudah. And because such a high-profile sage was a gambler, his rabbinic colleagues in Venice issued that decree to ban any form of gambling.

Rabbi da Modena’s game of choice was cards. At that point in time, playing cards had become wildly popular in Europe. First invented in China in the 9th century, playing cards slowly made their way across Asia, and reached Europe around 1365. They have remained popular ever since, both for gambling and non-gambling games. While it is clear from an halachic standpoint that card games involving money (like Poker or Blackjack) should not be played, is it permissible to play non-gambling card games (like Crazy Eights or Go Fish)?

At first glance, it may not seem like there should be a problem with this. Yet, some rabbis have recently spoken out against all playing cards. Usually, this prohibition is connected not to gambling or wasting time, but rather to cards’ apparent origins in idolatry or the dark arts. Although it is true that some types of cards are used in divination and fortune-telling, it is important to examine the matter in depth and determine whether cards really are associated with forbidden practices.

The History of Playing Cards

Mamluk Cards

The exact origins of cards are unclear. We do know that they come from China, where paper and printing were invented. Card games are attested to in Chinese texts as early as 868 CE. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Muslims brought cards across Asia. They were particularly popular in Egypt during the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517). The Mamluks created the first modern-style deck of 52 cards with 4 suits. The suits were sticks, coins, swords, and cups. In the 15th century, Italians started to make cards of their own, with the suits being leaves, hearts, bells, and acorns. The French had three-leaf clovers for leaves, square tiles (or diamonds) for bells, and pikes for acorns. Although these suit symbols remained, the English names reflect the earlier suits of sticks (“clubs”) and swords (“spades”).

The Muslim Mamluks did not draw any faces on their court cards (since depicting faces in art is forbidden in Islam). The Europeans did not have this issue, and adapted the Muslim court cards of malik (king), malik na’ib (deputy king), and thani na’ib (second deputy) to king, queen, and prince or knight (“jack”). In 16th century France, the four kings were depicted as particular historical figures: the King of Spades was King David, the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great, the King of Hearts was Charlemagne, and the King of Diamonds was Julius (or Augustus) Caesar.

We see that playing cards have no origins in idolatry. The style of cards we know today were developed by staunchly monotheistic Muslims. They were further developed by mostly non-religious European renaissance printers, against the wishes of the Church which sought to ban cards on a number of occasions. Neither are playing cards known for being used in fortune-telling. However, a related type of card is used in divination today.

Tarot Cards and Kabbalah

In 15th century Italy, a different type of playing card developed. These were called trionfi, later tarocchi, and finally “tarot cards”. They, too, have four suits, but with 56 cards. These were, and still are, used for a number of different games, just like regular playing cards are. Outside of Europe, tarot cards are not well-known, and are generally associated with fortune-tellers.

In reality, the earliest mention of tarot cards being used in divination is only from 1750, and it was essentially unheard of until the late 19th century. Besides, most diviners actually use a different deck of 78 cards. Of course, such divination is entirely forbidden according to the Torah. So, it seems like some well-meaning rabbis have confused these tarot cards with regular playing cards. Ironically, many occultists actually claim that tarot cards come from Kabbalah!

The Tarot “Tree of Life” (Credit: Byzant.com)

These occultists tie the 22 additional divination cards to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 paths on the mystical “Tree of Life”. The ten numeral cards (naturally) correspond to the Ten Sefirot, while the four suits correspond to the four olamot, or universes. Finally, the four court cards and the ace represent the five partzufim (with the king and queen appropriately being Aba and Ima). While these parallels are neat, there is absolutely no known historical or textual basis to support these claims. Tarot cards have nothing to do with traditional Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. (There is a concept in Kabbalah of a negative set of Ten Sefirot belonging to the Sitra Achra, so perhaps there is some connection between these tarot cards and certain evil spiritual forces.)

Having said all that, to forbid playing with cards (or even standard tarot cards) just because some people recently started using them in divination is like forbidding drinking coffee because some people recently started divining with coffee (a practice called “tassology” or “tasseography”). While playing cards copiously is certainly a waste of time, there is nothing wrong with the occasional—no gambling—game.

Ba’al HaTurim

It is fitting to end with the words of the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) who writes in his commentary on the Torah (Tur HaAroch on Deuteronomy 1:1) that Moses himself cautioned Israel about gambling in his final speech before passing away:

Before Moses got ready to relate all these various commandments, he used the present opportunity, a few weeks before his death, to admonish the people, and to remind them of past sins, and how they had caused Hashem a lot of grief during these years. He reminded them how God had treated them by invoking His attribute of mercy and loving kindness time and again. He warned them not to become corrupt again by gambling… They should not rely on the fact that because they were human they were bound to err and sin from time to time and that God, knowing this, would overlook their trespasses.

The Mystical Meaning of Exile and Terrorism

This week we once again read a double parasha, Behar and Bechukotai. The latter is famous for its list of blessings, and curses, should Israel faithfully follow God’s law, or not. In Leviticus 26:33, God warns that “I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.” These prophetic words have, of course, come true in Jewish history. Israel has indeed been exiled to the four corners of the world, and experienced just about every kind of persecution. Yet, within every curse there is a hidden blessing.

‘The Flight of the Prisoners’ by James Tissot, depicting the Jewish people being exiled to Babylon.

The Talmud (Pesachim 87b) states that the deeper purpose of exile is for the Jews to spread Godliness to the rest of the world. After all, our very mandate was to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) and to spread knowledge of Hashem and His Torah. How could we ever accomplish this if we were always isolated in the Holy Land? It was absolutely necessary for Israel to be spread all over the globe in order to introduce people to Hashem, to be a model of righteousness, and to fulfil the various spiritual rectifications necessary to repair this broken world.

The Arizal explains that by praying, reciting blessings, and fulfilling mitzvot, a Jew frees the spiritual sparks trapped within the kelipot, literally “husks”. This idea hearkens back to the concept of Shevirat haKelim, the “Shattering of the Vessels”. The Arizal taught that God initially crafted an entirely perfect universe. Unfortunately, this world couldn’t contain itself and shattered into a multitude of pieces, spiritual “sparks” trapped in this material reality. While God had rebuilt most of the universe, He left it to Adam and Eve to complete the rectification through their own free will. They, too, could not affect that tikkun, and the cosmos shattered yet again. The process repeated itself on a number of occasions, the last major one being at the time of the Golden Calf.

Nonetheless, with each passing phase in history, more and more of those lost, trapped sparks are rediscovered and restored to their rightful place. The mystical mission of every Jew is to free those sparks wherever they go. The Arizal speaks of this at great length, and it permeates every part of his teachings. Eating, for example, serves the purpose of freeing sparks trapped within food—which is why it is so important to consume only kosher food, and to carefully recite blessings (which are nothing but fine-tuned formulas for spiritual rectification) before and after. The same is true with every mitzvah that we do, and every prayer we recite.

Thus, while exile is certainly difficult and unpleasant, it serves an absolutely vital spiritual purpose. This is why the Midrash states that exile is one of four things God created regretfully (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah, passage 424). It is why God already prophesied that we would be exiled—even though we hadn’t yet earned such a punishment! And it is why God also guaranteed that we would one day return to our Promised Land, as we have miraculously begun to do in recent decades.

Four, Five, or Eight Exiles?

In Jewish tradition, it is said that there are four major exiles: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. We are still considered to be within the “Roman” or Edomite (European/Christian) exile. Indeed, the Roman Empire never really ended, and just morphed from one phase into another, from the Byzantine Empire to the Holy Roman Empire, and so forth.

Babylonian Shedu

This idea of four exiles originated with Daniel’s vision of four great beasts (Daniel 7:3-7). The first was a lion with eagle wings—a well-known symbol of ancient Babylon. Then came a fierce bear, an animal which the Talmud always likens to the Persians. The swift leopard represents the Greeks that conquered the known world in lightning speed under Alexander the Great. The final and most devastating beast is unidentified, representing the longest and cruelest exile of Edom.

The Midrash states that Jacob himself foresaw these exiles in his vision of the ladder (Genesis 28). There he saw four angels, each going up a number of rungs on the ladder equal to the number of years Israel would be oppressed by that particular nation. The last angel continued to climb ever higher, with Jacob unable to see its conclusion, alluding to the current seemingly never-ending exile.  The big question is: why are these considered the four exiles. Haven’t the Jewish people been exiled all around the world? Have we not been oppressed by other nations besides these?

The Arizal explains (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh) that while Jews have indeed been exiled among all seventy root nations, it is only in these four that all Jews were exiled in. Yet, he maintains that any place where even a single Jew has been exiled is considered as if the entire nation was exiled there. The Arizal further explains that these four exiles were already alluded to in Genesis 2:10-14, where the Torah describes the four rivers that emerged from Eden. Each river corresponds to one exile. The head river of Eden that gives rise to the other four corresponds to the very first exile of the Jews, the exile within which the Jewish people were forged: Egypt, the mother of all exiles.

Elsewhere, the Arizal adds that there is actually a fifth exile, that of Ishmael (Etz Ha’Da’at Tov, ch. 62). History makes this plainly evident, of course, as the Jewish people have suffered immensely under Arab and Muslim oppression to this very day. The idea of Ishmael being the final exile was known long before the Arizal, and is mentioned by earlier authorities. In fact, one tradition holds that each exile has two components:

We know that before the Babylonians came to destroy the Kingdom of Judah and its capital Jerusalem, the Assyrians had destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel with the majority of the Twelve Tribes. We also know that the Persians were united with the Medians. Technically speaking, Alexander the Great was not a mainstream Greek, but a Macedonian. While he was the one who conquered Israel, his treatment of the Jews was mostly fair. It was only long after that the Seleucid Greeks in Syria really tried to extinguish the Jews. Thus, the doublets are Assyria-Babylon (Ashur-Bavel), Persia-Media (Paras-Madai), Macedon-Greece (Mokdon-Yavan), with the final doublet being Edom-Ishmael. The latter has a clear proof-text in the Torah itself, where we read how Esau (ie. Edom) married a daughter of Ishmael (Genesis 28:9). The Sages suggest that this is an allusion to the joint union between Edom and Ishmael to oppress Israel in its final exile.

The Arizal certainly knew the above, so why does he speak of a fifth exile under Ishmael, as well as a fifth (original) exile under Egypt?

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

One of the most well-known principles in Kabbalah is that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning in the end”. What the Arizal may have been hinting at is that the final Ishmaelite exile is a reflection of the original Egyptian exile. Indeed, the Arizal often speaks of how the final generation at the End of Days is a reincarnation of the Exodus generation. (According to one tradition, there were 15 million Jews in ancient Egypt, just as there are roughly 15 million in the world today.) The first redeemer Moses took us out of the Egyptian exile, and we await Moses’ successor, the final redeemer Mashiach, to free us from the Ishmaelite exile.

In highly symbolic fashion, the land of ancient Egypt is currently occupied by Muslim Arabs. The Ishmaelites have quite literally taken the place of ancient Egypt. Come to think of it, the lands of all the four traditional nations of exile are now Ishmaelite: Bavel is Iraq, Paras is Iran, Seleucid Greece is Syria, and the Biblical land of Edom overlaps Jordan. The four rivers of Eden would have run through these very territories. It is quite ironic that Saddam Hussein openly spoke of himself as a reincarnated Nebuchadnezzar, seeking to restore a modern-day Babylonian Empire. Meanwhile, each day in the news we hear of the looming Syria-Iran threat. Just as Egypt was the mother of all four “beasts”, it appears that the four beasts converge under a new Ishmaelite banner for one final End of Days confrontation.

There is one distinction however. In the ancient land of Egypt, all Jews were physically trapped. We do not see this at all today, where very few Jews remain living in Muslim states. Nonetheless, every single Jew around the world, wherever they may be, is living under an Ishmaelite threat. Muslims in France, for example, have persistently attacked innocent Jews in horrific acts—so much so that recently 250 French intellectuals, politicians, and even former presidents banded together to demand action against this absurd violence and anti-Semitism. Similar acts of evil have taken place all over the world. This has been greatly exacerbated by the recent influx of Muslim refugees to the West, as admitted by Germany’s chancellor Angel Merkel who recently stated: “We have refugees now… or people of Arab origin, who bring a different type of anti-Semitism into the country…”

In 2017, Swedish police admitted that there are at least 23 “no-go” Sharia Law zones in their country.

It is important to note that when Scripture speaks of the End of Days, it is not describing a regional conflict, but an international one. The House of Ishmael is not a local threat to Israel alone, or only to Jewish communities, but to the entire globe. Every continent has felt the wrath of Islamist terrorism, and whole communities in England, France, and even America have become cordoned off as “sharia law” zones. Ishmael is even a threat to himself. Muslims kill each other far more than they kill non-Muslims. In 2011, the National Counter-Terrorism Center reported that between 82% and 97% of all Islamist terror victims are actually Muslim. All but three civil wars between 2011 and 2014 were in Muslim countries, and all six civil wars that raged in 2012 were in Muslim countries. In 2013, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom showed that 10 of the 15 most intolerant and oppressive states in the world were Muslim ones.

The Torah wasn’t wrong when it prophesied (Genesis 16:12) that Ishmael would be a “wild man; his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him, and upon all of his brothers he will dwell.” Every Jew—and every human being for that matter—is experiencing an Ishmaelite exile at present.

The Exile Within

There is one more way of looking at the four exiles: not as specific nations under whom we were once oppressed, but as four oppressive forces that have always constrained Israel, and continue to do so today. These are the four root issues plaguing the Jews, and keeping us in “exile” mode.

The first is Edom, that spirit of materialism and physicality embodied by Esau. Unfortunately, such greed and gluttony has infiltrated just about every Jewish community, including those that see themselves as the most spiritual. The second, Bavel, literally means “confusion”, that inexplicable madness within the Jewish nation; the incessant infighting, the divisiveness, and the sinat chinam. Yavan is Hellenism, or secularism. In Hebrew, the word for a secular Jew is hiloni, literally a “Hellene”. Just as this week’s parasha clearly elucidates, abandoning the Torah is a root cause of many ills that befall the Jews. Finally, there is Paras. It was because the Jews had assimilated in ancient Persia that the events of Purim came about. Paras represents that persistent problem of assimilation.

It is important to point out that assimilation is different from secularism. There are plenty of secular Jews that are also very proud Jews. They openly sport a magen David around their neck, worry every day about Israel, want their kids to marry only other Jews, and though they don’t want to be religious, still try to connect to their heritage, language, and traditions. The assimilated Jew is not that secular Jew, but the one that no longer cares about their Jewish identity. It is the Jew that entirely leaves the fold. Sometimes, it is the one that becomes a “self-hating” Jew, or converts to another religion. Such Jews have been particularly devastating to the nation, and often caused tremendous grief. Some of the worst Spanish inquisitors were Jewish converts to Catholicism. Karl Marx and the Soviet Communists that followed are more recent tragedies. Not only do they leave their own people behind, they bring untold suffering to their former compatriots.

While there may be literal Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Edomites out there, the bigger problem for the Jewish people is the spiritual Bavel, Paras, Yavan, and Edom that infects the hearts and minds of the nation: infighting, assimilation, secularism, materialism. It is these issues that we should be spending the most time meditating upon, and expending the most effort to solve. Only when we put these problems behind us can we expect to see the long-awaited end to exile.

The Mysterious Custom of Upsherin

In this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei-Kedoshim) we read that “when you will have planted all manner of trees for food, its fruit shall be forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23) This refers to the mitzvah of orlah, where a newly-planted tree must be left unharvested for its first three years. Seemingly based on this, a custom has developed to leave the hair of newborn boys uncut until age three. On or around the boy’s third birthday, a special celebration is held (called upsherin or halakeh), often with family and friends taking turns to cut a bit of the boy’s hair. Henceforth, the boy is encouraged to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and his formal Jewish education will begin. It is said that just as a tree needs the first three years to establish itself firmly in the ground before it can flourish and its fruit be used in divine service, so too does a child.

Lag B’Omer 1970 in Meron. Photo from Israel’s National Photo Collection

Indeed, the Torah makes a comparison between trees and humans in other places. Most famously, Deuteronomy 20:19 states that fruit trees should not be harmed during battle, “for is the tree of the field a man?” The tree is not an enemy combatant, so it should be left alone. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that the tree is not a man, an alternate way of reading it is that “man is a tree of the field”. Elsewhere, God compares the righteous man to a tree firmly rooted in the ground (Jeremiah 17:8), and in another place compares the entire Jewish nation to a tree (Isaiah 65:22).

Having said that, the custom of upsherin is essentially unknown in ancient Jewish sources. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, nor in any early halachic codes, including the authoritative Shulchan Arukh of the 16th century. Where did this very recent practice originate?

Lag b’Omer and the Arizal

The first Jews to take up this custom were those living in Israel and surrounding lands under Arab Muslim dominion in the Middle Ages. We see that Sephardic Jews in Spain and Morocco did not have such a custom, nor did the Yemenite Jews. In fact, Rav David Bar-Hayim points out that Yemenite Jews did not even have a custom to abstain from haircuts during Sefirat HaOmer at all. This is particularly relevant because the upsherin ceremony is often connected with the Sefirat HaOmer period, with many waiting until Lag b’Omer for their child’s first haircut, and taking the boy to the grave of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) in Meron for the special ceremony.

It appears that the earliest textual reference to upsherin is from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). Because of this, many believe that upsherin is a proper Kabbalistic custom that was instituted by, or at least sanctioned by, the great Arizal. In reality, the text in question says no such thing. The passage (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan HaPesach, Derush 12) states the following:

ענין מנהג שנהגו ישראל ללכת ביום ל”ג לעומר על קברי רשב”י ור”א בנו אשר קבורים בעיר מירון כנודע ואוכלים ושותי’ ושמחים שם אני ראיתי למוז”ל שהלך לשם פ”א ביום ל”ג לעומר הוא וכל אנשי ביתו וישב שם שלשה ימים ראשו’ של השבוע ההו’ וזה היה פעם הא’ שבא ממצרים אבל אין אני יודע אם אז היה בקי ויודע בחכמה הזו הנפלאה שהשיג אח”כ. והה”ר יונתן שאגי”ש העיד לי שבשנה הא’ קודם שהלכתי אני אצלו ללמוד עם מוז”ל שהוליך את בנו הקטן שם עם כל אנשי ביתו ושם גילחו את ראשו כמנהג הידוע ועשה שם יום משתה ושמחה

On the custom of Israel going on Lag b’Omer to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son (who are buried in the town of Meron as is known) and to eat and drink and rejoice there—I saw that my teacher, of blessed memory [the Arizal], that he went there once on Lag b’Omer with his whole family and remained there for three days, until the start of the sixth week [of the Omer]. And this was that one time, when he came from Egypt, but I do not know if he was then knowledgeable in this wisdom that he would later attain. And Rav Yonatan Sagis related to me that in the first year before I went to him to learn with my teacher of blessed memory, he took his small son with his whole family and there they cut his hair according to the known custom, and he held a feast and celebration there.

First, what we see in this passage is that the Arizal apparently only visited Meron on Lag b’Omer once, when he just made aliyah from Egypt, and before he had become the pre-eminent Kabbalist in Tzfat. (Some say this was actually before he made aliyah, and was simply on a trip to Israel.) Lag b’Omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, and the Arizal stayed there for the remainder of the fifth week. Rav Chaim Vital wonders whether the Arizal was already an expert mystic at the time or not. Once he became the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, the Arizal apparently never made it a point to pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b’Omer. Rabbi Vital notes just that one time in the past, and it almost seems like once the Arizal was a master mystic, he understood there was nothing particularly mystical about it. In any case, nothing is said here of cutting hair.

The next part of the passage is more problematic. To start, it is unclear whether Rabbi Vital means that he and the Arizal went to study with Rav Yonatan Sagis, or that he and Rav Sagis went to study with the Arizal. We know that Rabbis Sagis and Vital were later both students of the Ari. However, when the Ari first came to Tzfat he was essentially unknown, and was briefly a disciple of other Kabbalists, namely the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570). In fact, the Arizal only spent a couple of years in Tzfat before suddenly passing away at a very young age. Whatever the case, it is unclear from the passage whether it was the Arizal or Rav Sagis who was the one to take his son for a haircut on Lag b’Omer. Based on the context, it would appear that it was Rav Sagis who did so, not the Arizal, since we already learned that the Arizal did not make it a point to pilgrimage to Meron.

The nail on the coffin may come from an earlier passage in the same section of Sha’ar HaKavanot, where we read:

ענין הגילוח במ”ט ימים אלו לא היה מוז”ל מגלח ראשו אלא בערב פסח ובערב חג השבועות ולא היה מגלח לא ביום ר”ח אייר ולא ביום ל”ג לעומר בשום אופן

On the matter of shaving during these forty-nine days [of the Omer], my teacher of blessed memory did not shave his head [hair], except for the evening of Passover and the evening of Shavuot, and would not shave his hair at all [in between], not on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and not on Lag b’Omer.

According to the Arizal, one should not shave at all during the entire Omer period, including Lag b’Omer! If that’s the case, then the Ari certainly wouldn’t take his child to Meron for a haircutting on Lag b’Omer. It must be that the previous passage is referring to Rav Sagis. Nowhere else in the vast teachings of the Arizal is the custom of waiting until a boy’s third birthday (whether on Lag b’Omer or not) mentioned. Thus, the Arizal was not the custom’s originator, did not expound upon it, and most likely did not even observe it.

So where did it come from?

A Far-Eastern Custom

While no ancient Jewish mystical or halachic text before the 17th century appears to mention upsherin, a similar custom is discussed in much older non-Jewish sources. The Kalpa Sutras of the ancient Hindu Vedic schools speak of a ceremony called Chudakarana or Mundana, literally “haircutting”. It is supposed to be done before a child turns three, usually at a Hindu temple. It is explained that the hair a child is born with it connected to their past life, and all the negative things which that may entail. Removing this hair is symbolic of leaving the past life behind and starting anew. Interestingly, a small lock of hair is usually left behind, called a sikha, “flame” or “ray of light”, as a sign of devotion to the divine. This is surprisingly similar to the Chassidic custom of leaving behind the long peyos at the upsherin.

Hindu Sikha and Chassidic Peyos

From India, the custom seemingly moved across Asia to Arabia. One Muslim tradition called Aqiqah requires shaving the head of a newborn. Of this practice, Muhammad had apparently stated that “sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him.” An alternate practice had Muslims take their boys to the graves of various holy people for their first haircut. The Arabic for “haircut” is halaqah, which is precisely what the Sephardic Jews of Israel called upsherin. Thus, it appears that Jews in Muslim lands adopted the custom from their neighbours. However, many of them waited not until the child is three, but five, which is when the Mishnah (Avot 5:22) says a child must start learning Torah. (In this case, the practice has nothing to do with the mitzvah of orlah or any connection to a sapling.)

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush Horenstein made aliyah to Israel and first encountered this practice of “the Sephardim in Jerusalem… something unknown to the Jews in Europe.” He was a Chassid, and in that time period many more Chassidim were migrating to Israel—a trend instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788), the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, d. 1772), who in turn was the foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) the founder of Chassidism. These Chassidim in Israel adopted the practice from the local Sephardim, and spread it to the rest of the Chassidic world over the past century and a half.

While it has become more popular in recent decades, and has been adopted by other streams within Orthodoxy, and even many secular Israelis and Jews, upsherin is far from universally accepted. The Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) was particularly upset about this practice (see Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. I, pg. 233). When a child was brought before Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959) for an upsherin, he frustratingly replied: “I am not a barber.” Other than the fact that it is not an established or widespread Jewish custom, there is a serious issue of it being in the category of darkei Emori, referring to various non-Jewish (and potentially idolatrous) practices.

Not So Fast

While there is no mention of the upsherin that we know today in ancient Jewish mystical or halachic texts, there is mention of something very much related. In one of his responsa, the great Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, c. 1479-1573) speaks of a practice where some people take upon themselves a “vow to shave their son in the resting place of Samuel the Prophet” (see She’elot v’Teshuvot haRadbaz, siman 608).

Recall that Samuel was born after the heartfelt prayer of his mother Hannah who was barren for many years. She came to the Holy Tabernacle in Shiloh and vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to divine service from his very birth, and he would be a nazir his entire life (I Samuel 1:11). This means that he would never be allowed to shave or trim the hair of his head, just as the Torah instructs for anyone taking on a nazirite vow. There is something particularly holy about this, and we see earlier in Scripture how an angel comes to declare the birth of the judge Samson and instructs the parents to ensure he would be a nazirite for life, and that no blade ever come upon his head (Judges 13:5).

The Tanakh goes on to state that once Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the Tabernacle and left him in the care of the holy priests so that he could serve God his entire life. How old was he when he was weaned? While it doesn’t say so here, there is an earlier case where the Torah speaks of a child being weaned. This is in Genesis 21:8, where we read how Abraham through a great feast upon the weaning of his son Isaac. Rashi comments here (drawing from the Midrash and Talmud) that Isaac was two years old at the time. For this reason, many Chassidic groups actually perform the upsherin at age two, not three.

Back to the Radbaz, he was born in Spain but was exiled with his family in the Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Tzfat, where the Radbaz was tutored by Rabbi Yosef Saragossi, the holy “White Saint” credited with transforming Tzfat from a small town of 300 unlearned Jews to a holy Jewish metropolis and the capital of Kabbalistic learning. In adulthood, the Radbaz settled in Fes, Egypt and his fame as a tremendous scholar and posek spread quickly. In 1517, he moved to Cairo and was appointed Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. There, he founded a world-class yeshiva that attracted many scholars. Coming full circle, it was here in the yeshiva of the Radbaz that the Arizal began his scholarly career. In the last years of his life, the Radbaz wished to return to the Holy Land, and made his way back to Tzfat. It is possible that the Arizal left Egypt for Tzfat in the footsteps of his former rosh yeshiva. Ironically, the Radbaz (who lived to age 94, or even 110 according to some sources) would outlive the Arizal (who died at just 38 years of age).

While neither the Arizal nor his old teacher the Radbaz discuss cutting a three-year-old’s hair in particular (or doing it at the tomb of Rashbi), the Radbaz does speak of a personal vow that one may take to cut their child’s hair at the tomb of Samuel the Prophet. This practice comes from emulating Hannah, who took a vow with regards to her son Samuel. Samuel went on to be compared in Scripture to Moses and Aaron (and the Sages say Moses and Aaron combined!) Of course, Hannah never cut her child’s hair at all, but perhaps there is something spiritual in treating the child like a nazirite until the child is “weaned”.

In any case, the question that the Radbaz was addressing is what one must do if they took up such a haircutting vow but are unable to fulfil it because the authorities prohibit Jews from going to the grave sites of their ancestors. From here, some scholars conclude that the Ottoman authorities at the time really must have prohibited Jews from going to the grave of Samuel, near Jerusalem. Thus, it is possible that those Jerusalem Jews who had a custom of going to Samuel’s grave decided to journey to another famous grave instead. Perhaps it was in these years of the early 16th century that the custom to go to Rashbi in Meron (instead of Shmuel near Jerusalem) evolved.

So, there may be something to the upsherin custom after all. Of course, we still don’t know when the practice of going to Samuel’s grave emerged. That appears to have been a local custom (or possibly not a custom at all, but a personal vow) of Jerusalem’s medieval Jewish community. It, too, may have been influenced by neighbouring Muslims who went to the graves of their saints to cut their children’s hair.

Whatever the case, we see that foundations of upsherin are not so clear-cut. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither a universally accepted Jewish custom, nor a mandatory halachic requirement. It did not originate with the Arizal either, although we do see some basis for it in the writings of the Radbaz. For those who wish to uphold this custom, they have upon whom to rely, and should meditate foremost upon the holy figures of Hannah and Samuel, who appear to be the spiritual originators of this mysterious practice.

Pig Gelatin and Synthetic Pork: Kosher?

This week’s Torah reading (in the diaspora) is Shemini, famous for its list of kashrut laws. One of the things explicitly prohibited is, of course, pork meat (Leviticus 11:7). In recent times, a number of articles have circulated making a variety of different claims, such as that lab-grown pork might be kosher, or that pig gelatin is kosher, or even that all pork meat is actually kosher! Is there any validity to these claims? And why is pork forbidden to begin with?

Did the Torah Mean to Forbid Pork for Everyone?

Last year, an article made headlines arguing that the prohibition of consuming pork was only meant for Israelite priests, not the general public. This is based on the old idea that the entire Book of Leviticus was meant only for Levites. The argument is silly, for although Leviticus does have many laws intended only for priests, it also has a great many laws that obviously apply to all of Israel, including the well-known “love your fellow as yourself”. One simply has to look at how the laws are introduced to know whether they apply solely to priests or to the whole nation. When it comes to kashrut, the Torah states: “And Hashem spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘These are the creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth…’” (Leviticus 11:2) Clearly, God commanded all of Israel when it comes to dietary laws.

Coffin Texts from the Middle Kingdom Period

Besides, abstaining from pork was actually common in other places across the Middle East. The Greek scholar Strabo (c. 63 BCE – 24 CE) noted that the ancient Phoenicians also abstained from pork, as did those who dwelled in the Arabian Peninsula, and their Muslim descendants to this day. Some believe this is because raising pigs requires a lot of water compared to raising other livestock—a precious commodity in the dry Middle East. Even the ancient Egyptians appear to have avoided pork meat at times. Perhaps the oldest reference is in the Coffin Texts that date as far back as the First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BCE). Here, the evil god Set takes the form of a black pig, and is ultimately slain by the god Horus, to whom “the pig is an abomination”. Whatever the case, it is well-known that archaeologists working in Israel can easily differentiate an ancient Israelite site from a Philistine one by the conspicuous absence of pig bones in the former compared to the latter. There is no doubt that all ancient Israelites abstained from pork.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, where he sought to give logical explanation for the mitzvot, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204 CE) notes that one of the reasons pork is forbidden is because it is unhealthy (III, 48). Indeed, pork meat is the most likely to be contaminated with trichinosis and other parasites. Pigs are, by their very nature, quite unclean. They are omnivores and scavengers, and will eat absolutely anything, including dead animals (the consumption of which is prohibited by the Torah as well). Some also claim that pork meat has more toxins because pigs digest food extremely quickly and absorb just about everything into their bloodstream. Moreover, they have very few sweat glands, meaning they are less likely to clear those toxins from their system. While the idea of sweating as detoxification is controversial and often rejected by science, studies show that sweat does excrete a small amount of toxic waste, including heavy metals and compounds like BPA. Either way, the 13th century Sefer HaChinukh (on Mitzvah 73) already grappled with this issue and concluded that although secular society may argue pork meat is perfectly fine from a health perspective, “the true Healer that warns us against them is smarter than us, and smarter than the doctors.”

Meanwhile, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzchak, 1040-1105 CE) holds that the prohibition of pork is a chok, a divine law with no human rationale, just like the laws of the Red Cow or the prohibition of shaatnez, the wearing of wool and linen together in one garment (see his commentary on Leviticus 18:4). There are spiritual things at play that we simply cannot understand. More mystical texts do try to explain those spiritual mechanics: for one, it is said that a person absorbs the qualities of the animals they eat. This is why we do not eat predators or filthy animals, as we do not want to take on their aggressive or impure qualities. The kosher animals are essentially all herbivorous and docile, and it is those peaceful and calm traits that we want.

The Arizal (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Ekev) further explains that kosher animals are those whose souls we are able to elevate. The act of slaughtering the animal in a kosher manner, reciting a proper blessing before eating it, and ingesting it into a holy human vessel allows those special spiritual sparks trapped within the animal to ascend to Heaven. The emphasis here is on holy human vessel, for if a person is unrefined and not righteous, with no connection to Heaven, they are unable to elevate any sparks at all. This is why, the Arizal explains, the Talmud states that an ‘am ha’aretz (an unlearned person or one who does not keep the mitzvot) shouldn’t eat any meat whatsoever! The Arizal notes that even a righteous, Torah-observant Jew should only eat meat on Shabbat and holidays, when a Jew is said to receive an additional soul. Without this extra spiritual power, it is nearly impossible to “rectify” the meat.

Is Pig Gelatin Kosher?

While it is clear that consuming pork is absolutely forbidden, what about pork by-products like gelatin? Gelatin is made by boiling and processing the bones, skins, and sinews of pigs (or cows, or fish) to produce the jelly substance used widely in the food industry. It is typically reduced to a powder that can be mixed with water. The powder itself gives no indication that it came from a pig, and certainly no longer has any taste of pork flesh. Is it still not kosher?

In Jewish law, a food that has been processed so thoroughly that it becomes tasteless (or inedibly bitter) is not considered to be “food” anymore. If one cannot enjoy from the flavour of the substance at all, then it is permitted, even if derived from a non-kosher animal (see Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah 5:8). Such a substance is treated like an artificial chemical as opposed to an actual food. Similarly, something that is so putrid that even a dog would not eat it is no longer considered food.

In the case of pig gelatin, it is tasteless, and it is unlikely that a dog would consume raw gelatin powder. Even when mixed with water, many forms of raw gelatin have a horrible taste. This puts gelatin in the category of a chemical, rather than a food. Thus, using it as an additive would be permitted. Many authorities have ruled this way, including Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940) and Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873-1960). Still, some modern authorities forbid pig gelatin, which is understandable considering the great aversion to all things pig in Jewish culture. Today, when there are alternatives like fish gelatin, or even carrageenan (derived from seaweed), there is no great necessity to consume products with pig gelatin.

Some medications are encased in gelatin capsules, and are fine for use.

Insulin that is derived from pigs falls under the same category. It would unarguably be permitted since it has a life-saving necessity for diabetics. Having said that, today most insulin is actually derived from genetically-modified bacteria, and recently scientists have even developed genetically-modified plants that grow human insulin!

Lab-Grown Pork in the Garden of Eden

In recent years, artificially lab-grown meat has become a reality. This type of meat is cultured in a lab from the stem cells of an animal. The meat is produced synthetically, without any need for raising or slaughtering animals. The potential benefits are tremendous, since lab-grown meat allows for only the very best tissues to be grown, and tweaked to have a perfect combination of nutrients. It prevents the need for large ranches and slaughterhouses, for the great amount of farmland used to raise food for the livestock, and all of the pollution that this entails. (Altogether, animal agriculture accounts for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions, and countless tons of sewage and toxic waste.) Scientists have successfully created lab-grown hamburgers, and an Israeli company (SuperMeat) is close to bringing cultured chicken to the market. Their chicken is healthier, uses 99% less farmland, 90% less water, and releases 96% less pollution. It appears that lab-grown meat is poised to take over in the coming decades. Is it kosher?

The first cultured hamburger by Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University (August 2013)

While the halachic issues are complex and remain to be settled by halachic authorities, some have already stated there shouldn’t be any problem with lab-grown meat. In fact, since it does not come from an animal, and requires no slaughter, it wouldn’t even be considered “meat” to begin with, and would likely be parve. This has been suggested by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the rosh yeshiva of Ateret Yerushalayim, as well as Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union. Thus, kosher cheeseburgers may yet be on the way.

More recently, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (of Israel’s Tzohar Rabbinical Organization) stated that even lab-grown pork should be kosher. Once again, this is not an actual pig, but simply flesh cultured from a few pig stem cells. Such pork meat would never contain any blood, which the Torah states is what holds the animal’s nefesh (Leviticus 17:11), nor would it come from a living animal at all. From a Kabbalistic perspective, then, there would be no spiritual sparks to elevate. It seems lab-grown pork should be kosher.

Amazingly, Jewish texts long ago stated that a day will come when pork will be kosher. For example, the Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov of Seville, c. 1260-1320 CE) writes in his commentary (on Kiddushin 49b) that the pig is called chazir in Hebrew because in the future God will hachziro, “return” it to Israel! While we have discussed in the past that certain Torah mitzvot will be abrogated in the Messianic Era, it seems unthinkable that pork should become kosher.

More problematic still, if the Messianic Era is a return to the Garden of Eden—as prophesied—than how can there be consumption of any meat at all? There was no death of any kind in the Garden of Eden, and consumption of meat was forbidden. It was only ten generations later that God permitted Noah to eat animal flesh. It should seem that the Messianic Era would be an entirely vegetarian one, like in Eden. At the same time, though, Eden is said to have contained all the pleasures of the world—so how can it miss the pleasure associated with eating meat? (Scientific studies confirm that eating meat boosts mood and happiness, and vegetarianism has been linked with higher rates of depression.) The World to Come should certainly be entirely pleasurable!

Perhaps lab-grown meat is the answer, for it beautifully solves all of the above issues. Lab-grown meat requires no animals to die, and allows everyone to consume every kind of taste—with the added bonus of being healthier for both body and planet. We can safely return to Eden without worrying about killing animals, without worrying about destroying the environment, and without worrying about giving up the foods we delight in.

Secrets of the Star of David

Star of David on the 1000-year old Leningrad Codex (1008 CE).

This week’s double parasha is Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which speaks of the Sabbath, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the formal establishment of the priesthood. One of the things described is the creation of the Menorah. This seven-branched candelabrum is perhaps the oldest symbol of Judaism. We discussed in the past how King David had the Menorah emblazoned on his shield (with the words of Psalm 67), and this was the famous magen David, “shield of David”. Yet, strangely, the term magen David today is associated not with the Menorah symbol but with the so-called “star of David”. Stranger still, this hexagram was historically known not as the “star of David” but rather as the “seal of Solomon”! Where did this symbol come from, what is its significance, and how did it become associated with the Jewish people?

Alchemy and Mysticism

Star of David in the Capernaum synagogue

The hexagram is a relatively simple shape and is found in art and architecture across Europe and Asia. While few ancient synagogues bear the star, many churches do. The most famous synagogue to have the star is the one discovered in 1866 in Capernaum (Kfar Nachum), a village on the Galilee initially founded by the Hashmoneans following their Chanukah victories. This synagogue is actually more popular among Christians, since the gospels of Luke and Mark describe how Jesus preached there. Archaeologists have also found the symbol on the seal of one Yehoshuah ben Asayahu in the remains of the ancient city of Sidon. The seal is dated all the way back to the seventh century BCE.

The great scholar Gershom Scholem (see his Kabbalah, pgs. 362-368) pointed out that the hexagram was used by alchemists to represent the fusion of fire (the up-triangle) and water (the down-triangle). This may have a connection to a Jewish teaching on the meaning of the term oseh shalom bimromav, which describes God as making peace in the Heavenly realms. One explanation is that here in the lower world, water and fire are unable to co-exist, while up in the Heavens God is able to unify these opposing forces. This divine power was demonstrated with the seventh plague in Egypt, which was “hail with fire” intertwined (Exodus 9:24). The fact that it was the seventh plague in particular may be noteworthy, since the Star of David has seven parts: the six points of the star and the inner hexagon.

The three axes (x, y, z) of our three-dimensional reality, and the six faces (or six directions) that they produce.

That seven-based arrangement has a great deal of significance in Judaism. It represents Creation, with the six days of the week and the special Sabbath. This itself is a reflection of the fact that all physical things in this universe exist in three dimensions, ie. within a “cube” of six faces, while the seventh represents the inner, spiritual dimension. The same arrangement is found in the mystical Tree of Life, where the lower sefirot are arranged as six “male” qualities and the seventh, “female” quality (Malkhut). Because of this, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) arranged his Passover seder plate in a hexagonal style, with each of the components corresponding to one of the lower sefirot, while the three matzahs correspond to the higher sefirot (Chokhmah, Binah, Da’at), and the plate itself (or the cup of wine) paralleling the seventh and final Malkhut. 

The Pesach Seder Plate. There is a debate whether the Arizal intended the items to be placed in a star shape, or with two triangles one atop the other. The latter is likely as it more closely resembles the Tree of Life diagram.

This arrangement of seven (or more specifically, of three-three-one) is found within the Menorah, too, that most ancient of Jewish symbols. For this reason, some argue that the opinion of the Shield of David having the Menorah and the opinion of it having the hexagram are really one and the same. They both reflect a divine geometry of 3-3-1. The sefirot are arranged in the same 3-3-1 manner, and corresponding to them are the seven shepherds of Israel: Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet parallel the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Netzach, Hod, Yesod parallel the next three great leaders of Moses, Aaron, and Joseph; and Malkhut (“Kingdom”) naturally stands for David. David is at the centre of the star, so it is fitting that the star is named after him.

The first row of three (called by the acronym CHaGa”T), is followed by the second row of three (called NeHe”Y), and then the singular, “feminine” Malkhut (or Nukva), which receives from all the others.

Yet, it isn’t clear when and why the symbol became known as the “Star of David”. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman points out that it may come from the fact that in Ancient Hebrew script the letter dalet has a triangular shape (much like the Greek delta), thus making “David” (דוד) appear as two triangles. Whatever the case, the symbol is already described as magen David, the “Shield of David”, in 14th century Kabbalistic texts, as Scholem points out. However, in those days it more commonly went by another name: the Seal of Solomon.

Ancient Hebrew Script. The letter dalet is a triangle.

The Seal of Solomon

In medieval texts, the hexagram is most commonly referred to as the “seal of Solomon”. The earliest texts that mention it are actually Islamic texts, not Jewish ones. They speak of a special ring that King Solomon had which allowed him to interact with jinn spirits (the root of “genie”) both good and bad. Although the texts are Arabic, they are clearly based on more ancient Jewish teachings. In fact, the earliest reference to a special ring possessed by Solomon which allowed him to defend from evil spirits is in the Talmud.

In what is likely the longest story related in the Talmud (Gittin 68a-b), we are told of how Solomon sought to find the special shamir “worm” which would allow him to cut the stones for the Temple without using iron tools. He found the shamir’s whereabouts from the prince of demons, Ashmedai, whom he was able to subdue thanks to his special ring. In an incredible twist, Ashmedai gets a hold of Solomon’s ring and banishes the king from his own kingdom, turning him into a pauper, while Ashmedai himself took the throne impersonating Solomon! Thankfully, this “new” Solomon’s strange behaviour was soon noticed, and the real Solomon eventually made his way back to the palace to reclaim his throne, and his ring.

The Talmud does not state that the ring had a hexagram on it, but rather that it had God’s Name engraved upon it. It is Arabic texts that first connect the ring to the hexagram. Some attempt to distinguish between the “Star of David” and the “Seal of Solomon” by suggesting that the hexagram of the former is made up of overlapping triangles while the hexagram of the latter is intertwined:

This argument seems to be without any foundation; the two symbols are one and the same, with the Star of David often depicted intertwined and the Seal of Solomon depicted overlapping (sometimes within a circle).

“Seal of Solomon” on a 19th-century Moroccan coin.

A Symbol for Israel

Hexagram on ‘Seder Tefillot’, the first siddur printed in Central Europe. (From Scholem’s ‘Kabbalah’, pg. 365)

Gershom Scholem argues that Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries were looking for a unifying symbol to represent themselves, something like the cross of the Christians or the crescent moon of the Muslims. In the city of Prague, the hexagram had been associated with Jews since the 14th century. It was back in 1354 that King Charles IV of Bohemia granted the Jewish community its own flag, with the hexagram upon a red banner. It soon started to appear on the synagogues of Prague. In 1512, the first modern siddur was printed in Prague and, not surprisingly, had the hexagram on its cover. After the Jews’ vital assistance to the city’s defences in 1648, the community was granted another royal flag, now with a yellow star on a red banner. This flag has been used by the community ever since.

The timing couldn’t be better (or worse). Just a few years later, the Shabbatean heresy would begin, and Prague was soon one of the movement’s strongholds. It appears that the Shabbateans adopted the symbol and used it in secret to identify each other. Scholem points out that use of the star was one of the reasons Rabbi Yakov Emden accused Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz of being a closet Shabbatean (a controversy we have discussed previously).

Star from 5th century CE Byzantine Church uncovered at Khirbet Sufa in the Negev

Interestingly, among the Shabbateans the symbol was known as Magen ben David, the Shield of the Son of David, ie. the Shield of the Messiah. This makes sense considering they believed that Shabbatai Tzvi was Mashiach. This isn’t too different from that star-bearing Capernaum synagogue where Jesus supposedly preached. Not too far away from Capernaum in Israel, a 5th century Byzantine church was uncovered, also with the hexagram symbol. Another ancient church in Tiberias displays the star. Perhaps early Christians believed the hexagram was a symbol of their purported Ben David, too! Indeed, to this day one of the Pope’s mitres (the ceremonial hat) has the hexagram prominently displayed upon it.

Pope Benedict XVI with a star of David mitre

Scholem suggests that the symbol is referred to as Magen ben David in older Kabbalistic texts that predate the Shabbateans (which is where they would have gotten it). Since Kabbalistic teachings date back to at least the Second Temple period, it is possible that even in the time of Jesus there was a tradition of the hexagram being a messianic symbol. In truth, calling it the Shield of David is problematic, since the accepted tradition is that David’s shield had the Menorah upon it. It was Solomon that apparently used the hexagram to shield from demons. And Solomon is literally a ben David, the son of King David, the very first potential Mashiach ben David in history.

Mashiach’s role is to reunite all of the Jews in Israel, and to restore the original Twelve Tribes. The twelve vertices of the hexagram are said to refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all reunited as one. Meanwhile, the land of Israel itself is often described in sevens: the seven Canaanite nations, and the seven shepherds to whom it was promised; the “seven species” through which the land is praised, and the seventy names that the land is known by (see Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 46:8). It is therefore most appropriate that the Zionist movement which sought to restore the Jews to their ancestral land chose the hexagram as its symbol.

While the secular Theodor Herzl drew up a flag that had seven golden stars on a white banner, it was the Orthodox-born and raised David Wolffsohn that came up with the modern flag of Israel, basing the design on the tallit. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl’s call to create a flag for the Jews by stating: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The tallit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations.”

By this point in history, the Star of David was used by Jewish communities and synagogues across Europe and beyond, so it was natural for it to be emblazoned upon the blue and white tallit-flag. Around the same time, the Orthodox Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) wrote The Star of Redemption, where he used the hexagram to explain the relationship between God and man. Previously, Rosenzweig had resolved to convert to Christianity, then decided to spend one more day as a Jew on Yom Kippur. That day, in a small Orthodox shul in Berlin, Rosenzweig experienced a mystical revelation and an awakening. He became a pious baal teshuva, and a passionate champion for traditional Judaism. His popular “star of redemption” added further meaning to Israel’s new flag.

Rosenzweig’s ‘Star of Redemption’

There is one last irony in all of this: the same hexagram was used by the Nazis to degrade the Jews in their attempt to eradicate the nation (likely based on the use of a yellow badge forced upon Jews in some medieval-era towns centuries earlier). To proudly fly the Star of David today is to demonstrate that we are still here, stronger than ever, and we are not going anywhere. We took those stars off of our beaten and bloodied robes and put them on our tanks and jets. And now we await Mashiach ben David, Magen ben David, to come and take command of them. It is, after all, his symbol.