From the prevalent to the obscure, Jewish symbols are a part of the historic and religious expression of the Jewish religion. From the day you step foot in a Synagogue, attend Hebrew Sunday school or attend a Jewish day school, those symbols will be there, expressed in varying manifestations. Even those of us with limited exposure to Judaism can probably list the major ones. As Jews, we aren’t allowed to express our God or biblical characters in any physical/visual/artistic way. It’s instead these Jewish symbols that provide us a way to remember, to connect and to see who we are on a regular basis.
As Jews, we too have the duty to teach our children about who we are. Sometimes, it’s through these symbols that they can easily connect and remember. The question is, how do we go about teaching our children about these symbols and what they mean to us? The first step is in identifying the ones you want to teach. There are symbols that we use all year round and symbols that we connect to various important holidays. There are many symbols, certainly more than can be covered in one article.
Here are my top 5 Jewish symbols that you can start by focusing on.
1. Star of David
This symbol has origins as a decorative and architectural motif and a meaningful Jewish symbol in antiquity and can be found in ancient synagogues, Kabbalah rituals and Jewish prayer books. It became prevalent among the Eastern European Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century. It gained further importance when it was chosen as the central symbol on the flag of the First Zionist Congress and came to represent the worldwide Jewish communities.
This seven-lamp candelabra is perhaps the oldest Jewish symbol. It was used in the desert in the ancient holy Tabernacle and in the holy temple in Jerusalem, lit by the high priests. The bible contains explicit instructions given to Moses for how this first lamp should look. As a symbol and as an artifact, it has accompanied the Jewish people even in exile throughout the centuries. Today, it is the emblem of the modern state of Israel.
This is a Hebrew word that means alive and appears prominently in Jewish culture. The word is made up of two letters in the Hebrew alphabet (Chet and Yud). Jewish religion, biblical liturgy and culture is vastly preoccupied with the concept of life and how we must live it. From a numerological perspective, these letters add up to the number 18. And thus, the number 18 has always been a spiritual and positive number in Judaism.
The pomegranate fruit (Rimon in Hebrew) is a biblical symbol for fertility and one of the 7 species of Israel. This fruit is eaten on the Jewish New Year to wish for a year as plentiful in good and wonderful things as the seeds of the pomegranate. Each fruit is said to have 613 seeds in it which is the exact number of the Mitzvot (good deeds) commanded upon us to do in the Jewish religion.
5. Stone Tablets of the 10 commandments
These two stones were inscribed by Moses with the 10 commandments when he ascended Mount Sinai. Though most imagine them as grey stone, according to traditional teachings, they were made of blue Sapphire or Lapis stone. They were stored in the Ark of the Covenant and are the basis for all Jewish teachings and laws. It is around these 10 commandments that we as Jews learn to be human beings. It’s a crash course in how to be a mensch.
Arts and crafts is always a fun way to spend time together as a family. It pulls your kids away from their laptops and TVs and gets their creative juices flowing. A fun arts and crafts project is to choose a Jewish symbol and make it. Of course, the mediums are endless. You can paint it, paper mache it, sculpt it with clay, cut it out of paper – and the list goes on. Creating these symbols will help your kids remember how they look and will also give you the opportunity to teach a little lesson and tell them a bit about what this symbol means. Display it in your home afterwards for a lesson that keeps on teaching. Here’s a great collection of Jewish craft ideas to get you started.
Jewish symbols can be found in Synagogues, museums and historic sites (among many other locations). Plan a trip with your children to go see some of these symbols and learn about them. The trip could be a small day trip to a Jewish museum or a local synagogue. It could also be an opportunity for educational travel to another country like Spain or Italy or Israel where you will see these symbols and be reminded of the long and ancient history of the Jewish people. For more on educational travel with your kids, check out this post.
The great part about Jewish symbols is that they’re pretty basic – there aren’t many intricate lines and shapes. That makes them ideal for a fun baking project! Choose a symbol and bake it. You can use cookie dough or challah dough and create the Jewish Star that rises in the oven.
The power of information on the internet is incredible. You can learn about anything and your kids probably prefer googling as the method to get their information fix. Gone are the days where we search an encyclopedia for anything. So, if you can’t beat em – join em. You’re more likely to get your kids excited about learning about the meaning behind a Jewish symbol if you suggest researching it online. You can check out pictures and articles about it and have your kids lead the way – they’re probably better at online research than we are anyhow.
Jewish symbols are often adorned by both men and women (usually as a necklace pendant). The most commonly seen is a Jewish Star or Chai letters. They can be small and subtle or larger and more apparent. Gold, silver, take your pick. These pieces are a way to both remind us on a daily basis of who we are, and also proudly display our identity to others. This proud display is particularly powerful when you think about oppressed Jews in our history and even today that could not proudly and freely adorn these symbols. Choose a special occasion like a birthday or a bar/bat mitzvah to give a gift to your child of a Jewish symbol that they can wear and keep for a lifetime.
Part of shaping your kids’ Jewish identity is teaching them about Jewish symbols. It connects them to certain holidays but most importantly connects them to our history and the things that represent our religion in the most basic way. From the beginning of time humans have used symbols as a means of representing what’s important to them and this is no different. Teach them about our symbols – how they originated, what they represent and why they’re important – and do it in fun and creative ways.
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