The Star of David or Shield of David (Magen David in Hebrew, מָגֵן דָּוִד with nikkud or מגן דוד without, academically transcribed Māḡēn Dāwīḏ by Biblical Hebrew linguists, pronounced [maˈɡen daˈvid] in Modern Hebrew and Mogein Dovid [ˈmɔɡeɪn ˈdɔvid] or Mogen Dovid [ˈmɔɡen ˈdɔvid] in Ashkenazi Hebrew and Yiddish) is a generally recognized symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism. It is named after King David of ancient Israel; and its earliest known communal usage began in the Middle Ages, alongside the more ancient symbol of the menorah. Geometrically it is the hexagram.
With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 the Star of David on the Flag of Israel has also become a symbol of Israel. The symbol is also associated with the Zionist movement.
The Magen David (shield of David, or as it is more commonly known, the Star of David) is the symbol most commonly associated with Judaism today, but it is actually a relatively new Jewish symbol. It is supposed to represent the shape of King David's shield (or perhaps the emblem on it), but there is really no support for that claim in any early rabbinic literature. In fact, the symbol is so rare in early Jewish literature and artwork that art dealers suspect forgery if they find the symbol in early works.
As a euphemism for God
In the Jewish prayer book, the term “Shield of David” appears at the end of the “Samkhaynu/Gladden us” blessing, which is recited after the reading of the Haftara portion on Saturday and holidays. The term refers directly to God, who shielded the Biblical David in battle and during his flight from Saul. The term may be loosely based on Psalm 18, which is attributed to David, and in which God is compared to a shield (v. 31 and v. 36).
A similar term, “Shield of Abraham” appears in the first blessing of the “Amidah” prayer, which was written in early Rabbinic times (around year 1, a millennium before the first documentation of the term in reference to a six-point star). That term is probably based on Genesis 15:1, where God promises to shield Abraham.
Without knowing when the Haftara blessings originated, it is difficult to know whether the term “Shield of David” pre-dated the symbol. If so, the term “Shield of David” originally referred to God, and somehow became attributed to a six-point star.
As a Jewish symbol
The exact origins of the symbol's relation to Jewish identity are unknown, though several theories have been put forward. According to one hypothesis, the Star of David comprises two of the three letters in the name David. In its Hebrew spelling (דוד), it contains only three characters, two of which are “D” (or “Dalet”, in Hebrew). In the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, the standard alphabet for writing Hebrew before the Babylonian captivity, this letter was written in a form much like a triangle, similar to the Greek letter Delta (Δ), with which it shares a sound and the same (4th) position in their respective alphabets, as it does with Latin. The symbol may have been a simple family crest formed by flipping and juxtaposing the two most prominent letters in the name.
Scholars such as Franz Rosenzweig have attributed deep theological significance to the symbol. For example, some note that the top triangle strives upward, toward G-d, while the lower triangle strives downward, toward the real world. Some note that the intertwining makes the triangles inseparable, like the Jewish people. Some say that the three sides represent the three types of Jews: Kohanim, Levites and Israel. While these theories are theologically interesting, they have little basis in historical fact.
The earliest archaeological magen David national symbol is on a Babylonian bas relief carving, in the 6th century BCE. The Babylonian king historically recorded his conquest of the King and population of Judah. Both kings are shown standing facing each other. The King of Babylon stands on the right. A winged sun disk is above the King of Babylon. The encircled six-legged star pattern magen David is above the King of Judah.
A popular folk tale etymology has it that the Star of David is literally modeled after the shield of the young Israelite warrior David, who would later become King David. In order to save metal, the shield was not made of metal but of leather spanned across the simplest metal frame that would hold the round shield: two interlocking triangles. No reliable historical evidence for this etymology exists.
One belief is that the Star of David is the flattened view of a three dimensional tetratetrahedron, made up of two interlocking triangles.
The symbol of intertwined equilateral triangles is a common one in the Middle East and North Africa, and is thought to bring good luck. It appears occasionally in early Jewish artwork, but never as an exclusively Jewish symbol. The nearest thing to an “official” Jewish symbol at the time was the menorah.
In the middle ages, Jews often were required to wear badges to identify themselves as Jews, much as they were in Nazi Germany, but these Jewish badges were not always the familiar Magen David. For example, a fifteenth century painting by Nuno Goncalves features a rabbi wearing a six-pointed badge that looks more or less like an asterisk.
In the 17th century, it became a popular practice to put Magen Davids on the outside of synagogues, to identify them as Jewish houses of worship in much the same way that a cross identified a Christian house of worship; however, I have never seen any explanation of why this symbol was chosen, rather than some other symbol.
The Magen David gained popularity as a symbol of Judaism when it was adopted as the emblem of the Zionist movement in 1897, but the symbol continued to be controversial for many years afterward. When the modern state of Israel was founded, there was much debate over whether this symbol should be used on the flag.
Today, the Magen David is a universally recognized symbol of Jewry. It appears on the flag of the state of Israel, and the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross is known as the Magen David Adom.
Use in Kabbalah
According to Judaic sources, the Star or Shield of David signifies the number seven: that is, the six points plus the center. The earliest known Jewish text to mention the symbol is Eshkol Ha-Kofer by the Karaite Judah Hadassi, in the mid-12th century CE:
“Seven names of angels precede the mezuzah: Michael, Gabriel, etc. … Tetragrammaton protect you! And likewise the sign, called the 'Shield of David', is placed beside the name of each angel.”
The number seven has religious significance in Judaism, e.g., the six days of Creation plus the seventh day of rest, the six working days in the week plus Shabbat, the Seven Spirits of God, as well as the Menorah in the ancient Temple, whose seven oil lamps rest on three stems branching from each side of a central pole. Perhaps, the Star of David came to be used as a standard symbol in synagogues because its organization into 3+3+1 corresponds to the Temple's Menorah, which was the more traditional symbol for Judaism in ancient times. There are also six words in the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism, and it is not uncommon to find the Shema written around a Star of David.
In Kabbalah, the Star of David symbolizes the six directions of space plus the center, under the influence of the description of space found in the Sefer Yetsira: Up, Down, East, West, South, North, and Center. Congruently, under the influence of the Zohar, it represents the Six Sefirot of the Male (Zeir Anpin) united with the Seventh Sefirot of the Female (Nekuva).
Some Kabbalistic amulets use the symbol to arrange the Ten Sefirot. However, reference to the symbol is nowhere in the kabbalistic texts themselves, such as the Zohar and the like. Therefore, its use as a sefirotic diagram in amulets is more likely a reinterpretation of a preexisting symbol.
According to G.S. Oegema – “Isaac Luria provided the Shield of David with a further mystical meaning. In his book Etz Chayim he teaches that the elements of the plate for the Seder evening have to be placed in the order of the hexagram: above the three sefirot “Crown”, “Wisdom”, and “Insight”, below the other seven”.
Similarly, M. Costa wrote that M. Gudemann and other researchers in the 1920s claimed that Isaac Luria was influential in turning the Star of David into a national Jewish emblem by teaching that the elements of the plate for the Seder evening have to be placed in the order of the hexagram, but Gershom Scholem proved that Isaac Luria talked about parallel triangles one beneath the other and not about the hexagram.