Prev | Table of Contents | Next

Mezuzah | Tefillin | Tzitzit and Tallit | Yarmulke | Menorah | Magen David | Chai

Signs and Symbols

Level:  Basic


 On the doorposts of traditional Jewish homes (and many not-so-traditional homes!), you will find a small case like the one pictured at right.  This case is known as a mezuzah ("doorpost"), because it is placed upon the doorposts of the house.  The mezuzah is not, as some suppose, a good-luck charm, nor does it have any connection with the lamb's blood placed on the doorposts in Egypt.  Rather, it is a constant reminder of God's presence and God's commandments.

The commandment to place mezuzot on the doorposts of our houses is derived from Deuteronomy 6,9, at the end of the paragraph of the passage commonly known as the Shema ("Hear", from the first word of the passage).  In that passage, God commands us to keep His words constantly in our minds and in our hearts, by (among other things) writing them on the doorposts of our house.  The words of the Shema are written on a tiny scroll of parchment, along with the words of a companion passage, Deuteronomy 11,13.  On the back of the scroll, a name of God "Shaddai" is customarily written.  The scroll is then rolled up placed in the case.

The scroll must be handwritten and must be placed in the case to fulfill the commandment.  It is commonplace for gift shops to sell cases without scrolls, or with mechanically printed scrolls, because a proper scroll generally costs more than even an elaborately decorated case.  Mechanically printed scrolls do not fulfill the mitzvah of the mezuzah, nor does an empty case.

The case and scroll are then nailed or affixed to the right side doorpost on an angle, with a small ceremony called Chanukkat Ha-Bayit (dedication of the house - yes, this is the same word as Chanukkah, the holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean revolt against Greece).  A brief blessing is recited.

Why do some affix mezuzah at an angle as shown above and some straight up and down?  The question was not decided in the Talmud whether it should be placed horizontally, vertically, or somewhere in between; so customs differ (and it appears that either way is just fine).

Every time you pass through a door with a mezuzah on it, you are reminded of the commandments contained within the mezuzah and of God who commanded you to observe them.

It is proper to remove a mezuzah when you move, if the next residents are not to be observant Jews; and in fact, it is recommended.  If you leave it in place, the subsequent owner may treat it with disrespect or even distroy it.


 The Shema also commands us to bind the words to our hands and between our eyes.  We do this by laying tefillin, that is, by binding to our arms and foreheads a leather pouch containing scrolls of Torah passages.

The word "tefillin" is usually translated "phylacteries", although we do not much care for that term, partly because it is not very enlightening if you do not already know what tefillin are, and partly because it means amulet, and suggests that tefillin are some kind of protective charm, which they clearly are not.  On the contrary, the word "tefillin" is etymologically related to the word "tefillah" (prayer) and the root Pe-Lamed-Lamed (judgment).

Like the mezuzah, tefillin are meant to remind us of God's commandments.  At weekday morning services, one case is tied to the arm, with the scrolls at the biceps and leather straps extending down the arm to the hand, then another case is tied to the head, with the case on the forehead and the straps hanging down over the shoulders.  Appropriate blessings are recited during this process.  The tefillin are customarily removed at the conclusion of the morning services, though they should be worn all day long.

Tzitzit and Tallit

 The Torah also commands us to wear tzitzit (fringes) at the corners of our garments as a reminder of the commandments (Numbers 15,37-41).  This commandment only applies to four-cornered garments, which were common in biblical times but are not common anymore.  Observant Jewish men commonly wear a special four-cornered garment, similar to a poncho, called a tallit katan, so that they will have the opportunity to fulfill this important commandment.  The tallit katan is typically worn under the shirt, with the tzitzit hanging out so they can be seen.  A larger four-cornered shawl called a tallit (pictured above) is worn by men during morning services, along with the tefillin, though they should be worn in all prayer services at the very least.  There are several complex customs for tying the knots of the tzitzit, each filled with religious and numerological significance.


 One of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple.  The kohanim lit the menorah in the Sanctuary every evening and cleaned it out every morning, replacing the wicks and putting fresh olive oil into the cups.  The illustration at right is based on instructions for construction of the menorah found in Exodus 25,31-40.

It has been said that the menorah is a symbol of the nation of Israel and our mission to be "a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42,6).  The sages emphasize that light is not a violent force; Israel is to accomplish its mission by setting an example, not by using force.  This idea is highlighted in the vision in Zechariah 4,1-6.  Zechariah sees a menorah, and God explains:  "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit".

The lamp-stand in today's synagogues, called the "ner tamid" (literally, the continual lamp; usually translated as the eternal flame), symbolizes the menorah.

The nine-branched menorah used on Chanukkah is commonly patterned after this menorah, because Chanukkah commemorates the miracle that a day's worth of oil for this menorah lasted eight days.


The most commonly known and recognized piece of Jewish garb is actually the one with the least religious significance.  The word yarmulke (usually, but not really correctly, pronounced yammica) is Yiddish.  According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, it comes from a Tartar word meaning skullcap.  According to some Orthodox and Chasidic rabbis, it comes from the Aramaic words "yerai malka" (fear of or respect for The King).  The Hebrew word for this head covering is kippah (pronounced key-pah).

It is an ancient practice for Jews to cover their heads during prayer.  This probably derives from the fact that in Eastern cultures, it is a sign of respect to cover the head (the custom in Western cultures is the opposite:  it is a sign of respect to remove one's hat).  Thus, by covering the head during prayer, one showed respect for God.  In addition, in ancient Rome, servants were required to cover their heads while free men did not; thus, Jews covered their heads to show that they were servants of God.  In medieval times, Jews covered their heads as a reminder that God is always above them.  Whatever the reason given, covering the head has always been regarded more as a custom rather than a commandment.

There is no special significance to the yarmulke as a specific type of head covering.  Its light weight, compactness, and discreteness make it a convenient choice of head gear.  We are unaware of any connection between the yarmulke and the similar skullcap worn by the Pope, but it might be due to the influence of Jews on the Church, which is not unknown.

Star of David

 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.

Scholars such as Franz Rosenzweig have attributed deep theological significance to the symbol.  For example, some note that the top triangle strives upward, toward God, 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 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, we 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 Red Magen David.


 This symbol, commonly seen on necklaces and other jewelry and ornaments, is simply the Hebrew word Chai (living), with the two Hebrew letters Chet and Yod attached to each other.  Some say it refers to the Living God.  Judaism as a religion is very focused on life, and the word chai has great significance.  The typical Jewish toast is l'chayim (to life).  Gifts to charity are routinely given in multiples of 18 (the numeric value of the word Chai).

Prev | Table of Contents | Next

Got a question or comment?