If you walk around the streets of Israel long enough and eventually you’ll recognize some recurring themes. In the shops and markets of Jerusalem you may see the Star of David. On the graffitied walls of Tel Aviv you may spot a hamsa. And while praying at the Western Wall you may be in a sea of red strings.
The symbols of Israel are many, and most come from a long lineage of tradition, culture and religion. You'll find these symbols engraved in jewelry, adorning the Torah scrolls, on t-shirts and mugs, and all over Israeli homes.
What are these special symbols we see everywhere around us in this holy country, and where do they come from?
Star of David- this hexagram made of two opposite triangles is used as the modern-day symbol of Jewish identity, and is found all over Israel, most commonly seen on the Israeli flag! This symbol was first referenced in classic Jewish liturgy, also referred to at times as the “Shield of David”, and has become a staple symbol of Jewish pride. In Jewish mysticism, the two triangles converging represent the Jewish ideal of combing heaven and earth. In 1897, it was used as the symbol of the first Zionist Congress, and became so closely identified with Judaism that it became the identifying factor of a Jew during the Holocaust. Since then, the Jewish nation, a long with Israel, has reclaimed the Star of David as a source of strength, pride and faith!
Hamsa- have you ever noticed decorative right-hands all over the country? The hamsa is a staple symbol within Jewish mysticism, and Israel has adopted it as one of its own. It is actually used across the Middle East today, both in Jewish and Islamic traditions, as an amulet to protect against the evil eye. However, it is thought that it was most predominantly used in ancient Jewish traditions, and has been found to represent the letter “shin”, a name of God, in many mystical manuscripts. Today, the hamsa is a decorative “good-luck charm” and is found in many homes, used in artwork and engraved in jewelry.
Tree of Life- most of us recognize the Tree of Life symbol from the bible itself, in the story of creation. Across many traditions and religions, the Tree of Life is used to symbolize knowledge and wisdom. In Jewish traditions, it represents the ultimate spiritual wisdom we are meant to bring down into this world, and maybe sources compare the tree to the Torah itself, and all of the commandments that Jews fulfill. The tree is depicted on Jewelry, artwork, and found in many synagogues and institutions in Israel.
Chai- spelled as חי in Hebrew, you will see this word all over Israel. Meaning “life, alive or living” in Hebrew, this word represents Judaism’s emphasis on life and the importance of living a full and moral life. Israelis use this word a lot, like when we say “L’chaim!” when celebrating a wedding, Bar Mitzvah, or birth of a new baby. The number given to Chai is 18, and that is why 18, and different multiples of the number 18 are seen as lucky numbers in Judaism. In Israel, chai has taken on a life of its own, becoming a good luck charm in homes and on Jewelry, and part of our favorite motto “Am Yisrael Chai!”- The people of Israel live! In Israel, this phrase is truly actualized!
Red Strings- you may notice that red strings are a big thing here in Israel, and that’s because the Jewish nation at times can be a superstitious one. The red string is another form of fending off the evil eye, or “ayin hara” in Hebrew, and is connected to receiving blessing from the Israelite Matriarch, Rachel, who is buried in Bethlehem. You’ll be seeing red mostly on your way down to the Western Wall, as men and women line the stairs, asking for charity (tzedakah) and handing out red strings to visitors. While the sources of this practice are still unknown, the trend has stuck around, and continues to be a big part of Israeli culture.
Shema Yisroel- most Jews know this prayer well from a young age, an uttering that encompasses so much of the Jewish nation, and the State of Israel. It is the verse that encapsulates the Jewish tradition of monotheism and the depths of our faith, and it has become one of the biggest symbols of the Israeli state. The Shema can be found everywhere all over Israel- on art, t-shirts, jewelry, in synagogues and in every prayer book!
One of our favorite ways Israelis love to show off our heritage is through jewelry! Throughout all of Israel, among both the religious and the secular, the young and the old, Israelis honor their people's culture with beautiful and meaningful jewelry!