One of the things I love about our culture, aside from the food, is the great art, symbolism and motifs. Whether they are adorning jewelry, handcrafts, Synagogue walls or fine art, the Chai, Star of David, Hamsa, Tree of Life and the Dove are ever present in Judaic art. Ever wonder about the significance of these symbols? Here is a quick guide to their meanings.
Chai means “life” in Hebrew. This uplifting word affirms one of the most important values in the Jewish religion: preserving and celebrating life. Hence the common toast on Jewish occasions (and one of my favorite songs from Fiddler on the Roof) "L’Chaim - to life!”
Spelled with the Hebrew letters chet and yud, which in Jewish Numerology* have the numerical value of 18 (Chet=8, yud=10). Because of this it’s common for Jews to give gifts or donate to charity in amounts that are multiples of 18.
There is also a common expression ' Am Israel Chai' which means 'the people of Israel live' - a phrase used both in joyous times but also as a kind of prayer or statement emphasizing the survival of the Jewish people despite many historical attempts of annihilation.
Just some of the celebrities spotted wearing Chai jewelry are Lindsay Lohan, Bob Marley and Elvis Presley. Not to mention that Megan Markle was photographed sporting a "Chai Maintenance" t-shirt.
Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is most notably mentioned in the Book of Genesis as distinct from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, they were subsequently cast out of the garden and separated from the Tree of Life.
The Torah and its commandments are compared with a Tree of Life. In Proverbs, King Solomon wrote “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy.”
The Dove, usually white in color, has become a universal symbol of love, peace, loyalty, purity, vulnerability, and innocence. According to the story in Genesis, Noah sent the Dove out twice when he was trying to ascertain if the rain had ended and they could depart the ark. The initial effort was unsuccessful. But on the second attempt it returned carrying a freshly plucked olive leaf, a sign of life after the Flood and of God's bringing Noah, his family and the animals to land. This became a symbol of peace and healing for the future of humanity.
Star of David
The Star of David, also called the Magen David (literally, the Shield of King David ), is one of the most recognizable Jewish symbols in the world. It appears in jewelry and in art, in Synagogues, on many Jewish tombstones and is the central symbol on the Israeli flag.
There is a legend that King David carried a six pointed star with him, in the form of his shield and the shields of his soldiers. These were said to comprise two triangles, one pointing up and one pointing down, joined in the middle, forming a six pointed star. This construction is also said to have made King David’s shield more sturdy than his opponents.
There is also the Kabbalistic explanation of it representing two arrows, one pointing up to heaven and one down to earth. The Star of David also has twelve individual sides, corresponding to the twelve Tribes of Israel. It can be seen as a correlation to Shabbat, with a central core (corresponding to Shabbat) surrounded by six points, corresponding to the six other days of the week.
You see Hamsa's everywhere. In jewelry, charms, wall art, clothing, amulets & mezuzot. Sometimes it has an eye in the center, a fish, or a Star of David, sometimes the hand is facing upwards, sometimes downwards. For centuries the Hamsa has been a symbol of happiness, health, good luck and fortune as well as a protective power from evil.
It is also referred to as the Hand of Miriam, in reference to Miriam, the sister of Moses. The Muslim community interprets it as the hand of Fatima, the youngest daughter and, according to Shia Muslims, the only child of the Islamic prophet Muhammad . For Hindus and Buddhists, it symbolizes chakras, energy flow in the body, the five senses and the mudras that effect them. Interestingly, it has similar associations with the number 5 in Jewish Numerology* and for the 5 fingers. It was used as a protective symbol for an ancient Middle Eastern goddess. The Hamsa hand has always been associated with a female entity offering protection from evil and misfortune.
Gematria is a Jewish form of numerology in which the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are substituted with corresponding numbers. The first nine letters are given number values that increase consecutively from 1 to 9 (for example, aleph = 1, bet = 2, etc.). The 2nd nine letters increase from 10 to 90. And the final third group of letters from 100 to 900. One can then calculate the numerical value of a word by adding together the values of each letter in it.
Essential to Kabbalah , the Jewish mystical tradition. The very basis of the kabbalistic cosmological system rests on the belief that God created the universe through the power of the Hebrew letters along with their numerical values.