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Magen David

MAGEN DAVID

MAGEN DAVID . The Magen David (Shield of David, Scutum Davidis), a hexagram or six-pointed star, has been at home in many cultures and civilizations, albeit without any readily identifiable meaning until the present century. In the Middle Ages, the Magen David appeared frequently in the decorations of Hebrew manuscripts from Europe and Islamic lands and even in the decorations of some synagogues, but it seems to have had then no distinct Jewish symbolic connotation. The Magen David, also called the Seal of Solomon (Sigillum Salomonis), was employed in the Middle Ages by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as a symbol with magic or amuletic power.

In the seventeenth century, the followers of the messianic pretender Shabbetai Tsevi adopted the Magen David. Amulets of the movement bore the hexagram with the Hebrew letters MBD, standing for Mashia ben David, "Messiah, son of David." Thus the hexagram came to be identified with the shield of the son of David, the hoped-for messiah.

In the late eighteenth century, the Magen David came into popular use in western Europe, perhaps as a meaningful new sign that could express or symbolize Judaism. As late as the nineteenth century, however, the Magen David was not yet accepted as a symbol by Orthodox Jews. Yitsaq Elanan Spektor, an influential Orthodox rabbi in Kovno (modern-day Kaunas), Lithuania, warned the local Reform congregations to remove the Magen David that graced their houses of worship.

The use of the Magen David was reinforced by two major events. First, in 1897, at Basel, Switzerland, the Magen David was officially adopted as the symbol of the newly formed Zionist Movement at the first Zionist Congress. Since 1948, the Magen David has appeared on the official flag of the state of Israel. Second, in the 1930s and 1940s the Nazis forced all Jews in lands under their control to wear a badge of shame: a yellow Magen David bearing the word Jude ("Jew"). Today the Magen David serves to identify most Jewish houses of worship, traditionalist as well as liberal, and it remains a positive symbol of Judaism.

See Also

Amulets and Talismans; Geometry.

Bibliography

The best single source on the Magen David is Gershom Scholem's article "Magen David" in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971), which includes an extensive bibliography.

New Sources

Oegema, Gerbern S. The History of the Shield of David: The Birth of a Symbol. Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1996.

Joseph Gutmann (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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