Jewish Symbols

Jewish literature is rife with allegory and metaphor.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Symbolism is the use of concrete things to denote abstract ideas. Judaism does not tolerate the making of plastic images of God. The idea behind the prohibition of image-making appears to be that while an image of God is bound to be present in the mind, otherwise it would be impossible to think about God, to give this any kind of permanence in a concrete and lasting image is to attempt to perceive as the reality that which is beyond all human perception. 

Symbolism for God

Symbolism for the divine is either purely verbal, calling attention to natural phenomena, as when the prophet Ezekiel uses the rainbow in his vision of the Chariot (Ezekiel 1:28): 'Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance.'

biblical symbolismIt is noteworthy that in the whole of this account the prophet speaks of 'what looked like,' as if to distance the symbol from the reality. In the Bible generally, terms such as height, light, and spirit (the Hebrew ruah, can also mean 'wind') are used in symbolic representation of the divine and the divine influence.

The biblical prophets use the marriage relationship as a symbol of the relationship between God and Israel (Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea 3:21-2). In Rabbinic literature the whole book of Song of Songs is read as symbolizing the relationship between God and His people, as the 'lover' of the song woos his 'beloved.'

Visions & Teachings

The prophetic visions are full of symbols. Isaiah compares sin to crimson which can, in repentance, turn to the color of white fleece (Isaiah 1:18) and sees God as a king on a high and lofty throne (Isaiah 6:1). Jeremiah (chapter 1) uses the symbols of the almond tree and the steaming pot to convey the message that God's judgment is soon to come.

Amos speaks of the sinful women as 'cows of Bashan (Amos 4:1)' and compares Israel to a fallen maiden (Amos 5:2). In the best-known Psalm (23) God is a Shepherd.

The book of Proverbs advises the binding of words of wisdom about the throat like a necklace (Proverbs 3:3) and compares the embracing of wisdom to the hugging of a beloved woman (Proverbs 4:8). In Proverbs, too, a phrase well turned is like golden apples on silver settings and a wise man's reproof like a ring of gold (Proverbs 25:11-12).

These are only a few instances of the ubiquitous use of symbols in the Bible. Biblical, and for that matter Rabbinic, language is very concrete and has to rely on symbolism for the expression of abstract ideas.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.