Jewish Symbols

Jewish literature is rife with allegory and metaphor.

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Mitzvot as Symbols

In the Bible the Sabbath is a 'sign,' that is, a symbol, of God's covenant with Israel (Exodus 31:16-17). The fringes (tzitzit) at the corners of the garment are reminders of God's commandments (Numbers 15:38-40). The tefillin are described in the Shema as a 'sign' as, it is implied, is the mezuzah (Deuteronomy 6:8-9).

The sukkah is a symbol of the 'booths' in which the children of Israel lived during their journey through the wilderness (Leviticus 23:42-3). The shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah has received many symbolic interpretations, for example that it is a call to alertness to God's will, or symbolic of the crowning of God as King since trumpets are sounded at a coronation.

The four species of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40) have been given various symbolic interpretations, for example, the upright palm branch represents the human spine; the heart-shaped citron, the etrog, the heart; the willows of the brook, the mouth; and the myrtle the eye, all of which are called upon to play their part in the worship of God.

From early times Judaism itself was symbolized by the menorah, itself the symbol of spiritual light, and by the tablets of stone. The symbol of the Magen David is, however, very late and was not used as a symbol for Judaism until the nineteenth century.

Symbolism in Rabbinic Literature

In the Rabbinic literature symbols are often taken from the natural world. Water is the symbol of the Torah because it is essential to life and because just as water only flows downwards, never upwards, the Torah cannot find its place among haughty and arrogant scholars.

The Torah is also compared to fire because it burns away the evil traits in the human character and because it provides spiritual warmth and illumination. Scholars are compared to builders, craftsmen, carpenters, weavers, and other such useful and creative workers.

Following Jacob's use of animal symbolism when blessing his sons (Exodus 49), Rabbinic literature is full of such comparisons. The second-century teacher, Rabbi Judah ben Tema, says (Ethics of the Fathers, 5.20): 'Be strong as the leopard and swift as the eagle, fleet as the gazelle and brave as the lion to do the will of thy Father in Heaven.'

In the later literature scholars are often referred to as 'the great lion' or 'the great eagle'.

Some of the medieval writers interpreted the sacrifices symbolically as a representation of what ought to have happened to the sinner were it not for the divine mercy which allowed the animal as a substitute.

The relationship between this world and the World to Come is described symbolically as the relationship between the eve of the Sabbath and the Sabbath itself. Only those who make provisions on the eve of the Sabbath are able to enjoy the Sabbath bliss.

Similarly, this world of error and darkness is compared to the night while the World to Come is compared to day.

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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.