Jewish Symbols

Jewish literature is rife with allegory and metaphor.

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Living as they did in an agricultural society, the Rabbis used the products of the soil as symbols for the life of Torah. The tree is used as a metaphor for the Torah on the basis of the verse: 'It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it (Proverbs 3:18).'

The value of a tree consists chiefly in the fruit it produces and so, too, the student of the Torah should be fruitful in the performance of good deeds. And just as a small tree sets fire to a larger tree, young scholars can set on fire the minds of more mature scholars by providing them with keen questioning of their opinions.

The vine, too, is the symbol of the Torah. One who learns from the young is like one who eats unripe grapes but one who learns from the old is like one who eats ripe grapes.

Israel is compared to the olive, based on the verse: 'The Lord called thy name, a green olive tree, fair, with goodly fruit (Jeremiah 11:16).' The olive, while still on the tree, is first marked out and then taken down and beaten; after which it is transferred to the vat, put into the mill, and ground. Only after a long process can the oil be produced.

And so, too, Israel is buffeted from place to place by the heathen nations but when Israel repents God answers. And just as oil does not mix with other liquids, Israel does not mingle with other nations so as to lose its identity.

There is no need to refer to further examples. The Midrashic literature, in particular, is full of this kind of symbolism.

Symbolism in the Kabbalah

The Kabbalah is especially rich in symbolism of the Sefirot. The symbol of light is frequent in the Zohar, the Sefirot being described in terms of illuminations flashing forth and reflecting one another, and various colors are allotted to particular Sefirot.

The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, represent, respectively, the Sefirot of Loving-kindness, Power, and Harmony. In the opening passage of the Zohar (in current editions) the Sefirah of Sovereignty is symbolized by the pink rose, in which there is a blend of the Sefirot of Power, represented by the color red, and Lovingkindness, represented by the color white.

The right arm represents Loving-kindness and the left arm Power, and other parts of the body are made to represent other aspects of the Sefirot.

The union of the Sefirot is often depicted symbolically as the union of male and female. It has to be appreciated, however, that in all this the Kabbalists themselves think of the various representations as something more than mere symbols.

For the Kabbalists, for example, the human arms are the form assumed on earth by the spiritual entities on high. Light, for the Kabbalists, is the physical form of spiritual light on high, and so forth. In the later Kabbalah the spiritual forces that inhere in matter are called 'holy sparks.'

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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.