The Story of the Star of David

The six pointed star represents peace and harmony in Buddhism, while alchemists believed it symbolized nature—how did the Star of David acquire its significance in Judaism?

Something of man’s secret enters into his symbols.”

—Gershom Scholem


The Star of David originated long before it was adopted by the Jewish faith and the Zionist movement; it appeared thousands of years ago in the cultures of the East, cultures that use it to this day. In the past, what we know today as the Star of David was a popular symbol in pagan traditions, as well as a decorative device used in first-century churches and even in Muslim culture.

But how is the Star of David tied to the fate of the Jewish people?

In the Hebrew context, the Star of David is actually referred to as the “Shield of David” (magen David), a phrase first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, not as a symbol, but as an epithet for God [Pesachim 117b]. Another link to the shield concept is a Jewish legend according to which the emblem decorated the shields of King David’s army; what’s more, even Rabbi Akiva chose the Star of David as the symbol of Bar-Kochba’s revolt against the Roman emperor Hadrian (Bar-Kochba’s name means “son of the star”).

The Star of David only became a distinctly Jewish symbol in the mid-14th century, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted the Jews of Prague the right to carry a flag, and they chose the six-pointed star. From Prague, the use of the Star of David as an official Jewish symbol spread, and so began the movement to find Jewish sources that traced the symbol to the House of David.

The Star of David displayed in Prague’s Old New Synagogue, photo: Øyvind Holmstad

On the other hand, the renowned Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem claimed that the Star of David does not originate in any way in Judaism. Though he noted the symbol was identified on a Jewish seal from the seventh century BCE found in Sidon, as well as in 3rd–4th century CE synagogue decorations, the star was found alongside other symbols that were known to not be of Jewish origin.

So where can we find representations of the hexagram (a six-pointed star) in other cultures?

The hexagram has been used in India for thousands of years, and can be found on ancient temples and in daily use; in Buddhism it is used as a meditation aid to achieve a sense of peace and harmony, and in Hinduism it is a symbol of the goddess Lakshmi—the goddess of fortune and material abundance.


Hexagrams abound in alchemy, the theory and study of materials from which the modern science of chemistry evolved. Magical symbols were commonplace in this ancient theory, and alchemists recruited the six-pointed star to their graphic language of signs and symbols: an upright triangle symbolized water, an inverted triangle symbolized fire, and together they described the harmony between the opposing elements. In alchemical literature, the hexagram also represents the “four elements”—the theory that all matter in the world is made up of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire—effectively, everything that exists. One could say that the star is the ultimate alchemical symbol.



Alchemy borrowed the idea from the classical Greek tradition that masculinity symbolizes wisdom, while femininity symbolizes nature; man is philosophy and woman is the physical world. The illustration below, which appears in an 18th century alchemical text, shows a man holding a lantern as he follows a woman holding a hexagram –  wisdom being the key that reveals the secrets of existence.

“The philosopher examining nature” – an illustration appearing in an alchemical text from 1749, the Sidney Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

In Islam, the hexagram is referred to as the “Seal of Solomon,” and it adorns many mosques around the world. Until 1945, the emblem was also found on the Moroccan flag. It was changed to the five-pointed star (pentagram), when the six-pointed star became the emblem of the Zionist movement. The use of this symbol has diminished throughout the Islamic world for the same reason. The hexagram can also be found in medieval and early modern churches—although not as a Christian symbol, but as a decorative motif.

The hexagram in Islam, photo: Vikramjit Singh Rooprai

Despite its use in other cultures, the Star of David is emblazoned on the Israeli flag, and thus it is considered the undisputed symbol of the State of Israel, regardless of its origin. A symbol’s power ,after all,  is in the meaning we give to it.


[Sources for this article are courtesy of Chaya Meier Herr, director of the Edelstein Collection for the History of Science, and Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel]

From Amsterdam to Persia: A World of Wine-Stained Haggadot

Four glasses of wine is a lot, are we really that surprised?

The wine-stained Amsterdam Haggadah

We urge you to please be as understanding as possible. There’s simply no need to rush to judgement here. Those gathered around the Passover Seder table are required by tradition to down four glasses of wine during the holiday meal. As fate would have it, over the course of the Seder, the wine contained in these glasses has been known to spill over onto tablecloths, dishes of food, nearby Seder guests, and even the cherished pages of our Passover reading material: the Haggadah.

Meet the manuscript known in Hebrew as Yom Geulat Avadim (“The Day of Redemption of Slaves”), completed in Persia in the year 1782 by the scribe David Shabtai. This is in fact a Passover Haggadah, containing a distinguishing feature: a series of mysterious stains, which only appear in its second part.

On the right – an unstained page, on the left –  wine stains  on the 1782 Haggadah


“Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do our father Jacob”

Why is only one section of the manuscript adorned with these stains? The answer likely has something to do with when the different sections were written. Pages 1-13 feature a different script as well as a different type of paper, which was mercifully not exposed to the staining liquid. This section was apparently added to the manuscript at a later stage. It contains a Hebrew piyyut, a liturgical hymn, beginning with the words “Yom geulat avadim”, and also includes a translation into Judeo-Persian.

Generally, when we encounter stained manuscripts, we tend to assume that they resulted from the ravages of time leaving their mark. But in this case, we have reason to believe that the stains are the result of wine spilled during a Passover Seder, as the stained section of the manuscript contains the Passover Haggadah. The work’s colophon states that these pages were copied by David Shabtai, while also adding an ominous warning – “The reader shall rejoice and the thief shall be erased” (“הקורא ישמח והגונב ימח”).

The second stained manuscript we will present here, inscribed in Amsterdam in 1712, also has its stains on the “right” pages. In the case of this Haggadah, the wine stains show up on the very pages which instruct readers to drink from their glasses. True, we haven’t gone to the trouble of sending the Haggadah to a lab to confirm the molecular structure of the liquid we suspect to be wine, but we feel the evidence is quite convincing. The stains naturally re-appear in the section recalling the ten plagues of Egypt, whose reading is accompanied by the traditional dipping of the finger into one’s wine glass. That’s all the confirmation we need.

The Amsterdam Haggadah from 1712


The stains appear on a page mentioning the four glasses of wine, “טעמי ארבע כוסות”

It seems that four glasses were more than enough for one reader, as a huge wine stain also covers an entire page containing part of the classic Passover song Dayenu.

Ten copies of this edition of the Haggadah came to the National Library of Israel with the deposit of the Valmadonna Trust Collection in 2017. Of these ten Haggadot, the Library decided to digitize the wine-stained copy, as a souvenir of an especially festive Passover Seder held long ago.

A huge wine stain covers part of the song Dayenu

The practice of spilling wine during the Seder has endured over time, of course, with our next piece of evidence dating to 1946 – a Haggadah  published in the Land of Israel, towards the end of the British Mandate period.

Haggadah Eretz-Yisraelit LePesach, Sinai Publishing, Tel Aviv, 1946

Here we see that the Jewish pioneers of the pre-state era were just as careless and ill-disciplined as their ancestors in the Diaspora, if not worse! In fact, wine stains can be found on nearly every page of this Haggadah, with no connection whatsoever to written instructions regarding wine-consumption. It seems these people enjoyed their holidays.

While this is the most recent example we were able to find in the National Library catalog, we have reason to believe that this custom is still going strong today. Wishing you a very happy Passover from the National Library of Israel!


The Wicked Son Runs the Seder: Yiddish Parodies of the Haggadah

They provided annual humorous explorations of religion, politics, current events and much more...

"The Four Sons (of the Haggadah of Unemployment)", appearing in the April 10, 1914 edition of the satirical newspaper Der Kibetzer⁩. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Why is this article different from all other articles? It’s not because you’re reading it in a reclining position or because there’s something bitter about it. This article is different because it considers an odd fact of Jewish literature: that there are more parodies of the Passover Haggadah than parodies of other traditional texts.

Parody, the imitation of a literary style or structure for comic effect, is a relatively common product of Jewish and, especially Yiddish, humorists. Everything from the Tanakh to the Talmud through the greatest hits of Jewish liturgy have been parodied by wags the world over.

The question may be asked, who would do such a thing, and why? Who would dare to take sacred texts and imitate them just for a laugh? Apparently, it turns out, quite a few people: there are thousands of liturgical parodies. And while there’s no question that Jews hold their holy texts dear, using these traditional materials hasn’t seemed to rile anyone too terribly.

Israel Davidson, a scholar better known for his four-volume encyclopedia of medieval Jewish poetry, Otsar ha-shirah veha-piyut, noted in a lesser known book of his on Jewish parody that there were, in fact, some rabbis who didn’t appreciate liturgical parody and who complained about it.

Rabbis complain about a lot of things and, like many of their grievances, this one also fell on deaf ears, as Jews have produced liturgical parodies of all kinds and in especially large numbers as the number of Yiddish periodicals grew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tempering the rabbinical gripes, perhaps, was that it was the nature of these parodies not to attack the source material, but to instead use the structure of the liturgy to launch satiric attacks on all kinds of other issues.

The Passover humor magazine Pesekhdiger rosl (Passover Soup Broth). Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

As the Yiddish press grew, daily newspapers developed humor sections and weekly magazines dedicated to humor and satire began to appear.

Each holiday season, Yiddish humorists would publish jokes, stories, and cartoons related to a variety of aspects of each one. Included among these were numerous parodies of some portion of the respective holiday’s liturgy.  Additionally, publishers of Yiddish satire material developed a tradition of printing discrete humor magazines dedicated to Jewish holidays, typically with cover cartoons that related to some aspect of the holiday.

The Passover humor magazine Fir kashes (Four Questions), 1911. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Special Passover humor magazines, for example, often had titles that related to the festival. Some examples: Moror (Bitter Herbs) – Warsaw, 1921; Di elefte make (The Eleventh Plague) – Riga, 1922;  Di malke (The Queen) – Warsaw, 1928;  Di freylekhe hagode (The Happy Haggadah) – Lublin, 1924; Der roshe (The Wicked One) – Warsaw, 1927; Der afikoymen (The Afikoman) – Warsaw, 1929;  Zalts vaser (Salt Water) – Warsaw, 1930;  Der peysakhdiger kantshik (The Passover Whip) – Bialystok, 1931; Bialistoker khareyses (Bialystok kharoset) – Bialystok, 1932.

The Passover humor magazine Zalts-vaser (Salt Water), 1930. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Satirical khad gadye, 1914
The Passover humor magazine Khad gadye, 1914. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Passover garnered more of these humor publications than any other holiday and almost all of them contained parodies of at least portions of the Haggadah. Why would Passover have more parodies on its liturgy than, let’s say, Purim, which is renowned for fun, inebriation, and mockery?

The reasons are fairly simple.

The central text of the Passover Seder, the Haggadah, is familiar to so many because it is read together with the family as part of a festive meal in the home. Moreover, everyone in the family old enough to read participates. Haggadot were also sometimes illustrated, making them both a rarity and more visually enjoyable than the average Jewish text. Most important, at least from the perspective of the humorist, the Haggadah contains distinct structures that are easy to imitate: the four questions, the four sons, and the ten plagues, for example. For parodists and cartoonists, these were the most common aspects to imitate.

Parodies of the Haggadah use the text’s literary structures to create humorous commentary on a wide variety of issues.

Most Haggadah parodies are fragmentary and do not attempt to use the entire text – although some do. Given the limited space available, in newspaper humor pages or in small magazines the focus was on aspects like the Kadesh, urkhats, karpas mnemonic, the four questions, and the four sons, among others.

Each year, Yiddish humorists would refill these structures with whatever issues were then important to readers. The subject matter was broad and one can find parodies dealing with virtually every political and social topic: from socialism to Zionism, Reform to Orthodox Judaism, to taxes, to high rent, to dating, to interest rates, to summer vacation, to beauty pageants, to moral issues, to the politics of the day, and more.

One of the earlier modern parodies can be found in an April 1887 edition of the Arbeter fraynd, a socialist newspaper published in London.

Its four questions read as one would expect a poor laborer to say them:

Ma nishtane, why are we different from Shmuel the manufacturer, from Meyer the banker, from Zorach the money lender, from Reb Todros the rabbi? They don’t do anything and they have food and drink during the day and also at night at least a hundred times over, we toil with all our strength the whole day and at night we have nothing to eat at all.

This parody was subsequently expanded into the Passover Haggadah with a Socialist Approach and republished multiple times in booklet form.

Passover Haggadah with a Socialist Approach, 1919. From the National Library of Israel collection

Der groyser kundes, a popular humor magazine based in New York, published this parody of the four sons in 1916:

The Wise Son: A shtetl horse thief who escaped from prison, stowed-away on a ship to America where he became a horse poisoner and a gangster until he managed to become a saloon keeper and a politician. Today he’s the president of his synagogue, a fighter for Judaism, in short, a mentsch …

The Wicked Son: A man who fills his wallet with relief receipts for victims of the war that he picked up off the ground and shows them to volunteers asking for money to prove what a big philanthropist he is. ‘See how much I already gave?’

The Simple Son: A kid who sits with a girl until 2 a.m. waiting for permission to kiss her.

The Son Who Doesn’t Even Know How to Ask a Question: A traveling salesman who only comes home on Passover to find his wife about to give birth and doesn’t think to ask how a woman can be pregnant for 12 months.

The popularity of Haggadah parody was such that nearly every Jewish community put something out that either supported their views or mocked their enemies. One example is the Peyskeh-blat, which appeared in Lublin in 1925.

An extended parody of the four questions and the sons created in order to promote Orthodox social mores, the scene is inverted and the sons become daughters.

Entitled, “The Four Questions Asked Here by a Young Lady from the Beys Yankev School,” the text begins, “Mameshe, ikh vil dir fregn fir kashes.” (Mama, I want to ask you four questions).

Why, the daughter wonders, does her aunt show her cleavage, put on makeup, wear stockings, and have long fingernails? The piece deals with a number of moral issues and has each daughter, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and she who doesn’t know how to ask a question, each give their reasons for going, or not going to the mikvah.

Unlike most interwar parodies, the purpose of this one is to promote traditional Jewish values, but it does so in a humorous way, which is something not typical.

It ends with a short parody of Dayenu:

If women would wear wigs and men would wear a beard and peyes, dayenu.
If women and men would dance together but not at Jewish weddings, dayenu.
If Jewish daughters went naked but cut their nails, dayenu.
If our aristocrats would put up a mezuza and not lay tfilin,* dayenu.
* We gave out special pamphlets explaining the requirements regarding tfilin and mezuzes.

Peysekh-blat, Lublin, 1925. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Haggadah parodies provide an unusual amalgam of traditional text and contemporary criticism, in addition to a plethora of referential material, much of which has gone under the historical radar. The parodies address an array of issues from a number of differing perspectives and allow for a unique and often humorous exploration of cultural, social, and political issues.

The satirists who created these parodies understood the power of combining the traditional Passover text with contemporary events to create satiric commentary. It was the enduring quality of the Haggadah that challenged them to do so.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

“Different Nights”: Alice Shalvi Recounts Passover During & After the War

One Seder during WWII - and one right after - left an indelible mark on the renowned educator and activist

Alice And Family 1940s 832

Alice (first seated from left) and family, 1940s. From the Alice Shalvi Archive, National Library of Israel

The Passover Seder is unique in the Jewish calendar, the only one of the festivals which is celebrated in the home, in the presence of family, friends and even strangers.  Indeed, at the very beginning of the Haggadah reading we invite strangers, the hungry, the needy, to join us.

From early childhood on, I recall my mother always setting an extra place at the table, in anticipation of my father’s bringing a stranger from out of town from the synagogue.  During the years when Soviet Jews were not permitted to leave their country, we set an empty chair to symbolize our hope for their passage to freedom.  I do not recall a single Seder night in my parents’ home or my own, when there was not even one stranger present (until coronavirus imposed isolation, leaving me with the four members of my family who share my home).

Alice and her siblings, circa 1935. From the Alice Shalvi Archive,  the National Library of Israel

Of the scores of Seder nights that I recall well, two in particular stand out. One was in a time of war, the other in the first year of post-war peace, soon after we first learned of the extermination of European Jewry under Nazi occupation.

In 1940, when I was fourteen years old, my parents, brother and I fled the fury of the German Blitz on London for the safety of a small village in Buckinghamshire, some fifty miles north-east of the capital.  My father bought a house on High Street which, though small, was blessed with a large plot of land on which we could not only keep chickens, but also grow vegetables and fruit to supplement the comparatively meagre rations that were available at the local grocery.

Apart from ourselves, there were a few Jewish families among our fellow evacuees, almost all of whom came from the comparatively poor East End of London.  Some of them were also refugees who escaped from Europe before the war.  None were wealthy.

My father took upon himself the task of organizing a minyan for the High Holidays and Shabbatot and, in 1944, also the hosting of the Seder night for some forty or so Jewish soldiers among those serving in an army camp on the outskirts of the village.

Two days before Pesach, he announced to my mother that there were still thirty soldiers for whom he had not succeeded in finding hospitality. We ourselves would have to host them.

Alice and her mother, Perl, circa 1943. From the Alice Shalvi Archive, the National Library of Israel

The slaughterer was brought from London, seasonal vegetables were picked, dozens of eggs collected.  Benches were brought from the village hall, our dining table, extended to the full, was supplemented by a smaller table from the kitchen.  My role was to whip the egg-whites for the eight sponge cakes that my mother baked.  Electric beaters not yet having been invented, this task was performed with the aid of a simple fork and required strong arms, with which I was fortunately blessed.

The guests streamed in.  I, the youngest present, recited the Four Questions.  When the time came for me to help my mother bring the food from the kitchen, I was forced to crawl under the table to reach the door.  There was not space enough for me to go around it.  The guests could not stop expressing their thanks. Like Cinderella, they had to leave before midnight, leaving us glowing with gratification at their response to our welcome.

Two years later, in 1946, when we were back in London, my father, who had been active in the Polish-Jewish Federation that was established some years earlier, was invited to attend the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Seder Night fell on a Monday.  At noon on Sunday, he phoned from Paris to announce that he was bringing three guests from the US who could not reach their homes in time for the festival.

It was still a time of food shortage and strict rationing and we no longer raised chickens nor grew vegetables. My brother, then studying in Cambridge, had invited a number of Jewish fellow students from the Land of Israel to join us.

Alice with her brother William in the field behind their wartime home, circa 1941

My mother met the challenge unfazed.  Chickens could still be bought in the morning, additional vegetables bought for soup, the giblets could be served in a sweet-sour sauce as an entrée, there was a local bakery nearby and fortunately we had a plentiful stock of wine.

When my father returned on Sunday evening, he brought with him a huge carp, a fish unknown in Britain, but beloved by Polish Jews like my parents. It more than adequately supplemented the feast.

However, the greatest surprise and delight stemmed from the identity of the three guests:  Opera singer Emma Schaver, who had developed an extensive repertoire of Yiddish songs which she performed in the Displaced Persons camps in Europe; the poet-philosopher Israel Efros; and Leib Halpern, a poet-dramatist who wrote  under the pen-name of H. Levik, and whose most famous work was the poetic drama “The Dybbuk”.

The wide-ranging, sparkling, fascinating conversation was mainly in Yiddish, the commentary original, illuminating; and the food, delicious, evoked justified compliments.  And finally, a cherry on the icing, Emma Schaver introduced us to a melody for the “Who is One” song that comes at the close of the Haggadah.  Though it proved to be well known in the Land of Israel, we had never before heard it.  It is the one we’ve sung ever since and each year, when we sing it, I recall Emma’s strong contralto ringing out at our first post-World War Pesach Seder.

We had survived.

The Alice Shalvi Archive is safeguarded among the collections of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.