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Celebrating God’s Greatest Gift. Honoring Life with Symbols of Jewish Heritage.

Celebrating God’s Greatest Gift. Honoring Life with Symbols of Jewish Heritage.

Life. Perhaps more than any other religion, life sits at the heart of Judaism, valued above all. In fact, Chazal (the Jewish Sages) state that safeguarding life comes before any other mitzvah, basing this (amongst others) on Leviticus 18:5: “Ye shall therefore keep My statutes, and Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” Naturally, it follows that the Jewish faith offers an abundance of lifecycle events to celebrate our existence, as well as opportunities to mark life’s non-religious moments in a Jewish fashion. It should also come as no surprise that Jewish life has given rise to a plethora of symbols, traditions, gifts and awards to help commemorate and revel in these occasions.

At Shalom House, we are happy, therefore, to present the following article that introduces a few of our favorite presentation awards and gifts and delves into the symbolism behind them.

Jewish Symbols – Isn’t that an Oxymoron?

To better fathom the significance of the gifts, let’s begin with an abbreviated review of the place of symbols in Jewish culture.

Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; …” Exodus 20:3-5

It’s true that the 2nd commandment forbids making images of God, in any form or from any materials, and you will be hard-pressed to find such “idols” or anything alluding to such objects in homes of observant Jews.  This does not mean, however, that Judaism is bereft of symbolism, quite the contrary, the religion of the Hebrews contains a rich portfolio of symbols. The reasoning is quite simple: “symbolism” is the use of concrete things to denote abstract ideas. Per this definition, the use of symbols that don’t attempt to describe God, or of abstract notions that allude to characteristics of the Almighty, is not in conflict with the 2nd commandment.

You need not take our word for it. All you need is to take a look at any Jewish text, beginning with the Bible. Here are a few examples:

Biblical Symbols

  • Symbols of Divinity – Here the Bible treads on shaky grounds, lest it contradict itself (i.e. the 2nd commandment). As such, symbols that “describe” God are either:
    • Verbal, in the form of quotes of biblical figures, such as the prophet Ezekiel who equates a rainbow to the radiance of God.
    • Abstractions or spiritual, where God is attributed with physical characteristics such as height, light and wind.
  • Symbols Used in Visions and Teachings - Biblical prophecies are overflowing with symbols used to emphasize the prophecies’ central themes. For example, Isaiah describes how crimson sins can become as white as fleece when repented.
  • The Dual Nature of Mitzvot – Many of the artifacts associated with the Torah’s 613 mitzvot have deeper meanings, for example:
    • The Sabbath symbolizes God’s covenant with Israel.
    • Tzizit serve as a reminder of God’s commandments, i.e. the mitzvot themselves.
    • Sukkahs (the simple and temporary quarters in which observant Jews live and sleep during Sukkot) represent the temporary living quarters used by the Israelites during their 40 years wandering through the Sinai desert. 

Rabbinic Symbols

  • The Sages and Rabbis compared the Torah to fire, in that it burns away evil and provides spiritual warmth and illumination.
  • To underscore the importance of scholars and explain their work to the masses, these scholars are, on the one hand, often compared to builders, craftsmen, carpenters and others, and, on the other hand, to majestic animals, such as lions and eagles.
  • Religious life is likened to a tree, based on the verse: “It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it” (Proverbs 3:18).

Kabbalistic Symbols

While understanding Jewish mysticism is well beyond the scope of this article (or an entire lifetime), Kabbalistic texts and lore are suffused with symbols. At the very core of the Kabbalah are the “Sephirot” (enumerations), which can be very simplistically described as God’s various manifestations in the material world. The metaphor of a tree is used to describe scholarly movement along the Sephirot, from the more physical to the more divine. Moreover, each Sefirah is represented by one or more symbols, such as the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, respectively representing the Sefirot of Loving-kindness, Power, and Harmony, or the Sefirah of sovereignty which is depicted as a pink rose, where its red color indicates power and its white color signifies loving-kindness.

Gifts as Symbols and Symbols as Gifts

You may be wondering why we have been discussing Jewish symbolism when the article is about gifts and Jewish life. Our reasoning is plain – Any symbol from the Bible, Jewish thinking or Jewish history can be given as a gift that is both meaningful to the occasion for which the gift is given and bestows greater meaning upon the gift itself. For example, Ezekiel’s rainbow mentioned earlier on could be gifted to hosts of a Pesach Seder. Beyond the beauty of the gift, it also symbolizes the radiance of God emanating from the loving home of the gracious hosts.

Of course, every gift is itself a symbol, portraying the gratitude, admiration, recognition, love or some other emotion of the giver. When the gift is rooted in Jewish heritage, it serves to enhance the feelings the giver wishes to convey.

Keeping with this view of Jewish symbolism, we thought it appropriate to bring a few of our favorite gifts from Shalom Houses’ extensive selection and to discuss the symbolism behind them.

Prayers

Beautiful, thoughtful and pious, so many Jewish prayers lend themselves to being inscribed on plaques or other artifacts and given as gifts.

  • Birkat HaBayit (Blessing for the Home): A relatively new addition to the compendium of Jewish prayers, the Birkat HaBayit is aimed at protecting the occupants of the home from sorrow, fright, divisiveness and other “evil spirits”. The symbolism here is quite evident, making the Birkat Habayit the perfect housewarming gift.
  • Shema Yisrael: Other than the Kaddish (a hymn magnifying and sanctifying God's name appearing in all daily prayers), Shema Israel is the most widely known Jewish prayer, not only amongst Jews. The Shema is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to the one God. It is said when rising in the morning and when going to sleep; it is the first prayer that Jewish children learn and said upon one’s deathbed; It is inscribed on the parchment within Mezuzot and appears in daily prayers as well as special prayers, e.g. marking the end of Yom Kippur. Owing to the ubiquity of the Shema, you can inscribe it on any gift for any occasion, give it a strong Jewish flavor.
  •  Modeh Ani: The prayer “Modeh Ani L'Fanechah” begins with “I gratefully thank you for returning to me my soul.” It is a short prayer including words of thanks to God and observant Jews utter the prayer immediately upon waking, even before getting out of bed. The beautiful piece linked to in the title of this section shows a pair of praying hands, bearing the Modeh Ani prayer upon its marble base. Presenting this as a gift of gratitude, accentuates that for anything for which we are thankful, we should also be thankful to God.
  •  Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valor): Eshet Chayil is a hymn praising “the woman” and is sung in many Jewish homes as part of the Kiddush for Erev Shabbat (Friday evening). Naturally, the prayer is fitting as a gift to a wife, a mother, a sister, a woman. In the case of a wife, it is a perfect means for a husband to fulfill his biblical duty of showing respect to his wife in ways that are apparent to all.

Hamsa

Representing protection against the evil eye, the Hamsa hand (a five-fingered hand with an eye at the center) is a popular talisman in Judaism and other religions. You will find Hamsas forged as jewelry, as bases for inscribing prayers (such as Birkat HaBayit) or as stand-alone sculptures.

Learn more about Hamsas in our blog article or browse our selection of Hamsas.

Jacob’s Ladder (Sulam Yaakov)

Jacob’s Ladder is a ladder leading to heaven appearing in the patriarch Jacob’s dream during his flight from his brother Esau, as told in the Book of Genesis: “And he dreamed and behold a ladder stationed on the earth and its top reaches the sky, and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold God stands above it …” (Genesis 28:12-13).

The significance of the dream has been debated, but most interpretations agree on two meanings:

  •  The dream identified Jacob with the obligations and inheritance of God’s chosen people.
  • The ladder is a symbol representing links between different worlds, namely heaven and earth.

The exquisite sculpture linked to herein or any other depiction of the ladder need no special reason to be given as a gift, but we think it is especially suited to occasions marking reaching of new heights, such as graduations or promotions.

With all of the symbolism described herein, a gift is still a means of personal or group expression, and for those of us for whom Judaism plays a central role in our lives, for whom life and Jewish identity are tightly intertwined, a Judaica gift is the ultimate way to express our feelings to those we hold dear.

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