From earliest recorded history, countries have had flags upon which appeared various symbols, and which were used for ceremonies or in times of war. In the course of time, flags bore signs and colours that conveyed a specific identity or meaning: for example, a white flag signified a request for parlay or surrender; a red flag was a general warning; a black flag warned of danger of drowning; a red cross signified a place of neutral immunity. army legions would fly a standard on top of which stood a symbol, and each nation would have its own flag symbolizing its independence and national identity.
In the Bible, flags are mentioned many times after the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, when every tribe had a special flag with its own colour. "Each man shall encamp by his own flag" (see page xx). The great mediaeval talmudic commentator Rashi explained: "Each flag shall have a different sign, a piece of coloured cloth hanging from it, the colour of one being different from the colour of the other, the colour of each tribe being that of his stone that is fixed in the (High Priests) breastplate" (Numbers 2:2).
The Bible also relates: "And the Children of Israel shall encamp, each man in his own camp, and every man by his own flag throughout their hosts...and thus they encamped according to their flags and thus they journeyed each man with his family according to his fathers house" (Numbers 1:52; 2:34).
A biblical midrash (exegesis) relates: "The Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses: Moses, make them flags for me. Moses began immediately to regret this and said: Now the tribes will have cause to argue among themselves in the future. One will say to the tribe of Judah camp in the east, and he will say to him: I cannot, I can camp only in the south. And thus it will between each and every tribe. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Moses: They do not need your help. As they were positioned around (Jacobs) bed so will they be aligned around the tabernacle. What is the source for this? Thus it is written, Each man shall encamp by his own flag... As soon as they were settled, they blew their trumpets and Judah and his flag moved first, followed by the prince and his tribe" (Numbers, Midrash Tanhuma 2).
The Patriarch Jacob had commanded his children that after his death they should carry his coffin according to the arrangement of the Children of Israel in the desert. In the Midrash quoted above, Jacob says to them, "Judah, Issachar and Zebulun will carry my bier from the east (side), Reuben, Simon and Gad from the south, Dan, Asher and Naftali from the north, Benjamin, Ephraim and Menasseh from the west. Joseph does not participate. Why? Because he is a king and has to be honoured. Levi does not carry. Why? Because in a future time he will bear the Ark of the Covenant in which will rest the Two Tablets of Stone (the Ten Commandments). If you do thus, and carry my coffin as I command you, in a future time God will bless you with myriad flags."
According to this midrash the flags of the tribes were of the same colour as the stones of Aaron the High Priests breastplate.1 There were 12 precious stones on the breastplate arranged in four rows, with three stones in each row. Altogether there were 12 different stones in varied colours, and according to the colour everyone would know the colour of the flag of his tribe.
Neither flags nor ensigns are specifically mentioned in Jewish sources after the entrance of the Children of Israel into the Promised Land. In his book Shevet Yehudah, a Roman consul called Marcus recorded the words of a witness who was in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement during the period of the Second Temple: "All the citizens of Jerusalem passed before him (the High Priest) with torches of burning white wax and they were all wearing white and all the windows were decorated with embroidery and were full of lights." It may be that the "embroideries" were actually flags.
In one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is mention of a flag: "On the day of the coronation of the king, the following has to be done: to call a military parade of all Israelites from the age of 20 up to 60 with flags from each city in Israel (Yigael Yadin: "The Temple Scroll").
According to the Encyclopaedia Hebraica, "During the period of Exile and the absence of an army or national defence for the nation, there was no place for a flag in Israels public life. In the Late Middle Ages, there are known cases of granting a flag to the Jews, for the communities or individuals under the aegis of the nations. In 1354, the Jews of Prague were allowed by Emperor Karl the Fourth to display a red flag on which was a six-pointed star, that later would be called the Magen David or "Shield of David." In 1592, a certain Mordechai Maizel from the same city was allowed to affix to his synagogue "a flag of King David, similar to that located on the Main Synagogue." In 1648, the Jews of Prague were again allowed a flag, in acknowledgment of their part in defending the city against the Swedes. On a red background was a yellow Shield of David, in the centre of which was a Swedish star. In Hungary, in 1460, the Jews of Ofen (Budapest) received King Mathios Kuruvenus with a red flag on which were two Shields of David and two stars.
The Shield of David2 comprises two intertwined, reversed triangles, thus forming six corners. Over time, this hexagon has emerged as a primary Jewish symbol. Many reasons for the design have been considered by commentators and scholars. There are those who think that the design reflects the order of tribes as they travelled across the desert, and the manner in which they encamped around the Tent of Meeting after leaving Egypt.
For kabbalists, the Shield of David represents a national religious symbol connected to the End of Days, for from the descendants of David will come the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah offered six definitions of the honour to be accorded to the Messiah, corresponding to the six points of the Shield of David; "And a rod will emerge from the brand of Jesse, and burgeon from his roots; and the spirit of God will rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom (1) and understanding (2), the spirit of counsel (3) and strength (4), the spirit of knowledge (5) and fear of God (6)" (Isaiah 11:1-2).
Moreover, the Shield of David suggests the four directions of the compass: north, south, east and west, the heavens above and the earth beneath. These accord with the number of points on the star, with God in control of them all.
The Shield of David is also used as an amulet containing within it various verses from the Book of Psalms, and names of various angels, blessings for success, health, easy childbirth and so on.
The Shield of David has served in the past as a geometric decoration for many people. It appears for the first time in a Jewish context in the seventh century bce. Among other peoples it does not have a religious or national significance, although it might indicate magical qualities. The Shield of David consistently appears in Jewish art and is to be found on buildings, gravestones, on book bindings and so on. a manuscript Bible dated 1307, belonging to Rabbi Yosef bar Yehuda ben Marvas from Toledo, Spain, is decorated with a Shield of David. In the first Hebrew prayer book, printed in Prague in 1512, a large Shield of David appears on the cover. In the colophon is written: "Each man beneath his flag according to the house of their fathers... and he will merit to bestow a bountiful gift on anyone who grasps the Shield of David."
In the consciousness of the people of Israel, the Shield of David symbolizes hope in the future, and a star that will brighten the heavens. According to the Jewish thinker, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), the six-pointed Shield of David represents the creation, the revelation of God as the final redemption.
In Prague, the main synagogue, the Altneuschul, was built in the 14th century on 11th century foundations. According to a well-known legend, the synagogue was built in the first century ce by exiles from Eretz Israel who had brought with them stones from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem and buried them under its foundations in the expectation that they would return to the Temple with the advent of the Messiah. An etching from 1829 shows a tall pillar in the centre of the synagogue, the top of which is crowned with a flag on which is a Shield of David and inscriptions: "The Lord Our God, the Lord is One" and "The God of Hosts, whose glory fills the world." In this synagogue, in 1351, prayed the Maharal of Prague, one of the great figures of mediaeval European Jewry (1520-1609), around whom was woven the legends of the Golem of Prague.
David Hareuveni, a Jewish traveller, who inspired a messianic movement in the first half of the 16th century, related that he was a member of one of the Ten Lost Tribes dwelling across the legendary River Sambatyon.* Hareuveni proposed to Pope Clement the Seventh, the signing of a covenant between Christian countries and those of the Ten Tribes to wage war jointly against the Moslem countries, declaring: "And we will go, with Gods help, to Jerusalem and wrest the entire land of Israel from the hands of the Ishmaelites, for the end and the salvation are nigh." According to contemporary sources, David Hareuveni possessed flags of white silk embroidered in letters of gold and silver, on which were written the tetragrammaton and the Ten Commandments. It is related: "And the king asked him regarding the flags: You have praiseworthy flags what do you wish to do with them? And I replied that they are our sign among the tribes, if I march to war I will place them in front of the army. The cardinal, the brother of the king, showed him great respect by also asking after the flags: and I replied that the flags were my sign and a reflection of my way and behold I go with Gods help."
Another flag was preserved for years in the Altneuschul synagogue in Prague. In the second World War, the Nazis confiscated it and placed it in their "Museum of a Defunct Race" in that city. Thus preserved, it reached Jerusalem, where in 1990 it was displayed in the Israel Museum. On the flag are written various verses, among them: "Judge me God and fight my fight with an unrighteous nation and a lying, wicked man and save me"; "The God of Hosts is with us, our fortress, the God of Jacob"; "Pour your wrath upon the nations who do not acknowledge you, and upon the kingdoms which do not call upon your name."
Among other Jewish religious and national symbols are the menora (candelabrum), the mezuzah (small box containing a scroll found on the doorposts of Jewish homes), the shofar (rams horn) and the talit. The latter is the shawl in which a Jew enwraps himself when at prayer, and it, too, served as a sort of national flag of the Jewish people.
When Theodor Herzl, the visionary seer of the Jewish state, was organizing the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, he thought about an official national flag for the representatives of the Jewish people, who were gathering together. In his book Der Judenstadt ("The Jewish State") he wrote thus: "We have no flag, and we need one at a time when one wishes to lead many people; of necessity one needs to wave a sign above their heads." He continued: "For myself I would have a white flag with seven golden stars, the white cloth background symbolizing the new pure life. The stars are the seven golden hours of our work day, for the Jews go to the new land with a symbol of work."
Herzl entrusted the preparatory work on a Jewish flag to his assistant David Wolfsohn. In a letter to Baron Hirsch, he wrote: "If they ask me derisively, what is this flag? I will reply that a flag is not a stick with a piece of rag; a flag is something symbolic and national and with a flag one leads people anywhere one wants, even to the Promised Land."
David Wolfsohn hesitated over the form of the flag, which had to be ready for the opening of the Congress: "At the behest of our leader Herzl, I came to Basel in order to do all the preparations for the opening of the First Congress. Among the many questions I had to deal with was one which, while not weighty was not light either, containing as it did within it, the great Hebrew problem. With which flag will we decorate the hall of the Congress? What will be its colours? Since we had no flag, the issue perplexed me greatly. It was necessary to design a flag, but which colours were to be chosen? And then came a brainwave. For we already had a flag, white and blue, the talit, with which we enwrap ourselves during prayers. This would be our symbol; we would remove the talit from its wrapping and show it before Israel and the nations. Consequently, I ordered a blue and white flag with a Shield of David on it, and thus was born our national flag."
At the eighth Zionist Congress in Prague in 1933, an official decision was reached regarding the flag: "The blue and white flag is the flag of the Zionist Organisation and the Jewish People, in accordance with a long standing tradition."
Ideas concerning the form and colour of the flag had already been written about prior to Herzl and Wolfsohn. In 1864, a Jewish poet, L. August Frankel, one of the founders of the Lemel School in Jerusalem, wrote a poem about the colours of the land of Judah and the design of its flag:
"... Lines of a white cloak
Broad blue stripes will adorn it,
Like the cloak of the High Priest
Crowned with ribbons of blue thread.
They are the colours of the Land of Lovers
Blue-white are the borders of Judah
White is the shining colour of the priesthood
And bright blue is its background."
After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Israels first Prime Minister, David ben Gurion wrote about the national flag: "The state flag is a symbol of historical unity and continuity, and makes the renewed identity unique. The flag is above changing governments and forces within the country that are in unrelenting conflict with each other. The flag personifies the unifying, consolidating, generalizing, mutualizing and historical foundation that is in the state and the people. The Zionist flag symbolizes the yearning for a Hebraic people who lacked a state for liberty, independence, sovereignty and equality in a homeland... from now on a state flag will reflect, not only yearning and vision, but a living, vital, historical presence and development. A national flag will symbolize the unity of Israel, its uniqueness and its independent future, its partnership with all the generations from the origins of the people until the end of time."
Translated by Mordechai Beck
1 See "The High Priests Breastplate," by Ann Swersky, Ariel no. 54, 1983.
2 See "King Solomons Seal," Ariel No. 106, 1998.
* See Shalva Weil: "Beyond the Sambatyon: The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes," Ariel no. 85-6, 1991.