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SYMBOL:

A visible representation of an object or an idea. In Hebrew the word denoting symbol is "ot," which in early Judaism denoted not only a sign, but also a visible religious token of the mystic relation between God and man. In the latter sense ancient Israel had two fundamental symbols, each regarded as representing the pledge of the covenant made by God with His people. These were (1) the Sabbath, "a sign for ever" (Ex. xxxi. 17), and (2) circumcision, the token of the covenant made by God with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. xvii. 11; comp. Ex. xiii. 9 and Deut. vi. 8). All other instances of symbolism in the Jewish ritual and in Hebrew poetry may be divided into the following groups: (1) the Temple and its accessories; (2) the sacrifices; (3) the officiating priests; (4) numbers; (5) metals and colors; (6) the Cherubim; (7) festivals and holy days; (8) the visions of the Prophets.

  • (1) The Temple ("ohel mo'ed," "miḳdash," "mishkan"). The state of Israel became a theocratic one as a result of the establishment in its midst of the Temple, the dwelling-place and throne of God and the place of mediation between God and man. On the other hand, the "mishkan" was also interpreted anthropomorphically, as a symbol of man or of human nature, while Philo explained the Tabernacle cosmically ("Vita Mosis," ed. Schwickert, iii. 201-219, Leipsic, 1828; similarly, "Cuzari," ii., §§ 26-28). The two cherubim, the only images in the Temple, were intended to symbolize the concentration of all natural life, and as adjuncts to the throne of God they were the immediate witnesses and representatives of His glory. Philo regarded them as symbolizing the two hemispheres, in contrast to the other cherubim mentioned in the Bible, which represented divine omnipotence ("Vita Mosis," iii. 206). Philippson drew a sharp distinction between the cherubim in the vision of Ezekiel and all others, holding that the former were mere inventions of the imagination, while the latter were known under a definite form and shape ("Israelitische Bibel," i. 453).As the Decalogue represented the heart and soul of all the people, so the Ark of the Covenant was set in the Holy of Holies, while the mercy-seat ("kapporet") and the two cherubim, the center of the dwelling of Yhwh, formed the place where the people were cleansed once a year from all their sins; and as the Ark was kept in its particular place simply as a token of God's covenant with Israel, so the Ark, mercy-seat, and the cherubim together symbolized both the place where the holiness of God was revealed, and the place where the people's sins were removed and where they renewed their fellowship with God (Yalḳuṭ Re'ubeni, vi. 2; Maimonides, "Moreh," i. 54, iii. 45; Abravanel on Ex. xl. 34).The table with the showbread served as a symbol of the acknowledgment of all the people that they owed to God their bread, or, in other words, all that they needed for their sustenance, and that they must extol Him and glorify Him accordingly (Yarḥi and Abravanel ad loc.). The candlestick, according to Philo (l.c. iii. 207), typified the seven planets, while later exegetes interpreted it as the symbol of the congregation of the people of God (Hengstenberg, "Beiträge," iii. 645). The altar of incense was a symbol of prayer, since the perfume and fragrance which it spread typified the outward manifestation of the inward excellence of some person or thing. In like manner, the altar of sacrifice represented the place where the Godhead was revealed, and accordingly its four horns were symbols of power and dominion; so that he who grasped them signified that he placed himself under the protection of God (I Kings i. 50, ii. 28).
  • (2) The Sacrifices: The burnt offering ("'olah"; Lev. xiv. 20) symbolized perfection and entirety, typifying the general as distinguished from the particular, and the complete as contrasted with the incomplete. It therefore denoted the all-inclusive, and was regarded by Philo as the emblem of absolute dedication to God ("De Victimas Offerentibus," pp. 324-326, Leipsic, 1828). Ibn Ezra, in his introduction to Leviticus, considered it the atonement of the heart for sinful thoughts. The thank-offering ("todah," "zebah," "shelamim"), together with the meal-offering and the wave-offering, typified the relation of fellowship and friendship between God and Israel; and since Yhwh was also the Creator of the universe, the act of turning toward every side symbolized the conviction that God held all the world and the ends thereof. The sin-offering ("ḥaṭṭat") denoted complete atonement (i.e., covering and concealment), and the mercy-seat was accordingly sprinkled seven times. The guilt-offering ("asham") was brought to arouse and maintain a sense of sin; it was divided by Maimonides ("Hilkot Zebaḥim," ix.) into sacrifices for doubtful and for certain guilt,while Philo (l.c.) asserted that the guilt-offering could be brought only by one whose awakened conscience and conviction of guilt had obliged him to accuse himself. The sacrifice for purification from leprosy consisted of two sparrows (Lev. xiv. 3-7); one of them was killed and its blood drained into running water, into which the other bird was dipped, being then liberated, while the leper was sprinkled with the blood by means of a piece of hyssop bound to a stick of cedar-wood by a scarlet cord. This ceremony typified the sinful and unclean past and the sinless future, while the purification by means of cedar-wood and hyssop was intended to indicate that high and low alike must bow to God in their sinfulness (Ḥul. 134b; Lev. R. xvi. 6). The breaking of the calf's neck ("'eglah arufah") was a judicial act symbolizing the punishment of death justly meted out to the murderer, and the washing of the hands typified the purification from crime, while the requirement that the blood from the carcass must be entirely washed away by the brook flowing beneath indicated that guilt was altogether removed. The laying on of hands ("samak") signified, according to Philo (l.c.), that the hands performing this act had done no evil, but in the view of Bahr ("Christliche Symbolik des Mosaischen Cultus," ii. 341) it symbolized the devotion of one's self to Yhwh even unto death, and hence dedication to death for His sake, the burning of the sacrifice representing the place and the goal of the sacrificial gift.
  • (3) The Officiating Priests: The priests mediated between God and man by offering sacrifices and by other services in the Temple. The chief representative among them was the high priest, who wore eight vestments, twice as many as the others, these garments being symbols of holiness and sanctification from sin. Why, asks the Talmud, is the high priest clothed in white on the Day of Atonement? and it answers: Because the service in the terrestrial Temple must equal that in the heavenly Temple (Yoma 44b). The coat was woven in one piece, in contrast to the idea of "ḳara'" (to rend), the latter being the symbol of mourning; the miter was a blossom, and the priest might not uncover his head ("para'"; Lev. x. 6) lest thereby he should suggest the dropping of blossoms. The breeches symbolized the abolition of the distinction between the heavenly and the mortal part of man, as contrasted with the divine nature, which is absolutely holy and living. The girdle was the emblem of the priest as the servant of the Lord, and it was made in the same four colors as the curtains of the Holy of Holies; it is said to have been 32 ells long, to indicate the windings of the heart (Yer. Yoma 44b; Lev. R. x.). The priests went barefoot to express their sense of the sanctity of the Temple.The vestments of the high priest were interpreted in three ways. The explanation of Philo is as follows ("Vita Mosis," iii. 209): His upper garment was the symbol of the ether, while the blossoms represented the earth, the pomegranates typified running water, and the bells denoted the music of the water. The ephod corresponded to heaven, and the stones on both shoulders to the two hemispheres, one above and the other below the earth. The six names on each of the stones were the six signs of the zodiac, which were denoted also by the twelve names on the breastplate. The miter was the sign of the crown which exalted the high priest above all earthly kings.Josephus' explanation is this ("Ant." iii. 7, § 7): The coat was the symbol of the earth, the upper garment emblemized heaven, while the bells and pomegranates represented thunder and lightning. The ephod typified the four elements, and the interwoven gold denoted the glory of God. The breastplate was in the center of the ephod, as the earth formed the center of the universe; the girdle symbolized the ocean, the stones on the shoulders the sun and moon, and the jewels in the breastplate the twelve signs of the zodiac, while the miter was a token of heaven.Yerushalmi (Men. vii. 1) and Leviticus Rabbah (x.) give the following interpretation: The coat symbolized atonement for murder or for the sin of wearing mixed garments, and the undergarment typified atonement for unchastity. The miter denoted atonement for pride, and the belt for theft or trickery. The breastplate represented atonement for any perversion of the Law, the ephod for idolatry, and the robe for slander.
  • (4) Numbers: The rules governing calculations of dimension and number were not merely external, but represented the divinity as the supreme intelligence. The arrangement of the Tabernacle especially was determined according to numbers. The number three was the symbol of holiness, so that the Holy of Holies occupied one-third and the Holy Place two-thirds of the entire Temple; the tapestries were ten times three ells in length, and there were three vessels each for the altar of burnt offering, the altar of incense, and the Ark. The candlestick had twice three arms (besides the shaft, which also held a lamp), and each arm had three knobs. The blessing of the priest consisted of three sections (Num. vi. 24, 25), and in the invocation of God the word "holy" ("ḳadosh") was repeated thrice (comp. Isa. vi. 3).The symbolism of the number four was based on the most simple contemplation of the quaternity as found in the universe, which included both heaven and earth (comp. Job xxxvii. 3; Isa. xi. 12; Ezek. vii. 2; I Chron. ix. 24; Dan. viii. 8), and it therefore connoted heaven as the throne of God in contradistinction to earth, thus revealing the glory of God and bearing witness to Him. The Holy of Holies was in the form of a cube, and the Holy Place was a double cube in length. All the vessels of the Temple except the candlestick were square. According to Ezek. i. 26-28, four symbolized the divine revelation, while in the view of Philo it was the number of complete harmony ("De Opificio Mundi," pp. 13-15).The number five typified semicompletion. The dimensions of the curtain of the Holy of Holies were four ells by five; the altar in the court covered a surface of five square ells; and there were five pillars at the entrance to the Tabernacle.The number seven was the general symbol for all association with God, and was the favorite religious number of Judaism, typifying the covenant of holinessand sanctification, and also all that was holy and sanctifying in purpose. The candlestick had seven lamps, and the acts of atonement and purification were accompanied by a sevenfold sprinkling. The establishment of the Sabbath, the Sabbatical year, and the year of jubilee was based on the number seven, as were the periods of purification and of mourning (Lev. iv. 6, 17; xxiii. 15; xxvi. 21; Deut. xv. 1; II Kings v. 14; Ps. cxix. 164).The number ten symbolized absolute completeness. The court to the Tabernacle was ten times ten ells long, and five times ten ells wide, and in the Holy of Holies the Ten Commandments were preserved.The number twelve, being the product of three and four, typified the union of the people with God. On the table were twelve loaves of show-bread, and the breastplate of the priest contained twelve precious stones as emblems of the twelve tribes of Israel, which camped round about the Sanctuary. Twelve victims were sacrificed during the dedication of the Tabernacle (Num. vii. 87). Four times twelve cities were assigned as the dwelling-places of the Levites, and David divided the priests into twice twelve orders (I Chron. xxiv. 7 et seq.). See Numbers and Numerals.
  • (5) Metals and Colors: Gold was the symbol of the divine or celestial light, the glory of God (Zech. vi. 11 et seq.; Dan. xi. 21), and silver the emblem of moral innocence and of holiness (Isa. i. 22; Jer. vi. 30), while brass typified hardness, strength, and firmness (Lev. xxvi. 19; Jer. xv. 12; Job xl. 18). Brass was a substitute for gold, and iron for silver (Isa. lx. 17). The metals were in general symbols of splendor, and in the Temple a certain classification of them was observed, so that the majority of the vessels in the Holy of Holies were of gold, while those used in the other parts of the Temple were of silver or brass. In mystic passages paradise was similarly pictured: its apartments were made of gold, silver, and crystal, and contained beds, chairs, and candlesticks of gold and precious stones (comp. Eisenmenger, "Entdecktes Judentum," ii. 302, 309).Salt was expressly declared to be necessary for the completion of the covenant between God and Israel, since it must be included in every meal-offering, in which it takes the place of the blood in the animal sacrifices (Lev. ii. 13; but comp. Ezek. xliii. 24). The heave-offering incumbent on every Israelite was called "berit melaḥ 'olam" (Num. xviii. 19). In the Talmud salt symbolizes the Torah, for as the world can not exist without salt, so it can not endure without the Torah (Soferim xv. 8)."Tekelet" represented heaven, according to the view of Maimonides ("Yad," Ẓiẓit, ii.); while Abravanel and Ḳimḥi on Ex. xxv. 4 regarded it as the greenish color of the sea, most of the other commentators agree with Maimonides in interpreting it as the symbol of the dwelling-place of Yhwh, and thus as corresponding to the color of the divine revelation (Num. R. xv.). "Argaman" was the symbol of sublimity, of power, and of glory (Isa. lx. 6; Judges viii. 26), so that Alexander Balas robed Jonathan in purple (I Macc. x. 20), which was especially used to designate royal dignity (I Macc. x. 20, xi. 58). "Tola'at" and "shani" ("scarlet," "crimson") symbolized blood, and thus frequently typified life, although this color often designated sin, as well as joy and happiness (Gen. xxxviii. 28; Josh. ii. 18, 21; Jer. iv. 30). Purification from sin was also symbolized by purple (Lev. xvi. 10; Nahum ii. 4 [A. V. 3]). "Shesh" (white), like "buẓ" (byssus), was the symbol of physical and intellectual purity, being the true color of light, without any modification (Cant. v. 10; Dan. iv. 10, 14, 20; Zech. xiv. 5).
  • (6) See Cherubim.
  • (7) Festivals and Holy Days: The system of the Jewish festivals was ternary, since the year, like the day and the night, was divided into three parts. The first of these festivals was the Passover, which celebrated the rebirth of nature, and thus symbolized the origin of the Jewish people. The yearling lamb typified innocent youth. It was regarded as especially holy, and might neither be boiled nor its bones broken, but had to remain entire. Since anything sour was regarded as unclean, and as the people were obliged to refrain from touching anything unclean during Passover, leavened food was forbidden. Even in the Bible the eating of the bitter herbs typified the miseries of the Egyptian bondage. In the evenings four cups were drained, to symbolize the four world-kingdoms (Yer. Pes. 37c; Gen. R. lxxx.), and those who partook of the Passover meal reclined in token of their liberation from slavery. The Passover was likewise the Feast of the First-Born, since it was regarded as typifying also the death of the first-born in Egypt.The second festival was that of Shebu'ot, the Feast of Weeks, and as the Passover marked the beginning of a definite period, so Shebu'ot marked its close, the former denoting the day of ripening, and the latter marking the last day of using the scythe, whence it received the alternative names of "'aẓarta" or "'aẓeret shel Pesaḥ" (Pes. 421b). The third of the festivals was the Feast of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, originally observed as an autumnal festival, but subsequently as a feast of joy (Lev. R. v. 30), being regarded at a still later time as commemorating the huts occupied by the children of Israel in the desert (Suk. 55b; Men. xiii. 5). The stem of the palm-branch corresponded to the human spine, the leaf of the myrtle to the eye, the willow-leaf to the mouth, and the etrog to the heart, these being the most important members of the body (Lev. R. xxx.). The palm-branches borne by the Jews on the Feast of Tabernacles typified their victories over the heathen (Pesiḳ. 180a; Lev. R. l.c.).There were two other special festivals, the New-Year and the Day of Atonement. The distinguishing feature of the former was the blowing of the shofar, to signify that Israel was remembered in the presence of Yhwh, while the Talmud emphasized the fact that only a straight shofar was blown, to symbolize the straightening of the heart, as distinguished from the usage on fast-days, when a curved shofar was blown, to symbolize the heart writhing in repentance (Yer. R. H. 58d). Abravanel on Lev. xxiii. 24 represented New-Year's Day as the symbol of complete freedom, while Philo regarded the blowing of the shofar on New-Year as a commemoration of the giving of the Law, and as a proclamation of the benefits which the world would derive from thedissemination of righteous laws, as well as the end, set by God, to the strife among the forces of nature ("De Septennario," pp. 43-44). The Day of Atonement was considered the most holy day of the entire year, and was regarded as the symbol of the complete atonement of the people and of their absolution from their sins (comp. the various articles on the festivals).
  • (8) The Visions of the Prophets: Jerermiah beheld an almond-tree as a token of the speedy fulfilment of the word of God (play on "shaḳed" in Jer. i. 11), and Amos saw a basket of summer fruit as a symbol of the approaching end of Israel (play on "ḳayiẓ" in Amos viii. 1). Ahijah the Shilonite tore Jeroboam's mantle into twelve pieces, to typify the division of the kingdom of Israel (I Kings xi. 30), and Zedekiah made horns of iron to encourage Ahab to engage in war with Ramoth-gilead (I Kings xxii. 11). King Joash, at the command of the prophet Elisha, shot arrows from the open window into the air, to symbolize the destruction of his enemies (II Kings xiii. 15-19). Isaiah walked naked and barefoot to show how the Egyptians and Ethiopians would be treated when taken captive by the Assyrians (Isa. xx. 2), while Jeremiah wore a yoke upon his neck to induce the nations to submit to the King of Assyria (Jer. xxvii. 2-4, 10-12). Ezekiel was commanded to inscribe the names of certain tribes upon separate pieces of wood, to show that God would reunite those tribes (Ezek. xxxvii. 15 et seq.; comp. Isa. vi.; Ezek. i.; Dan. vii.).
Miscellaneous Symbols.

The following symbolic acts may also be mentioned: the dedication of the priest by sprinkling his ears, hands, and feet with blood, since they were the members which performed the most important functions; the wearing of fringes on the garment, since they typified the word of the Law, the liberation from Egypt, the fulfilment of all the commands of God, and the warning against idolatry and other sins; and the prohibition of a garment of divers materials, as a symbol of the commandment not to trespass against the divine order of nature. The presentation of the shoe was taken to symbolize the transferring of one's rights to another (Ruth iv. 7); at weddings the bride was sprinkled with grains of wheat as a symbol of fruitfulness (Ket. ii. 1).

Seals and gems of the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. likewise contain symbolic figures, although their meaning is no longer clear. Thus, a steer facing to the right appears on the seal of Shemariah, son of Azariah, and the seal of Nathan, son of Abadiah, has ibexes and deer above and below the name, either as a symbol of some Syrian goddess or to show that the owner of the gem was fond of hunting. The seal of Shebaniah, son of Uzziah, bears a man with a large stick in his right hand, while the reverse shows butterflies above and below the legend.

The coins of the time of Simon Maccabeus have an almond-blossom to symbolize the priesthood of Aaron, and other coins of the same period bear a lulab and an etrog, which are difficult to explain. Most of the coins of the time of John Hyrcanus show two interlaced horns as a symbol of power, while the rulers of the house of Herod had ships, helmets, Syrian shields, and grapes engraved upon their coins. A coin of Agrippa I. bears two clasped hands as a token of his friendship with Claudius. The coins struck during the first revolution present grapes, the lyre, and the palm.

The symbolism on Jewish tombstones is very simple, the same emblems appearing on most of them. Two hands with outspread fingers indicated that the dead man was descended from priestly stock, and a jug was carved on the tombstones of the Levites as an emblem of the priest who washed his hands before he pronounced the blessing. Other gravestones show a tree with branches either outspread or broken off, symbolizing the death of a young man or an old man respectively; or they have a cluster of grapes as an emblem of Israel. The Magen Dawid occurs frequently, and an erect female figure was carved on the tombstone of a virgin, to typify the life which rises upward. Most frequently, however, the figures symbolized the name of the deceased, as the figure of a lion for Loeb, a wolf for Benjamin, and a rose for the name Blume.

Influence on Christian Symbols.

The influence of Judaism upon Christian symbolism as early as the second and third centuries C.E., is apparent both in painting and in sculpture, the most frequent motives being those which occur in the Mishnah as formulas for prayer on fast-days. The prayer beginning with the words "Mi she-'anah," which was included in the seliḥah at an early date, was adopted in the Christian ritual as the litany "Libera domine," and this litany was figuratively used in a certain sequence as a symbol, for the sacrifice of Isaac was regarded as a symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus, since the primitive Church considered Isaac the prototype of Jesus, and the act of sacrifice emblemized the death on the cross; Abraham was represented as the symbol of the power of faith and Isaac as the sacrificed redeemer. The ascension of Elijah was believed to typify the ascension of Jesus, who was regarded by Christian symbolism as an analogue to Elijah, although this ascension was also taken as a type of the general resurrection from the dead. Job sitting among the ashes was the symbol of patience and of the power of resistance of the flesh; and Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in the fiery furnace typified steadfastness in persecution and faith in the aid of God. The sarcophagi, moreover, contained representations of the fall of man, Noah and the ark, scenes from the life of Moses in three variations, Joshua, David, and Daniel.

In later times pictorial symbolism gradually gave place to verbal. Originally there were three kinds of such verbal symbolism: "peshaṭ," referring to the past or the changeable; "derash," to the present, with the interests and emotions expressed by it; "sod," to the future, or to the investigation of the eternal. Subsequently, and up to the eleventh century, a fourth form of symbolism was used, namely, "remez," or the symbolizing of the supernatural. These four kinds were designated either as "the four legs of the table of the Lord" or as the four rivers issuing from paradise. The literalinterpretation was said to express the facts, the allegorical interpretation to teach the doctrine, the moral interpretation to teach right living, and the mystical interpretation to indicate the order of the supernatural world of spirit.

In recent times Zionism has encouraged pictorial symbolism by adopting an erect lion for its escutcheon, in symbolic interpretation of Gen. xlix. 9. Other examples are the famous window in the B'nai B'rith Lodge of Hamburg, where Theodor Herzl is represented as Moses "the liberator," and the symbolic illustrations and cover-designs of the painter Lilien. See also Titles of Books.

Bibliography:
  • V. Schultze, Archäologische Studien, Vienna, 1880;
  • idem, Die Katakomben, Leipsic, 1882;
  • E. Heinnecke, Altchristliche Malerei, ib. 1896:
  • R. Garrucci, Storia della Arte Christiana, Rome, 1886;
  • F. Friedrich, Symbolik der Mosaischen Stiftshütte, Leipsic, 1841;
  • J. Aub, Ueber die Symbolik der Mosaischen Religion, in Zeit. für Religiöse Interessen des Judenthums, ii.;
  • M. Levy, Siegel und Gemmen, Breslau, 1869;
  • D. Kaufmann, in R. E. J. xiv. 33, 217;
  • Bacher, Ag. Pal. Amor.;
  • Bahr, Christliche Symbolik des Mosaischen Cultus, Heidelberg, 1839, 1874;
  • Kurz, Zur Symbolik der Cultusstätte, in Zeit. für Lutherische Theologie und Kirche, 1851, pp. 1-70;
  • Zunz, Z. G. pp. 161-163;
  • idem. G. V. 2d ed., p. 62;
  • Grätz, Gesch. vi. 64.
J. S. O.
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