Living in Jerusalem, one of the highlights of my year is attending the annual Flag Parade on Yom Yerushalayim. Watching thousands of blue and white flags being paraded through the heart of the city, one can’t help but well up with pride. But the Israeli flag is more than just an expression of national pride – the flag possesses religious significance.
Growing up in New Jersey, my first encounter with the Israeli flag was in the shul we belonged to. There it stood, adjacent to the ark, flanked on the other side by the American flag. Despite a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein against the placement of the flag in the sanctuary (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayyim, vol. 1, no. 46), the Israeli flag has become a fixture in the contemporary synagogue.
We Jews have had flags for thousands of years. The Torah (Num. 2:2) describes how the Jews encamped in the wilderness, “each man by his banner.” According to the Midrash, each flag was adorned with its tribe’s unique color and symbol.
And while some may contend that the Israeli flag is a modern invention, Rabbi Ari Shvat, who has done extensive research on the flag, has shown the historical antecedents of this symbol. For example, a flag with the Star of David hung prominently in the synagogues of Prague since the mid-14th century, with the approval of their great rabbis, among them the Maharal, Shelah, Noda B’Yehudah, and Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz.
The late historian Avraham Ya’ari, in Toldot Chag Simchat Torah, his groundbreaking work on the development of the customs of Simchat Torah, records that for centuries the flag has been a part of the Simchat Torah celebration – an image we are all familiar with.
Let us not forget the obvious: The design of the modern Israeli flag is based on the tallit. The blue and white motif we are familiar with today was adopted at the First Zionist Congress of 1897, even though it had earlier incarnations.
It was David Wolffsohn, a banker from Kovno who played a role in the early Zionist movement as an assistant to Herzl and later as the second president of the Zionist Organization, who made the decision to adopt the tallit motif. In a jubilee volume celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, Wolffsohn wrote that the choice was obvious: “We already have a flag, white and blue – the tallit that we wrap ourselves up in during prayer. This tallit is our symbol. Let us take the tallit out from its case and unfurl it before the eyes of Israel and before the eyes of all the nations!”
By choosing the familiar religious motif of the tallit, Wolffsohn was determined to imbue the flag with religious meaning.
Rabbi Avraham Yizchak HaKohen Kook also saw religious meaning in the flag. At the rededication of the Churva Synagogue in Jerusalem on Chanukah of 1926, Chief Rabbi Kook not only allowed the flag of the Jewish Legion to enter the synagogue, in his invocation he described the flag as “holy” and a symbol of Redemption.
To many, however, the flag represents secular Zionism and a secular government at times antagonistic to religion. The truths of history, however, prove that things weren’t always so black and white (or blue and white).
In an article that appeared on 22 Nissan 1949, just two weeks before Israel declared its independence, the newspaper of Agudath Israel, Hamevaser, called on its readers to place the Israeli flag in their windows. And in the years following the establishment of the state, the flag was proudly displayed in haredi homes on Yom Ha’Atzmaut – including the homes of great leaders such as Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky and the Rebbes of Modzitz and Sadigura. Today the flag still flies over the Ponevezh Yeshiva on Yom Ha’Atzmaut out of deference to its founder, Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, who began the practice.
For me, the importance of finding religious meaning in the flag became crystallized after an unfortunate event: One Purim, a yeshiva bachur who had imbibed a bit too much, noticed the Israeli flag displayed proudly above my door and remarked that it is avodah zarah, idolatry. I quickly responded that the Israeli flag is a symbol of tremendous sacrifice.