Flying high above the sky on dark nights, the Israeli flag inspires Zionists with pride over their country, land and people. When staring at the flag during an induction ceremony at the Kotel, or in the bright sunlight over Masada or at the front of our Synagogue during the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, one can’t help but get choked up over the turnaround of our nation during this past century. What’s the meaning of the Israeli flag?
Judaism is a religion of the abstract. While it’s true that there are many mitzvot that require use of physical objects and actions, like wearing tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, and reciting kiddush on a cup of wine, the priority of the Torah is to know and form a relationship with G-d. Forming a connection with G-d is an abstract endeavor; it is achieved through prayer and study. Objects, places and actions all seem to distract from the goal of living in the world of thought.
There are exceptions besides the objects of mitzvot to the emphasis on prayer and study. There are a few occasions when the Torah emphasizes the use of an object. One spot where the emphasis is placed on an object are the flags in the desert. G-d instructed the Jewish people, “The Israelites shall camp each with his people, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tabernacle, but at a distance.” The scholar Rashi wrote, “Each banner shall have a different sign – a piece of colored cloth hanging on it, the color of one flag not being the same as the color of another, but the color of each tribe’s flag shall be the same color of that tribe’s stone that is fixed in the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol in the Tabernacle. It is with these unique colors that everybody will be able to recognize his banner.” The flags were held high above the people to draw a connection between each tribe’s camp and the service being conducted on behalf of the people by the Kohen Gadol who would wear each tribe’s color on his chest.
Today’s Israeli flag features two long blue stripes and the “Star of David.” The two blue stripes look like and symbolize the tallit, the shawl worn during certain prayers, and the blue color is reminiscent of the Biblical blue techelet color used in the tallit and the Tabernacle. The flag is widely accepted among all streams of Jews, although it isn’t without controversy. Many great modern Rabbinical scholars including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Chazon Ish and Rav Ovadia Yosef were critical of the Israeli flag.
The Star of David is a frequent source of controversy. Although named after King David, the Jewish people’s great king never saw it, and especially never adopted it as his own royal crest. The hexagram shape didn’t start off as a Jewish symbol at all. It is definitively not Biblical or even Talmudic. It doesn’t contain any Jewish symbolism and didn’t appear on any of the tribe’s flags in the desert. It was only a few hundred years ago that Jewish communities in Europe began using it as an identifying symbol. The Zionist movement used the Star of David as its symbol, and it gradually morphed into Israel’s symbol on its official flag five months after Israel’s founders declared their independence.
In his new three-book series on Theodore Herzl, Dr. Gil Troy wrote about Herzl’s vision for the flag, “Herzl’s appeal was impressive. He was realizing that national identity – and national renewal – required a revival of the Jewish body and Jewish soul. To achieve that, Herzl proposed pragmatic steps and symbols – accompanied by speculative leaps. Writing to Baron Hirsch, on June 3, 1895, Herzl insisted a flag was not just “a stick with a rag on it… With a flag one can lead men wherever one wants to, even into the Promised Land. For a flag men will live and die; it is indeed the only thing for which they are ready to die in masses, if one trains them for it; believe me, the policy of an entire people – particularly when it is scattered all over the earth – can be carried out only with imponderables that float in thin air.” Toggling between the hard-headed and the ethereal – “Dreams, songs, fantasies, and black-red-and-gold ribbons,” Herzl noted, after all, “What is religion? Consider, if you will, what the Jews have endured for the sake of this vision over a period of two thousand years. Yes, visions alone grip the souls of men….”
Herzl saw the Israeli flag – although it hadn’t been put together yet – as a symbol men could use to be inspired, even to give up their lives for if necessary. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik published different talks he gave on Israel and Zionism. The work was called “Five Addresses,” and in one of his talks Rabbi Soloveitchik gave a novel interpretation of the Israeli flag, “If you ask me, how do I…look upon the flag of the State of Israel, and has it any halachic value? – I would answer plainly… in the Shulchan Aruch it says: “One who has been killed by non-Jews is buried in his clothes, so that his blood may be seen and avenged… In other words, the clothes of the Jew acquire a certain sanctity when spattered with the blood of a martyr. How much more is this so of the blue and white flag, which has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the War of Independence, defending the country and the population… It has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice. We are all enjoined to honor the flag and treat it with respect.”
For today’s Zionist the Israeli flag is a symbol of pride. It stands for the achievements of the Jewish people and the State of Israel over the past 150 years. After suffering through its worst tragedy in thousands of years the Jewish people didn’t lay down and play victim. Instead, they put aside their tragedy, never forgetting their pain, but not allowing it to paralyze them, and rebuilt their nation step by step. What almost no other nation was able to achieve, rebuilding itself from the ashes, the Jewish people, with G-d’s help, did. Like the flag flying above the tribes in the desert, and its ability to connect its tribe to the kohen in the Tabernacle, the Israeli flag connects the Jewish people to its past. The flag also reminds the Jewish people not to get haughty with its success, and to always remember its humble past.