Healing and Magen David

When we think of medicine we are cognizant of the great Jewish contribution to this field. In today's Israel, for example, medical research and medical care excel and the science of preventing and arresting diseases is one of the best in the world. In biblical time however, the Hebrews were skeptical of practical medicine and at times even ridiculed those who practiced it (Jer 8:17;Ps 58:60) as they viewed healing as part of God's domain.

The word for medicine in Hebrew is refuah and the word for doctor is rofeh. Both nouns are derived from the root r.f.a meaning 'heal' or 'cure'. In the Bible refuah and rofeh appear only three times each. However, the verb rafa, meaning 'to cure' or 'treat a sick person,' appears over 60 times in various forms, and in a few cases it is used to mean 'repairing,' or 'improving a condition.'  Interestingly, the text refers to the practitioners as m'la-kca-shim, 'charmers' (Ps 58:6; Ecc10:11), or ne-von la-cha-sh 'expert enchanter' (Is 3:3). In both cases, these are not complimentary words.

The belief that miracles and incantations help bring cure and avert the evil eye is found in all cultures and all belief systems. From time immemorial people used signs, amulets and magic to protect themselves from demons and their evil will. The Magen David, the symbol that is so connected with our Jewish culture was originally such an amulet. Indeed, the six-pointed star was a magic sign placed on walls and tombs as a decorative motif and magical protection in very early antiquity by Christians and Jews alike. The history of this amulet is obscure. Yet, despite the fact that it has no Jewish symbolic meanings, neither biblical nor rabbinic, the Magen David emerged as an exclusive Jewish symbol. With the influence of popular kabbalah, the Magen David entered Jewish culture as a talisman to protect oneself from the assaults of evil spirits. In recent history, (14th century) and for unclear reasons, the Maged David appeared as an emblem representing Jewish establishments, first in Prague, and from there spreading throughout the world as a Jewish identifying symbol.

The term magen David also has a mystical origin. In Hebrew, magen means 'shield.'  It is derived from the root g.n.n meaning 'protect,' 'defend,' 'guard,' or 'shelter.'  The word haganah, meaning 'protection,' coined by Rashi, and used in modern Israel as the name of Israel's defense force is based in the same root. As for using King David's name, Jewish lore attributed this symbol to his protective shield and even to King Solomon's seal, but this is unsubstantiated.

It is indeed fascinating that a cross-cultural amulet believed to protect one from evil, emerged in the Jewish culture as a symbol of strength:  The blue Magen David at the center of the Israeli flag represents political identity and national pride, and, the red Magen David is the logo of Israel's most distinguished medical emergency organization Magen David Adom

Professor Rachel Zohar Dulin teaches Hebrew and Bible at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.

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