Celebrate Israel & Research the State's Symbol

Background to Lesson

  • Duration:
    • 60 minutes
  • Grade and Levels:
    • 5-12th graders and their families
  • Teaching Context:
    • Stand-alone
  • This is part of a special pre-Yom Haatzmaut program (can substitute Chanukah), in which students and families are encouraged to study this material together at home over Shabbat, or at a special family/communal program. If the latter, it would be printed and distributed for family group study. Where appropriate, teachers or even advanced students can help to facilitate the learning groups.
  • Learning Targets:
    • TLW will appreciate the value of learning at home with family, not just in school with teachers and peers.
    • TLW will deepen his/her attachment to the State of Israel.
    • TLW appreciate the importance of Tanach for Jewish self-understanding.
    • TLW enter Yom Haatzmaut with a deeper appreciation for the historical background and symbolism of the Israeli flag. (This can in turn generate greater emotional attachment to Yom Haatzmaut celebrations, e.g. Daglanut (choreographed flag dancing to music), lowering and raising flags, etc.)

Above you see the official symbol of the State of Israel.

  • Describe the emblem's different components.
  • What do you think the different parts of the emblem symbolize?
  • Why might Israel's founders have chosen this particular image?

Next, we’ll look at the “backstory” to the actual design of the emblem. As you read, discuss the following questions:

  • What is interesting to you about the process of designing the emblem?

  • In what ways was the Shamir brothers' idea fully accepted, and in what ways was it modified?

  • What symbolisms did the Shamir brothers seek to capture in their design?

The Emblem

The new State of Israel was in need of an official emblem to demonstrate its sovereignty in the community of nations. The following notice was published in the Official Gazette:

The Provisional Council of State
Proclamation of the Emblem of the State of Israel

The Provisional Council of State hereby proclaims and makes known that the emblem of the State of Israel shall be as illustrated below:

11 Shevat 5709 (10 February 1949)
Provisional Council of State
Joseph Sprinzak, Speaker

The official emblem was adopted nine months after the State was established; it has since appeared on official documents, on the presidential standard and on public buildings in Israel and abroad. In the process of designing the emblem, many proposals which sought to include the symbols deemed appropriate for representing the Jewish people in their reborn state were reviewed. To avoid imitating the emblems of European countries and to create a unique one, ancient visual symbols from former periods of Jewish sovereignty were sought.

The Provisional Council of State announced a competition to design the emblem of the State.

(Figure 3)

The proposal submitted by graphic artists Oteh Walisch and W. Struski (Figure 3) was originally chosen out of 450 designs submitted by 164 participants. The seven branched-candelabrum of the Temple - the menorah - occupies the center of the Walisch and Struski seal. The candelabrum is undoubtedly the oldest Jewish symbol. It has no parallel in heraldry and produces an immediate association with the subject it represents - the Temple in Jerusalem. The artists took as their model the depiction of the menorah in relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome (picture below). They simplified the shape into a sort of schematic negative in white, displayed against a light-blue background. The upper portion of the emblem showed a white band, on which the seven golden stars are emblazoned, which Theodor Herzl had intended for the flag of the Jewish state. He had meant these stars to stand for the seven-hour work-day he envisioned for the future citizens of the Jewish state.

(Menorah in relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome)

The committee decided that the seven-branched menorah should be one of the elements of the emblem, but each member had his own ideas as to what other elements, e.g. candles or the "Lion of Judah," should be included. Transport Minister David Remez suggested that experts in various fields, be included in the committee. Thus, Aba Elhanani (architect), Eliezer Sukenik (archeologist), Reuven Rubin (painter) and Leopold Krakauer (architect-artist) joined the committee.

One of the new proposals submitted to the Emblem and Flag Committee was rendered by graphic artists Itamar David and Yerachmiel Schechter.

The most significant change in the David and Schechter design is the change of the circular form (in the synagogue in Jericho) into an ellipse. Elliptical seals were common during the period of the monarchy. They generally bore the name of the owner (sometimes along with that of his father), plus a decorative element.

Among the many proposals submitted during this round was one by the brothers Maxim and Gavriel Shamir. Beba Idelson presented their design to the members of the Seal and Flag Committee at its sixth meeting, on December 28, 1948.

(initial Shamir proposal, 1948)

According to Gavriel Shamir, their design evolved as follows:

After we decided to use the menorah, we looked for another element and concluded that olive branches are the most beautiful expression of the Jewish people's love of peace. The leaves are also a very decorative element. Now we faced the question of which menorah to use... We decided on a stylized version rather than an ancient form. Our intention was to create a modern emblem, without Jewish traditional symbols. We told ourselves that the menorah itself is an ancient symbol and its very presence on the seal constitutes a traditional element.

(A. P., "How the Emblem of the State of Israel was Born," interview with the Shamir brothers, Ma'ariv, February 16, 1949).

The Shamir brothers' menorah was so "modern" that the Emblem and Flag Committee, convened on January 10, 1949, was overcome by doubts at the "modernity" which they themselves had suggested. They did not like the stylized menorah and resolved that Beba Idelson, as suggested by Transport Minister David Remez, ask the Shamir brothers to prepare another design, using "Titus's menorah."

Remez's return to this version added another level of symbolism to the menorah motif, one that had been absent from the earlier proposals: now the menorah would symbolize not only the grandeur of the past but also the present and, perhaps, the future.

Borrowing the menorah from the Arch of Titus would constitute the visual metaphor of an idea prevalent in those years: just as the relief representing Titus's triumphal procession in Rome stood for the destruction of the Jewish state in 70 CE, so its rebirth would be symbolized by the return of the menorah - if not to the Temple - then to the newly born State of Israel. In other words, the menorah is returned from the Arch of Titus, where it symbolizes defeat, humiliation and disgrace, and is installed in a place of honor on the emblem of the State, the establishment of which is testimony to the eternity of the Jewish people.

There is another source, the 4th chapter of Sefer Zechariah, which we read as part of the Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah, which, even though they didn't mention it in their interview, seems to describe almost exactly the design developed by the Shamir brothers.

The background is that the Jews have returned to Judea (Jerusalem and surrounding areas) after the destruction of the First Temple, and the leaders Zerubavel and Yeshua Kohen Gadol have led the Jews in setting the Second Temple's foundation. Still, the people fear their powerful enemies in the land and are scared to continue the project. Hashem offers the prophet Zechariah a supportive message.

As you read the verses, ask yourself:

  • What is Hashem's message to the people of that time? What do you think He means by the phrase, "Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit - says the Lord of Hosts?"
  • What does the Menorah symbolize? What do you think the "eyes of God" refer to?
  • How does the navi explain the symbolism of the two olive branches on either side of the Menorah?
  • Do you think the Shamir brothers had these pesukim in mind when designing the emblem? Either way, what might Zechariah's prophecy teach us about the emblem's deeper significance?

(א) וַיָּ֕שָׁב הַמַּלְאָ֖ךְ הַדֹּבֵ֣ר בִּ֑י וַיְעִירֵ֕נִי כְּאִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יֵע֥וֹר מִשְּׁנָתֽוֹ׃ (ב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלַ֔י מָ֥ה אַתָּ֖ה רֹאֶ֑ה ויאמר [וָאֹמַ֡ר] רָאִ֣יתִי ׀ וְהִנֵּ֣ה מְנוֹרַת֩ זָהָ֨ב כֻּלָּ֜הּ וְגֻלָּ֣הּ עַל־רֹאשָׁ֗הּ וְשִׁבְעָ֤ה נֵרֹתֶ֙יהָ֙ עָלֶ֔יהָ שִׁבְעָ֤ה וְשִׁבְעָה֙ מֽוּצָק֔וֹת לַנֵּר֖וֹת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ׃ (ג) וּשְׁנַ֥יִם זֵיתִ֖ים עָלֶ֑יהָ אֶחָד֙ מִימִ֣ין הַגֻּלָּ֔ה וְאֶחָ֖ד עַל־שְׂמֹאלָֽהּ׃ (ד) וָאַ֙עַן֙ וָֽאֹמַ֔ר אֶל־הַמַּלְאָ֛ךְ הַדֹּבֵ֥ר בִּ֖י לֵאמֹ֑ר מָה־אֵ֖לֶּה אֲדֹנִֽי׃ (ה) וַ֠יַּעַן הַמַּלְאָ֞ךְ הַדֹּבֵ֥ר בִּי֙ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלַ֔י הֲל֥וֹא יָדַ֖עְתָּ מָה־הֵ֣מָּה אֵ֑לֶּה וָאֹמַ֖ר לֹ֥א אֲדֹנִֽי׃ (ו) וַיַּ֜עַן וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלַי֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר זֶ֚ה דְּבַר־ה' אֶל־זְרֻבָּבֶ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר לֹ֤א בְחַ֙יִל֙ וְלֹ֣א בְכֹ֔חַ כִּ֣י אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י אָמַ֖ר ה' צְבָאֽוֹת׃ (ז) מִֽי־אַתָּ֧ה הַֽר־הַגָּד֛וֹל לִפְנֵ֥י זְרֻבָּבֶ֖ל לְמִישֹׁ֑ר וְהוֹצִיא֙ אֶת־הָאֶ֣בֶן הָרֹאשָׁ֔ה תְּשֻׁא֕וֹת חֵ֥ן חֵ֖ן לָֽהּ׃ (פ) (ח) וַיְהִ֥י דְבַר־ה' אֵלַ֥י לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ט) יְדֵ֣י זְרֻבָּבֶ֗ל יִסְּד֛וּ הַבַּ֥יִת הַזֶּ֖ה וְיָדָ֣יו תְּבַצַּ֑עְנָה וְיָ֣דַעְתָּ֔ כִּֽי־ה' צְבָא֖וֹת שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ (י) כִּ֣י מִ֣י בַז֮ לְי֣וֹם קְטַנּוֹת֒ וְשָׂמְח֗וּ וְרָא֞וּ אֶת־הָאֶ֧בֶן הַבְּדִ֛יל בְּיַ֥ד זְרֻבָּבֶ֖ל שִׁבְעָה־אֵ֑לֶּה עֵינֵ֣י ה' הֵ֥מָּה מְשׁוֹטְטִ֖ים בְּכָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (יא) וָאַ֖עַן וָאֹמַ֣ר אֵלָ֑יו מַה־שְּׁנֵ֤י הַזֵּיתִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶה עַל־יְמִ֥ין הַמְּנוֹרָ֖ה וְעַל־שְׂמֹאולָֽהּ׃ (יב) וָאַ֣עַן שֵׁנִ֔ית וָאֹמַ֖ר אֵלָ֑יו מַה־שְׁתֵּ֞י שִׁבֲּלֵ֣י הַזֵּיתִ֗ים אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּיַ֗ד שְׁנֵי֙ צַנְתְּר֣וֹת הַזָּהָ֔ב הַֽמְרִיקִ֥ים מֵעֲלֵיהֶ֖ם הַזָּהָֽב׃ (יג) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלַי֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הֲל֥וֹא יָדַ֖עְתָּ מָה־אֵ֑לֶּה וָאֹמַ֖ר לֹ֥א אֲדֹנִֽי׃ (יד) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֵ֖לֶּה שְׁנֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־הַיִּצְהָ֑ר הָעֹמְדִ֖ים עַל־אֲד֥וֹן כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(1) The angel who talked with me came back and woke me as a man is wakened from sleep. (2) He said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes; (3) and by it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left.” (4) I, in turn, asked the angel who talked with me, “What do those things mean, my lord?” (5) “Do you not know what those things mean?” asked the angel who talked with me; and I said, “No, my lord.” (6) Then he explained to me as follows: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts. (7) Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground! For he shall produce that excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’” (8) And the word of the Lord came to me: (9) “Zerubbabel’s hands have founded this House and Zerubbabel’s hands shall complete it. Then you shall know that it was the Lord of Hosts who sent me to you. (10) Does anyone scorn a day of small beginnings? When they see the stone of distinction in the hand of Zerubbabel, they shall rejoice. “Those seven are the eyes of the Lord, ranging over the whole earth.” (11) “And what,” I asked him, “are those two olive trees, one on the right and one on the left of the lampstand?” (12) And I further asked him, “What are the two tops of the olive trees that feed their gold through those two golden tubes?” (13) He asked me, “Don’t you know what they are?” And I replied, “No, my lord.” (14) Then he explained, “They are the two anointed dignitaries who attend the Lord of all the earth.”

In his discussion of the story of Noach and the ark, Professor Nahum Sarna offers the following explanation for the symbolism of the olive branch that the dove brought back to Noach as proof that the flood waters were receding. Read his explanation, taken from his book Understanding Genesis, and consider the following:

  • What do we generally see as the symbolism of the olive tree?
  • How might ancient people, including those living at the time of Tanach, have seen its symbolism differently?
  • How might Professor Sarna's approach offer an additional layer of explanation for the modern Israeli emblem?

"The olive tree, one of the earliest to be cultivated in the Near East, is an evergreen. It is extraordinarily sturdy and may thrive for up to a thousand years. Thus it became symbolic of God’s blessings of regeneration, abundance, and strength, which is most likely the function it serves here. In the present context the olive branch is invested with the idea of peace and reconciliation, and for this reason it was incorporated into the official emblem of the state of Israel."

  • The source sheet is promoted on the school website and social media as part of its lead up to Yom Haatzmaut, as well as in the school’s weekly newsletter to families.
  • The event can also be run in partnership with local synagogues, who can print copies of the paper and help to organize study programs over Shabbat.
  • After the Shabbat learning/at the event, families can be encouraged to add content (e.g., suggested questions, additional sources, etc.) to the sheet in real time.

The learning event can be followed in a host of different ways. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Follow up by providing more engaging family learning resources/events.
  • A school or community-wide event might include art projects in which students seek to replicate the Israeli emblem and highlight its meaning.
  • Students can paint a huge emblem to hang in the school for Yom Haatzmaut. if there are Israeli shelichim/Bnot Sherut in the school, they can be actively involved in this part of the project.
  • The emblem study can be part of an interdisciplinary in-school day of of learning, in which students look at early Israeli history, the structure of parliamentary government, the idea of national symbols and pride, the centrality of Tanakh, the balance between peace and self-defense in Jewish thought and Israeli life, the mission of Tzahal, artistic creation and discussions about aesthetics, and more! These can all be houses on Sefaria.
  • During or after learning, families can be encouraged to add their own comments and sources to the page.
  • Students and/or families can create videos/vlogs (or can be invited to sit with the school's videographer), in which they offer their own favorite explanation for the emblem's deeper significance, and why learning about it in depth as a family was such a powerful experience, and how it speaks to the school's core mission. This can be shared on social media and used in the future for marketing purposes. [A separate Sefaria sheet can be created to house those reflections. Alternatively, they can be embedded in this sheet, to create a personalized source sheet for the school community.]