The 6-pointed star symbol is commonly called the “Star of David.” In Hebrew, however, it is called Magen David, which should be translated as “Shield of David.” It's origins as a Jewish symbol are murky, and while we can lay out different places in history when it has been used, its exact meaning and exact origin are ultimately unknown.
The earliest appearance of the 6-pointed star in a Jewish work is on one of the pages of the Leningrad Codex, which is from 1008. It appears in a decorative way, and we have no way of knowing whether or not any meaning is attached to it.
500 years later, in a Jewish prayer book from Prague, the Shield of David appears next to the phrase, “He will merit to bestow a bountiful gift on anyone who grasps the Shield of David.”
In Kabbalistic tradition there are a few different explanations for the meaning of the Shield of David, many of which revolve around the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people and G-d's presence in the world (Kabbalah is Jewish Mysticism. The traditional author of the main book of Jewish mysticism is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who lived 2,000 years ago. However, teachings of Kabbalah were never written down until the 1500's. The greatest teacher of Kabbalah is said to have been Rabbi Isaac Luria, who lived in Sfat—a city in northern Israel—at the end of the 1500's.).
In 1648, when Prague was successfully defended during the 30 Years' War in a battle known as the Battle of Prague, each group of defenders was given a distinct flag. The story goes that the leaders of the Jewish community, not having a particular symbol, approached a local Jesuit monk, asking for advice on what symbol to use. He suggested the Shield of David. Why did the shield of David look like two interlocking triangles? Because the Hebrew letter Daled (ד) in ancient Hebrew script looks like a triangle. Hence, the two triangles are the first and last letters of David's name. The Jews of Prague accepted this symbol on their flag.
The only problem with the story is that the Jesuit monk was by no means the first to create the 6-pointed star. As we already mentioned, it appears in Jewish works more than 600 years earlier. In addition, the symbol also appears in non-Jewish contexts. For example, I remember seeing it on floor mosaics that decorate one of the rooms in the Vatican. In this case, it does not seem to have any special meaning, but rather is used merely for aesthetic purposes.
Nonetheless, over the next 250 years, the Shield of David was used in a variety of different Jewish contexts, until in 1897, at the First World Zionist Conference, it appeared on the flag chosen by the delegates to represent the Zionist movement. In 1948, this flag then became the flag of the State of Israel.
Also noteworthy is that, in the early 20th century, the Shield of David was the motif chosen by many Jewish sports clubs or sportsmen. For example, the world champion boxer Max Baer wore the Shield of David on his shorts during his fights—most notably when he defeated Nazi Germany's Max Schmelling in 1933.
This leads me to what I see as the most fascinating and thought-provoking aspect of the Shield of David. Perhaps the most well-know use of the Shield of David in recent history was its use by the Nazis to identify and separate out Jews from the rest of the population. During WWII, Jews in certain areas were forced to wear yellow stars or armbands featuring the Shield of David. In contrast to the Zionists and Jewish sportsmen, the Shield of David in Nazi Europe was depicted as a badge of shame.
But as Psalm 118 tells us, “The stone that the builders rejected will become the cornerstone.” And indeed, the Shield of David became the symbol of the new Jewish state, reborn from 2,000 years of wanderings and rising up before the ashes of the destruction of European Jewry had even finished settling to the ground.
I am reminded of a story of a Chassidic rabbi who had survived the Holocaust. Every Shabbat, Jews read a portion of the Torah. And when we arrive to the section that lays out the curses that will befall the children of Israel if we do not keep G-d's commandments, the tradition is to read that section quickly and in a quiet, low voice. One year, in the synagogue of this Chassidic Rabbi, they reached that portion of the Torah, and the reader read it in the way I described. But the rabbi banged on the table and said, “Louder.” So the reader read that section again, this time a little louder. But the rabbi banged on the table again and said, “Louder.” So the reader repeated the section, again raising his voice a little. But the rabbi banged on the table again and said, “Louder.” This repeated itself until the reader was shouting the verses. After the service, the reader approached the rabbi and asked him for an explanation. The rabbi told him,
“We read these verses in an undertone only if they have not happened to us, in order to avoid bringing them upon us. But I have experienced these curses. I and any of my brethren who endured the hell of the Holocaust endured and survived these curses. I am not afraid of them now; rather I wear them as a badge of honor.”
Historically, the Shield of David is not the main symbol Jews used to identify themselves. That symbol would be the menorah. But perhaps it is fitting in a time when the world has witnessed a rebirth of the Jewish people, when we once again rule in our ancient homeland, when we have revived the Hebrew language, and when we are actively gathering in the exiles from the four corners of the earth, that we now take on a new symbol, not to replace the menorah, G-d forbid, but to be the flag of the new generation of Jews, who, because we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors, will be able to reach higher than previous generations ever could. As the Torah tells us, “each man with his flag.” The Torah, of course, is referring to the different flags of the tribes of Israel in the desert. In my humble opinion, the time has come for all Jews to unite under one flag. Perhaps that flag will be the one that conjures up memories of our greatest king, King David—the king who first united the children of Israel—and perhaps we can use it as inspiration to unite together once again in a bond of brotherhood and love that, this time, will never be broken.