Browse Topics

View all talks

Culturally Decoding the Simchat Torah Flag

Shalom SabarFilmed at Hebrew University

Can a simple and naive object reflect deep ideas and dramatic historical events? In this talk I try to show how such a Judaic object which is commonly put in the garbage shortly after it is briefly used during the holiday does exactly that. The object in question is an ornamental piece of paper designed as a flag that is put on a wooden or plastic stick to be carried by children during a minor, non-biblical holiday in the Jewish year cycle. The idea for the flag, or degel in Hebrew, is derived from the standards carried by the presidents of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Sinai desert. However, this object changed its original function and especially in the culture of East European Jews the military or national flag came to represent the flag of the Torah. That is, as some rabbis explained, while  other nations use the flag to fight and shed blood Jews use it as a symbol of piety, learning and doing good deeds. The naive imagery on the early flags highlighted the pious rabbinical concepts. The decoration of the flag however went through a dramatic change when the Zionist movement searched for political and national symbols. The Simchat Torah flag was now designed to express the notion of marching to the Land of Israel with a national flag, like other nations. These ideas were strengthened in the State of Israel, where the flags included more and more "secular" and militaristic imagery. From the 1980's and on flags were used to advertise political parties and represent different  sectors and ideologies of Israeli society. In the last years there are some attempts to produce rather pluralistic and "politically correct" flags. The Simchat Torah flag thus naively and colourfully reflects the attitudes towards power in Judaism and the transformations in Jewish society in the last generations.

I was born in the ages old neo-Aramaic speaking Kurdish-Jewish community of Zakho, Iraq and immigrated to Israel with my family while I was a few weeks old. I grew up in small and poor Jerusalem during the early years of the new state, and later studied art history, philosophy and literature at the Hebrew University (1974-1976). I continued my studies abroad and earned my MA and PhD in art history at the University of California Los Angeles (1987). My PhD dissertation dealt with the patronage and art of the illustrated Ketubbah (marriage contract) of Italian Jews during the Baroque period. Subsequently I returned to Israel to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I currently serve as a professor of Jewish art and folklore. My research joins together the disciplines of art history, folklore, history and anthropology, to shed light on Jewish art and material culture, visual materials and objects associated with rituals in the life and year cycles, and the evidence these materials provide about Jewish daily life and the relationships between the Jewish minorities and the societies that hosted them in Christian Europe and the Islamic East. My published work in several languages deals with these and related aspects. I served as a visiting professor and lecture widely in  universities, museums and other public institutions in Israel, the US and Europe.  In addition I lead traveling seminars to Jewish sites and monuments in selected countries in Europe, Central Asia and North Africa.

Everybody here is familiar with this object that I’m holding, I’m sure. If not now, in your childhood everybody had it, but how many times did you look at it and you noticed what is illustrated on it? So, I’m going to speak a little bit about that, about this naïve object that at the end of the holiday we all put in the garbage and forget about it. We don’t know who made it; we don’t know which artist, any name that comes to your mind, no one will remember anything about it a year later or even during the holiday. But still, if you look at this object and try to understand what it means and how it really reflects a lot of Jewish history and Jewish notions and ideas, it’s amazing how this folk object can tell us a lot about our culture. So let’s begin with the beginning and what the word Degel means in Hebrew, where it is coming from and how it is transformed to become Degel Torah. So we have to begin with a question about this object and the one who understood what this object means, the first one that really expressed it in a way that is understood in modern times, was Herzl. Herzl understood that for the Jewish people without the flag you cannot really function and in one of the letters that he wrote to Baron Hirsh he writes; that this is an object that is not just a piece of cloth with a sign on it but with this one, with this object you can march through the Holy Land, you can liberate the Holy Land, you can bring people and they’ll go after you because this kind of an object, the flag, will really mean a lot for everybody once it’s raised and it comes to mean what it means to the other nations of the world. But, if we go back, and I say that we have to go back to the beginning and see what it really means, what this word that it comes to so natural to us today Degel, what it means in the Bible. In the Bible it appears 13 times, the word Degel in different declinations, 12 of them are in The Book of Numbers, I’ll show you just one of them here; and it’s really the description how the tribes of Israel were camped around the tabernacle, the Mishkan in the desert. And, actually when you read the verses very carefully in the Numbers you see the word Degel that appears several times, especially in chapter two in Numbers, does not mean what we say about it today. It really means that every camp had an ‘Ot’, the ‘Ot’ in the Bible is what we today call a flag, while Degel is really the camp, I mean each tribe has its own division, that’s how you should translate it. Each tribe had division and then next to that division, next to the place where they camp was the sign what we call flag. But this meaning was forgotten in time or not really followed up because of some influences that later occur and we’ll come back to them in a second. But what Degel appears once more in the Bible, outside the Torah, and this is in the Song of Songs. Only once it appears there outside the Torah and this famous verse ….’He brought me to the house of wine and the banner of him over me is love’. And actually when you read the midrash this is what the rabbis understood by this verse, actually the entire Song of Songs, that this book speaks about the love between God and Israel and this cellar of wine is mount Sinai and the banner of love is Degleh Torah. This is the first time this expression occurs and they now connect this flag, this thing that has to do with the camping of the tribes in the desert, with the Torah and that’s what it means for them and this meaning will be taken on and reused in later ages. So its best on these two texts, that I read to you from the Bible, that will later connect it to make this object. But in the meantime many things happened before we have the first Degleh Torah and the Degel becomes a very important item in European folklore and culture of the Middle ages but I’m showing you what it was in Christian society in the Middle Ages. For example; if you march to war and you can see the picture on the left, you want to win the battle, you win it with the flag. This is a symbol of who you are, what you stand for. And if you lose a battle, on the other side you will see the image of the Synagogue, the image that represents Judaism, she’s weeping, her crown is falling and she is holding a staff with the flag that is broken and the staff is broken and the flag is falling on the earth to show that she lost. If you win, you have the flag up if you lose the flag is down. This is what was in Medieval Christian culture and everyone understood that the flag stands for that. And in Jewish art of the Middle Ages they understood what the Christians meant, so when we look at Jewish miniatures, especially in Haggadot of the Middle Ages, you only see that’s a negative figures you can say, holding flags. It’s either, for example, the Egyptians that are chasing the Israelites on the picture that you see. The Egyptians are holding flags like the knights or the wicked son in the Haggadot, in the different Haggadot is shown as a soldier holding a flag because this was, in the eyes of the medieval Jews, only evil people would hold flags because they would come to kill them , they were their enemies. Jews have no rights to hold flags. The only group that would change it among the Jewish people that would try to look at the flag in a more positive way in the Middle Ages and tried to really make it close to Christian ideas of the time, are Italian Jews that were mentioned already a few times. Italian Jews claim, the banners that Italian knights are using of the times in the Renaissance, are taken from Jews sources because the 12 tribes in the desert had them already, so we should adopt back to us. And they call it Degel and they put on it the personal insignia. You can find it on Ketubot like the one I’m showing here on the left, from Venice; on printer’s devices and they call it Degel: This, the Degal, it’s like the banner of the family who publishes the book or gets married at this time. They went one step further, Italian Jews; when Shlomo Molcho appeared on the scene of European Jewry, claiming to be the Messiah. with David Reubeni, they embrodied for him a flag. This is the first flag that they know that existed in Jewish history in our hands today. It’s from 16th Century Italy, from Mantua probably, today in the Jewish museum in Prague. And they chose a flag like the knights of the Middle Ages and on it is emborided some inscriptions in Hebrew from the Bible, if you read them; It’s very clear for Italian Jews that with the flag you take revenge of your enemies and Shlomo Molcho himself, influenced by these ideas, when he signed his famous signature, you can see on the upper screen there, his signature, one of the letters becomes the flag. Because for him influenced by Italian ideas, Italian Jewish ideas, the flag can be victory, military victory. So this is introduction until now because now we pass to Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe they could not even understand this idea of Italian Jews, that the Degal means something you fight with, you fight with for what? You don’t fight like Shlomo Molcho to win something, to kill people. No, if you fight, you fight in another name, for another idea and this is the idea of the Degal Torah, that I mentioned before, as the commentary to Shir Hashirim and that’s what East European Jews took this idea and they made it even associated with soldiers who are children because we are not speaking about real war. So, this holiday of Simchat Torah that is not biblical, that is not even Talmudic, became in the mind of East European Jews, the holiday of the children in which you pass, what you should teach the next generation by the children. So then became the main heroes of this holiday. All the customs books we have form the time would show us activities of children for this holiday because they are the main, let’s say, heritage that should be carrying the tradition to pass the Simchat Torah, you can say, the tradition from this year to the next year. And one of the most central objects associated with that is this flag that was invented, really, for this purpose, using these ideas that I mentioned before. So, for example; we can see on postcards, on illustrations that we don’t have before the 19th century, although the custom is mentioned much earlier, that this is now the custom that as the soldiers are marching to the war, the children are marching carrying these flags with them, as if they are soldiers but they are fighting not with swords or weapons. This is the flag of the Torah with which they are going to win the war. This was the idea that several Eastern European rabbis mention and so on the earliest flags that we have, that survived only from the second half of the 19th Century, this idea comes forth very clearly and we see the children are marching. And look at the bottom of this slide that shows; ….You see 12 children, exactly 12, each one is holding a flag, and they are marching as if they are soldiers. And on these flags and this is the earliest testimonies that we have and they come centuries earlier from the earliest flags we have, it says that on these flags were written the names of the tribes Degal machineh yehudah ,Degal machineh Ephraim. The names of the 12 tribes are written because these children are now marching as the 12 tribes of Israel. So the ideas of The Books of Numbers and Shir Hashirim are united here to express a new idea really. And so, I mean we’ll see, many animals on these East European flags and they’re all heroic animals but they are symbols of good qualities. “To do is the will of his father in heaven”. Or we see Moses and Aaron of course, the most heroic figures who can say Keter Torah, Keter Te’unah exemplified by these figures together with the animals. So, these ideas, as you can say, were very prominent in East European culture until something happened and that thing that happened was Zionism. Totally unexpected, you can say in the traditional Shtetl World but it did happen and it gave a new notion to the meaning of the flag and what it means. We speak about the second half of the 19th Century, the spring of the nations, when every nation of Europe is looking for independence, for a new hymn, for a new hero, for everything new and one of the new things that they are looking for is the flag. Everybody knows, I think, this painting by Delacroix on the left here that shows Liberty leading the people and with the counter part of the Zionist movement. Yes, I mean we see Herzl speaking now about this angel who is holding the flag, of course, I mean; the next step will be that we have these kinds of images that appear in the early 20th Century already. Jews carried flags to fight, yes, to fight not in the name of Torah but to really fight. So, quickly these ideas became on the early Simchat Torah flags that were produced under Zionist influence already in Poland in Russia, like these two that I am showing you. On one of them there is the tikvah, one version of it and it says on the top; “Seu-Ziona Nes Va Degal” Seu-Ziona Nes Va Degal is the Degal of the Bible but in a new meaning; “take the flag with you to fight for the promised land.” And instead of Moses and Aaron we now have Herzl and Nordau. I mean, that’s their career, yes and we see the Chassidic holding the flag of the Torah. And the next step and now I’m passing for the last minutes to show you a little bit from what’s happening in the Holy Land itself. You have this flag that was done around 1920, it says; It’s very let’s say, pious ideas but it says be’ad ameinu, be’ad artzeinu ve torahteinu “For the love of Zion” and when we fight for the love of Zion and this becomes the idea that is now expressed on this flag. And then when the State of Israel is about to be established we have now these Chalutzim, these ideas that lets say making everything almost secular. So we see boys and girls are dancing together for the first time and the boys are in shorts and some of them have kippahs some don’t. And among the Holy sites you see in the four corners of this flag you have the Kotel and the Tomb of Rachel at the top at the bottom you have Hebrew University, if you didn’t know that’s a holy site as well. And then comes the Six Day War. And this, for me, is the most amazing really what happened to the Simchat Torah flag under the influence of the Six Day War. Here was the full, let’s say, meaning of this flag as a military object, taken fully by the designers of this use that don’t even know their names again. So we see now the flags of the Six Day War of 68-69, I mean these early years before the Yom Kippur war that should show miarage airplanes and will show the Wailing Wall that was liberated and Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and we see the generals, I mean instead of Moses and Aaron and instead of Herzl and Nordau now we have all the officers that won the war and the Mirages are doing the shape of the Magen David and so on and so forth. There are so many flags produced in this year, they are all lovely and they are really, very impressive in the ideas that they express but this is the new, let’s say, messianic times they’ve arrived. The flag of the Torah is now winning, winning, I mean you combine now the military. You can say this is the opposite of what the Hassidic rabbis were thinking about the flag of the Torah but still these ideas were clear to the people because this object is designed as a military flag. Now, we come to the last section of the lecture and I want to show you what happened later, after the Six Day War, after the Yom Kippur War we have secular flags in the 80s that became the most common ones. So , for example the one at the top is from Tel Aviv; all the children, none of them with a kippah boys and girls in shorts and the landscape is nothing, I mean there is a Torah scroll there but otherwise you cannot associate with anything. And the bottom one is, of course almost a joke because what does Popeye and Olive Oil have to do with Simchat Torah? I don’t know but still they are there. And then we come to the 90s and the 2000s and we see now that the flag is used by the political parties in Israel. Only a collector crazy like me that collects every flag that appears on the market can see that. You have for the Mafdal, you have for Shas and even Arcadi Gaydamark, for those of you who don’t know, who ran to be mayor of Jerusalem with a Simchat Torah flag. Thanks Avi who brought me this flag. And the last was the Masorti movement, produced here in Jerusalem, this flag that is supposedly now politically correct we’re in a different period nowadays, so this is 2012 this flag and it shows women dancing with the Torah schroll we see an Ethiopian child, we see Herzl looking at the episode and so on. I mean this is now harmony, everybody’s together, everything is good, everybody’s smiling. You can be orthodox, you can be secular, whatever, everybody’s accepted, everybody’s welcome. I would say that I want to conclude with this slide of Chabad. Chabad has now understood what’s happening; you can say that what’s happening in Israeli society. And they try to take the ideas of the past but update them. So what we see nowi mean that these designs are taken from some of the flags but used over and over again by Chabad, they are designed as military emblems, even the one on the left like of Tzahal, the other one Tzivos Hashem. I mean you fight in the name of the Torah but to make it, let’s say, understood by people of today that this is really a military design but it’s the military design of the Torah that changed the name it can be Tzahal but it’s Tzvah Hachana LeGeulah so it’s different type but it’s really takin goverf these ideas of the past. So this, again to conclude this naïve object of the past, if you look at many of these and try to see how they reflect the ideas of the time and each one in each way reflects them without even thinking about it and when you put them together you have the entire Jewish history.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License