I received a question about Jewish symbols of healing, and it seems like a good time for a post on the subject. There are three primary symbols of healing in Judaism: the serpent, the sun, and the palm tree.
You won’t typically find these three objects used in Jewish visual art in a way that is meant to represent healing. Rather, they appear in biblical and Talmudic narratives or have been adopted as symbols of the medical profession. Nevertheless, they’re part of the rich history of Jewish symbolism, and you may want to draw on them for your work.
At first blush it might seem strange for the serpent to be a symbol of healing, after all the serpent is associated with evil and poison. In Genesis, Satan appears to Eve in the form of a serpent.
But if you recall the modern symbol of the medical profession, the Caduceus, that symbol incorporates snakes.
The association of serpents with healing has biblical roots. During the Israelites’ forty years of traveling in the desert, God punished the Israelites for one of their bouts of grumbling by sending poisonous snakes. When the snakes started killing the Israelites, Moses prayed to God on behalf of the people.
“God said to Moses, ‘Make yourself the image of a venomous snake, and place it on a banner. Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ Moses made a copper snake and placed it on a high pole. Whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze at the copper snake and live.” (Numbers 21:9)
It’s through this passage that the snake became a symbol of healing not only in Jewish culture but in larger society as well.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai relates that the Jewish patriarch Abraham wore around his neck a precious stone that healed anyone who looked at it. When Abraham died, according to the narrative, God hung the stone from the sun (Bava Batra 16b). This passage gives us the concept of healing as one of the sun’s many symbolic meanings in Judaism.
If you contemplate depicting the sun in a design, you’ll want to be mindful of the mitzvah that prohibits depicting celestial bodies. This commandment is part of the second of the big Ten Commandments. Here is the wording from Exodus 20:3:
“Do not have other Gods before Me. Do not represent such gods by any carved statue or picture of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land.”
This wide-ranging commandment has many implications, but for our purposes here it means that to comply with this mitzvah you’ll want to avoid depicting the sun in a way that looks like a sun.
This has traditionally been interpreted to mean that one should avoid depicting the sun as a round, yellow orb. One approach Jewish artists have used to represent the sun over the years is to depict the sun’s rays only, and not include a yellow circle.
As I write this, I have a recollection of a halakhic teaching about depicting the sun as red rather than yellow, as Chagall did in his painting A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon, shown above. But at the moment I am unable to locate that teaching. If you are considering depicting the sun, you may want to research this issue further.
Long before the medical profession adopted the snake as its symbol, ancient Jewish physicians signified their profession using the branch of a palm tree. We know from the Talmud that Hanina, a sage of the second or third century, added a palm tree branch to his insignia to identify himself as a physician. This seems to have been the customary practice of physicians of the rabbinic era, although the exact symbolic association of the palm tree with physicians’ work isn’t clear.
For me, the palm tree is my favorite of these three symbols of healing because of the language that concludes the Havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbat and the festivals:
“Twilight has arrived like the shade of a palm tree; I call to God who gives me everything.”
Every time I recite this passage I identify with the feeling of having walked a long, weary day in the sun and arriving, at evening, to rest in the cool air under the leaves of a palm tree. The thought feels restorative.
It’s a personal association rather than a formal symbolic meaning.
The use of theses symbols of Jewish healing may not be widely developed in Jewish art and design, but they are a part of Jewish history and heritage, and they’re waiting for you to make your own in your own work.
[Images: “Palm Trees” by Prosper Marilha (1832) via Wikimedia Commons; Detail from “Vipera Vasicornis and Young One” from Snakes: Curiosities and Wonders of Serpent Life by Catherine Cooper Hopley 1882); Caduceus via WikimediaCommons; “A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon,” Marc Chagall 1942); “Magnificent Palm Trees at Preveli Palmtree Forest” by Maria Van Rhodes (2019) via WikimediaCommons; Palm tree illustration from The Palm Tree by Sophy Moody (1864); .]