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Pre-1981 Jewish Chaplain's Insignia

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Posted 6 years ago


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Sometimes an insignia design leaves me scratching my head, wondering “what were they thinking?” Here’s a relatively common pair of US Army Jewish Chaplains insignia, using ROMAN numerals to indicate the Ten Commandments. Now, I don’t happen to be Jewish, but I do remember from Sunday school that the Romans didn’t show up until a long time after Moses. When they did, they were an occupying army, and the Jews weren’t too happy about it. This insignia, which was adopted in WWI, remained the same until the Roman numerals were replaced by Hebrew letters in 1981.

This particular pair of insignia retains its original cardboard and plastic wrapper which at one time was folded over and sealed with a staple at the top. The insignia have post-WWII clutches. There are no markings on the backs of the insignia or the cardboard to indicate manufacturer or date. If someone recognizes the manufacturer or can narrow down the date of manufacture, please let me know.

The first official chaplain’s insignia dates to 1880, when the shepherd’s crook was adopted. The cross became the official insignia in 1898. During WWI, following a number of objections and a congressman getting involved, rabbis serving as chaplains were authorized not to wear the chaplain’s cross. After that, Jewish chaplains wore no insignia at all, which created some confusion.

Some wanted to continue to leave Jewish chaplains without any insignia. There was also debate about returning to the shepherd’s crook as a symbol acceptable to all faiths. Others wanted a Star of David for the insignia, but it was argued that the six point star looked too much like a general’s five point star from a distance. Finally in 1917 the above insignia was chosen. Over the next decades, there were proposals to get rid of the Roman numerals as offensive. Some Jewish authorities argued against Hebrew letters because some might perceive the use of them as making the insignia holy. Finally the decision to change the numerals to Hebrew letters was made “reflecting as it would a more significant and authentic representation of a heritage and faith eternally related to Hebrew as the language of the Old Testament and the prophets.”

Eventually Muslim and Buddhist insignia were also created. Last year the Army received its first Hindu Chaplain, and for a while there was a debate again about going back to the shepherd’s crook as a universal symbol for all chaplains. I understand that a new Hindu chaplain’s insignia, representing the “Om”, was created instead.


  1. Chrisnp Chrisnp, 6 years ago
    Hebrew always seemed such an obvious choice to me. If not that, I would have thought some lines that simulated text would have been better than Roman numerals. But it the end it's not my opinion that counts anyway.

  2. scottvez scottvez, 6 years ago
    Interesting and educational posting Chris.

    With 25 years in the Army, it is surprising, but I never met a Jewish Chaplain nor does the insignia seem familiar to me.

    Thanks for the education!

  3. Chrisnp Chrisnp, 6 years ago
    Thanks Scott. I do try to make my posts interesting. In my 24 years in the Army, I vaguely recall one Jewish chaplain. One day we should compare assignments. We may have crossed paths. I was MI, but I spent a lot of time in direct support of infantry units.

    Yes, Kevin, as a gentile I am definitely looking at the situation from the outside, which is what I meant by my opinion not really counting. I have no idea about the Jewish community’s acceptance of Roman numerals in 1917 and the years afterwards, and I can find other examples of the tablets with Roman numerals from that time so it may not have mattered at all. Eventually there were enough objections to the Roman numerals to change them, but there are lots of examples of things that were simply accepted for decades, that became objectionable to later generations. Perhaps this is one of them.

    I just find the use of Roman numerals interesting from the standpoint of the long and often violent Roman occupation of Jerusalem.
  4. Chrisnp Chrisnp, 6 years ago
    Kevin, in regards to the Torah Scroll being an appropriate symbol, I didn't mention it but the Menorah was another WWI era suggestion that was rejected, as was a pair of Lions of Judah holding up the Star of David.
  5. scottvez scottvez, 6 years ago
    Religious denomination on the uniform might cause some issues. Our Chaplains (Christian) often worked with local religious leaders in Iraq and never made any uniform changes.

    Iraq is actually a fairly diverse country when it comes to religion-- obviously a Muslim majority, but Christians, Jewish and other smaller groups as well. I remember seeing a synagogue in Baghdad! The biggest conflict seemed to be Sunni and Shia.

    As far as dog tags, I wouldn't consider that an issue. I don't recall any Jewish soldiers deleting or changing dog tags (some soldiers probably have as a personal decision). The tags are worn under clothing and only read on close inspection.

    A POW would obviously have concerns, but then again any captors are unlikely to follow the Geneva Convention standards of treatment.

    I'd be interested in hearing of other experiences. Some units may have handled the situation differently.

  6. Chrisnp Chrisnp, 5 years ago
    Update - The clutches on these, which I believe are original since they are still with the packaging, dates this item to the 1960s.
  7. mrmac1903 mrmac1903, 5 years ago
    On July 17, 1862 Congress passed a bill allowing for the first time Jewish Chaplains in the US Military. Some Chaplains used the Shepherd's Crook during the Civil War and all wore it from 1880 to 1888. After 1888 the Cross became the symbol for all Chaplains until 1917 when Jewish Army Chaplains were authorized to wear the Two Tablets with Roman Numerals. The Navy did not adopt this insignia until 1941. Some Navy Chaplains wore the cross and some received permission to go back to the Shepherds hook. In 1980 the Navy convened a panel to review the insignia and this resulted in the change to using Hebrew numbers on the tablets. In 1981 the change went into effect for all services. Some did not want to change because the use of Hebrew would appear holy. When others wanted the change because the use of Roman numerals was considered an insult for two reasons, the hand of god in giving the law would not write in Roman numerals and the Roman domination of Jewish communities with a tyrannical force 2000 years ago.

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