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Surviving Leonard Nimoy's Superhuman Salute

Wednesday, March 30, 2016| Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Kressel explored the Jewish sources underlying fantasy literature’s greatest time-traveling epics. He is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Legend has it that actor Leonard Nimoy, z"l, was rehearsing a scene where his famous stoic character, Spock, meets a fellow Vulcan for the first time. Rather than have the aliens shake hands, a very human gesture, Nimoy felt the pair needed to do something different. His thoughts went back to a powerful moment he experienced with his father in shul.

The High Priests, the Cohanim, have a special duty during the prayer service to bless the congregants. According to tradition, those descended from the tribe of Levi wash the Cohen’s hands, then the Cohen removes his own shoes. He covers his head with his tallis, recites a blessing, then turns to the congregants and raises his hands so that his palms face downward and the thumbs of his outspread hands touch. The fingers on each hand are split into two sets of two fingers to represent the letter Shin, for Shaddai, Almighty God. With his prayer shawl covering his hands, the Cohen recites the priestly blessing, and while he utters his words, the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, shines through the Cohen’s hands to bless the congregation. (The Priestly Blessing is popular in Christian liturgy as well, and various forms are used in Christianity around the world, but without the hand signs and head covering.)

Jews believe one should never look at the Cohen’s hands when he recites the blessing, for harm might befall a person if he does. Instead, we should cover our eyes, or turn our backs to the Cohen during the prayer. If a man has a child, he should take him under his own tallis, to bless him and protect him, just as God blesses and protects the congregation.

And so when Leonard Nimoy was a boy, he was in shul, and his father draped his tallis over him and told him not to look as the Cohanim recited the prayer. Well, Nimoy looked. And lived, long and prosperously. Ever after that moment, he became fascinated with this terrifying power the priests had to heal with a gesture, and so decades later, when he needed an alternative greeting for his Vulcan character, he suggested what is now familiar to Jews and gentiles across the world. A hand raised, palm forward, thumb extended, fingers parted between the middle and ring finger while saying, "Live long and prosper." Not too different from the actual blessing, "May the Lord bless you and protect you…"

Now, decades after Spock's suggestion, science fiction fans all over the globe still walk around blessing each other with a (slightly altered) ancient Jewish ritual. Up until about a decade ago, before the Internet made all answers a search away, its origins were known only to a few, mainly Jewish, fans.

Matthew Kressel is a short fiction writer and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow. His first novel, King of Shards, was released October 2015 from Arche Press.

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