To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on the Priestly Blessing and Spock.

Day 17: The Priestly Blessing and Spock

Priestly Blessing art in the Synagoge Enschede, photo by Kleuske

Priestly Blessing art in the Synagoge Enschede, photo by Kleuske

The descendants of the High Priest Aaron, Moses’s brother, are known as the Cohanim, and these high priests have been chosen by God to assist in serving him. They have a special duty during the prayer service, to bless the congregants. First, 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, his prayer shawl, 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. With his prayer shawl also covering his hands, the High Priest says:

May the Lord bless you and protect you…
May the Lord make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you…
May the Lord lift up His face unto you and give you peace…

After each line, the congregants say, “Amen.” 

God’s Shekhinah, or Divine Presence, shines through the Cohen’s hands during the blessing, therefore, one should never look at the Cohen’s hands when he recites the blessing, for harm shall befall a person if he does.  Instead, one should cover one’s eyes, or turn their backs to the Cohen during this prayer. If a man has a child, he should take him under his own talis, to bless him and protect him, just as God blesses and protects the congregation.

The Myth’s Origins

The text of the Priestly Blessing comes directly from the Torah, specifically. Numbers 6:23–27. The prayer mention’s that God’s face should “shed light upon you,” yet in Exodus 33:20, God says, “Thou can not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.” So the tradition of averting the eyes arose. The fingers are positioned in such a way so that each hand forms the Hebrew letter שׁ, Shin, which stands for Shaddai, Almighty God.

There is a biblical prohibition against a Cohen with disfigured hands from offering the blessing, so the practice of covering of the hands arose to allow those priests whom the community favored to still perform the blessing. In later times, this evolved into the belief that one should not see the Cohen’s hand during the blessing.

The Priestly Blessing is popular in Christian liturgy as well, and various forms are chanted in Christianity around the world, though without the hand signs and head covering.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

Spock and his Vulcan Salute

Spock and his Vulcan Salute

When actor Leonard Nimoy z”l* was a boy, he went with his father to shul, to synagogue, and his father told him to avert his eyes during the Priestly Blessing, because God’s Presence would emerge from the Cohen’s hands and it would be dangerous to look. But the ever curious boy looked and saw the hand gesture rising above the congregation. Ever after, the sign had stuck with him in his imagination as one of great power. Later, when he became the well-known character known as Spock on the TV show Star Trek, he was discussing with the screenwriters a scene. Nimoy suggested that Spock, a Vulcan, needed some kind of hand gesture to use as a greeting. He adapted the Cohen’s hand sign into the Vulcan salute, and altered the blessing to say, “Live long and prosper.” In his own words:

It’s an interesting factoid as to how a part of a Jewish blessing made its way into popular culture. Even today, many people have no idea of the origin of Spock’s famous Vulcan salute. 

* z”l stands for zikhrono livrakha, may his memory be a blessing.

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Evil Inclination