Every “Trekkie” knows that Spock’s Vulcan salutation is accompanied by a strange hand gesture. What many don’t realize is that Leonard Nemoy borrowed this symbol from his traditional Jewish upbringing. It’s actually a one-handed version of two-handed priestly blessing gesture.
In Numbers 6:23-27, God instructs Moses that the priests shall “place My name upon the Children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them.” The blessing the priests were to recite was:
May God bless you and watch over you.
May God shine His face toward you and show you favor.
May God be favorably disposed to you and grant you peace.
Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, is also known as duchenen (Yiddish, referring to the duchan the special platform in the Temple from which the blessing was recited). Birkat Kohanim is also known as Nesi’aht Ka’payim (lifting of the palms/hands).
While Birkat Kohanim was bestowed daily in the Temple, current customs vary as to how often the blessing is bestowed by the kohanim (daily, every Shabbat, holidays only).
To bestow Birkat Kohanim, the kohanim (priests) stand facing the congregation, their tallitot (prayer shawls) draped over their head and arms. They stretch out their arms and, beneath the tallit, arrange their hands with the ten fingers separated to create 5 spaces (pinky-ring-space-middle-index-space-thumb-space-thumb-space-index-middle-space-ring-pinky). The position of the hands reflects the latticework mentioned in Song of Songs (2:9): “My Beloved…looks through the windows peering through the lattice.”
The prayer is recited responsively, one word at a time, first by the cantor and then repeated by the kohanim. While Birkat Kohanim is being recited, congregants are not to look directly at the kohanim and many cover their faces with their prayer books or prayer shawls, following the Talmudic dictum (Chagiga 16b) “One’s eyes will grow weak if one looks at the hands of the priests [during the blessing].”
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