“…You can spin a dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mister Spock, both Jewish!” The memorable line from the legendary Adam Sandler ballad, The Hanukkah Song reminds us that Judaism has always had a strong connection to the sci-fi classic. But as prominent as the show’s leads were, there’s a lesser known and far more profound connection between the two.
The famous hand symbol for the Vulcan salute quickly became a cultural phenomenon. But as the actor Lenard Nimoy related in his autobiography, the origins of the gesture are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.
For what would soon become known as the Vulcan salute, I borrowed a hand symbol from Orthodox Judaism. During the High Holiday services, the Kohanim (who are the priests) bless those in attendance. As they do, they extend the palms of both hands over the congregation, with thumbs outstretched and the middle and ring fingers parted so that each hand forms two vees. This gesture symbolizes the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter in the word Shaddai, `Lord.’ … So it was that, when I searched my imagination for an appropriate gesture to represent the peace-loving Vulcans, the Kohanim’s symbol of blessing came to mind.
– From I Am Spock
Yes, the Vulcan gesture that accompanies the famous “live long and prosper” slogan is taken from the Kohanic blessing ritual. As Nimoy alluded to, the three sentence blessing, known as Bircas Kohanim, is an extraordinarily spiritual brucha given by the Kohanim to the Jewish people. But Mr. Nimoy wasn’t exactly correct about the practice in his quote. Outside of Israel, Bircas Kohanim is only formally performed on holidays. But in Israel it’s done every day. And though the Kohanim don’t say it everyday, we do. Twice. If not more.
יְבָֽרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָֹ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ
יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה | פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ
יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָֹ֤ה | פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם
Bamidbar 6: 24-26
May God bless you and safeguard you.
May God illuminate His countenance for you and give you grace.
May God lift His countenance to you and establish for you peace.
The three sentence blessing is given in this week’s Torah portion, Nasso. Outside of Israel, in the place of the Bircas Kohanim, the head of the shul recites it for the congregation during the morning prayer service. When we get up in the morning, the first thing we say after blessing our Torah learning for the day are these three lines. And on Shabbos evening, it is customary for parents to bless their children with this benediction as well. So of all the blessings in the whole Torah, why does this get so much prominence?
Two Sides of A Brucha
Looking at the first brucha, May God bless you and safeguard you, Rashi comments that in this context, bless you refers to material wealth. Then safeguard you, refers to protection from thieves stealing that money. That’s nice. Not only will you get money, but you’ll get to keep it too. But isn’t it a little unnecessary? I mean if God gave you the blessing of wealth and it was immediately taken, that wouldn’t be a blessing at all!
Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik gives an insight that a person can be blessed with truly amazing gifts; wealth, genius, beauty, abundance of time, etc. But if that person doesn’t learn what to do with those gifts, those blessings can quickly become curses. There are scores of stories about lottery winners who went bankrupt. Talented and beautiful people can easily become arrogant, alienated, and often targets. So what Rabbi Soloveichik is saying is that safeguard you, isn’t so much about protection from harm, but is about understanding what one should do with those gifts so those blessings stay blessings.
The rest of the blessings in the verse imply this dual nature of the brucha as well, just in different forms. For May God illuminate His countenance for you and give you grace, the “illuminated countenance” refers to the gift of wisdom and intelligence. But how many intelligent people find themselves isolated? So the blessing pairs with it חן. Chein, often translated as grace, but is better understood as a confident but warm charisma. Because the true blessing of wisdom is the ability to share it and make the world a better place.
Finally we have, May God lift His countenance to you and establish for you peace. Where “illuminated countenance” referred to wisdom before, God “lifting His countenance to you” alludes to the blessing of a close and personal relationship with Hashem. You would think that a person who has such a connection with God would be set. But bad things still happen to religious people and the highest of the high have the hardest tests of all. So even this brucha is tempered, that it should bring one Shalom, wholeness and peace.
Is Long Life and Prosperity a Good Thing?
The Vulcan salutation, though popular, misses an essential component Bircas Kohanim embodies. When we view our blessings as an end, in and of themselves, they become elusive and we will never be satisfied, no matter how abundant. But when we view those blessings as means to something greater, wealth to share, honor as a voice for positive change, and peace as the freedom to accomplish, that’s when blessings bring on more blessings and overflow to those around us. It is essential that when a blessing is bestowed upon you that you both understand it is a gift (opposed to an entitlement) and a mindset to use it to enrich and not as a means to become more self involved. May we always be able to recognize our gifts and know how to use them properly.