(This material is excerpted from Chapter Four of Jewish Themes in Star Trek, ( by (c) 2004, 2009 by Yonassan Gershom. Posted here with the author's permission.)
...We come now to the most famous Jewish influence on Vulcan culture, the "live long and prosper" hand gesture. This "Vulcan salute, " as it has come to be called, was invented on the set by Leonard Nimoy during the filming of the second-season opener, "Amok Time." In this episode, Spock goes into something like a male estrus cycle, called pon farr in the Vulcan language. Comparing himself to a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Spock tells Kirk that he must return to Vulcan to mate with his betrothed bride, T'Pring, or die trying. The wedding ceremony would be the first glimpse of Spock's homeworld in the series.
Nimoy felt that there should be some kind of distinctive greeting among Vulcans, analogous to a handshake or a bow. Alan Dean Foster's novelization, based on an early script, has Spock kneeling before the Vulcan matriarch, T'Pau, who places her hands on his shoulders, like royalty dubbing a knight. But Nimoy didn't care for this. Previous episodes had already established that Vulcans are touch telepaths. Therefore, a touch on the shoulders would be an invasion of privacy. Instead, Nimoy drew upon his own Jewish background to suggest the now-familiar salute. Back in the 1960s, hippies who watched "Amok Time" thought the salute was a variation of the two-fingered peace sign. But we Jews knew better. The Vulcan salute came not from protest marches, but from the pulpit of Nimoy's childhood synagogue.
The Vulcan greeting is based upon a blessing gesture used by the kohanim (koe-hah-NEEM) during the worship service. The kohanim are the genealogical descendants of the Jewish priests who served in the Jerusalem Temple. Modern Jews no longer have priests leading services as in ancient times, nor do we have animal sacrifices anymore. (Yes, people really do ask about that!) The sacrificial system ended with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70. C.E. However, a remnant of the Temple service lives on in the "kohane blessing" ritual (duchenen in Yiddish) that is performed on certain holy days.
The actual blessing is done with both arms held horizontally in front, at shoulder level, with hands touching, to form the Hebrew letter "shin." This stands for the Hebrew word for "Shaddai", meaning "Almighty [God]." Nimoy modified this gesture into one hand held upright, making it more like a salute. So, technically, the Vulcan greeting is not the same thing as the ceremonial Jewish blessing. Still, the resemblance is close enough to evoke instant recognition among knowledgeable Jews.
During the synagogue service, the worshippers are not supposed to look at the kohanim while the blessing is being given. The reason for this is to focus our attention on the words of the prayer itself, rather than on the personalities of the kohanim. The kohanim are merely the channels, not the source, of the blessing, which comes from God. Unfortunately, all sorts of silly superstitions have arisen about this ritual, such as "Don't look at the kohanim, or you'll go blind!" and other nonsense. The real reason is simply to focus on receiving blessings directly from God, not from human beings.
Like most Jewish children, young Leonard Nimoy could not contain his curiosity about what the kohanim were really doing up there in front of the congregation. He writes:
"The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality... I had heard that this indwelling Spirit of God was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, and so I obediently covered my face with my hands. But of course, I had to peek." (From his autobiography, I am Spock.)
Leonard survived his peeking unscathed, and saw the kohanim extending their fingers in the mystical "shin" gesture. That magical moment remained with him for life, and was there to draw upon years later, when he invented the Vulcan salute.
Did Gene Roddenberry know, at the time of filming, that the Vulcan salute was based on a Jewish ritual? That question remains unanswered. My sense is that he probably didn't, or he would have objected to it, on the grounds of its being too "Judeo-Christian." More likely, he thought it was a weird variation of the peace sign. Certainly, that's how gentile Trekkers saw it for many years. Only much later did Nimoy publicly explain the source of his inspiration.
We should also note that the prohibition against peeking only applies during the actual blessing ritual. The gesture itself is nothing secret. You can see it openly displayed in books and on amulets, jewelry, wall decorations, and gravestones. Contrary to urban legend, Nimoy was not violating any Jewish taboos by using this gesture on Star Trek, especially since he modified it from the original version. I, for one, think it's absolutely wonderful that something so authentically Jewish has become universally recognized as a greeting of peace. More than anything else in Trekdom, the Vulcan salute says to me, "Here there be Jews." It also provides a diplomatic way for me to greet female Trekkers at conventions without shaking hands. (Orthodox Jews do not shake hands with the opposite sex. I suppose that would also hold true for intersexed alien species.)
On the practical end, the ability to make the salute is a bit tricky. Some say it's hereditary, like double-jointedness. (I myself can do it easily.) According to Nimoy's own account, He spent hours practicing it after he saw it in the synagogue. When the time came to use the Vulcan salute on the studio set, there it was, perfectly executed without a hitch. But actress Celia Lovsky, who played T'Pau, had difficulty making the sign. She had to set her fingers in place first, before the cameras rolled, and could only hold it briefly. In later episodes and movies, the irascible Doctor McCoy makes numerous wisecracks about "breaking his fingers" trying give the Vulcan greeting.
In addition to the salute itself, the ceremonial use of "Live long and prosper" and it's lesser-known reply, "Peace and long life," also show a strong Jewish influence. The format is similar to a traditional greeting in Hebrew: "Shalom aleichem" (peace be upon you) and the answer, "Aleichem shalom" (upon you be peace.) Muslims have a similar greeting in Arabic. Once again, we can see a strong parallel between Vulcan and Middle Eastern cultures. In the next chapter, we will further explore how Orthodox Judaism was used by Nimoy as the template for developing his vision of Vulcan society...
(excepted from Jewish Themes in Star Trek by Rabbi Yonassan Gershom. (c) Copyright 2004, 2009 by Yonassan Gershom. All rights reserved.) To order a copy in hardcover, paperback or a download, go to the rabbi's lulu.com homepage.
Additional notes: Although Leonard Nimoy drew a lot of his inspiration for the Vulcan culture from Judaism, he is not himself an Orthodox Jew. His grandfather was Orthodox and took him to the synagogue when he was young. Little Leonard was impressed by the ritual, and today he has a strong connection with his Jewish identity. He has done a lot of Jewish theater projects and narrated several Jewish educational music programs and and video documentaries. However, his own lifestyle is not Orthodox, even though quite a few Star Trek sites mis-identify him as such. The Leonard Nimoy page on the free encyclopedia site, wikipedia.org, says that he is "an adherant of Reform Judaism."
Attention Jewish Trekkers: Check out this "Shalom Hand" jewelry in a variety of styles (necklaces, pins, tie clips, etc.) exclusive original design from Dor L'Dor, (from generation to generation), an educational resource center which creates learning materials for special needs Jewish children. Their Shalom Hand design not only is like the Vulcan salute, it also spells out "Shalom" (peace) in Hebrew letters. And it comes in either left or right hand versions! Click here to go directly to their Blessing Hands jewelry page.
Last but not least: Jewish Themes in Star Trek is now in print!
Order your copy NOW on lulu.com instead of waiting for it to appear in bookstores in May or later (and help me win the March 2009 Lulu sales contest -- we'll show those myopic commercial publishers that there is indeed a market for this!) Simply go to my Lulu homepage where you will find options to buy it in hardcover, paperback, or a download.
One interesting bit of personal trivia: When I went to the NASA site to find a cover image, I looked through lot of Hubble shots of planets, galaxies, nebulae etc. until I found the one I liked. Only then did I look at the name of it -- Nebula NGC1818 -- double chai! Is there a better sign that the time is right for this book? You can download a FREE copy of my desktop graphic of the Enterprise flying through Nebula NGC1818 -- just go to this page on box.net.
Links to more Jewish Star Trek sites
Visit Rabbi Gershom's homepage
List of Star Trek novels with (maybe) Jewish characters...