I remember standing there, my eyes pressed closed, my face buried in my mother’s hip. As I got older I would instead look down and softly recite a prayer with everything in my heart, soul, and mind. Above me, around me, engulfing us all was the sound of the chazzan (cantor) and the priestly chorus.
He would chant, “Yivarechecha!”
The men up on stage would reply, “Yivarechecha!”
On they would go, completing the priestly blessing. Our eyes would stay down as the community welcomed the Shechina, God’s spirit, coming through the special pathways created by our Kohanim, the priests. It was a moment of pure connection.
My father was a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and so I grew up watching not just TNG but the Star Trek movies. Like most fans, I loved Spock’s salute, and the message that went with it.
One day I managed to get my fingers in position, and proudly showed my mother. I was shocked when she said, “Stop that right now! That’s for the Kohanim to do, and them only!”
Thus, I learned that Mr. Spock was, lo and behold, a fellow Jew. Leonard Nimoy had adopted the most meaningful hand-sign he could think of for his character, one from his childhood—the particular way the priests hold their hands to channel God during the blessing.
Mr. Nimoy is mistaken about one thing—it’s not the priests who are blessing us, but they act as a conduit for God’s blessing. The gesture isn’t one of blessing, but one that brings the Shechina into the sanctuary. The priestly class is descended from Aaron, the first kohen, brother of Moses (yeah, that Moses).
The full text of the blessing is from the Bible, Numbers 6:24-26:
Yivarechecha HaShem VYishmirecha
May the Lord bless you and protect you
Ya’er HaShem Panav Eilecha ViChunecha
May the Lord shine his face upon you and find favor in you
Yisa HaShem Panav Eilecha VYasem Lecha Shalom
May the Lord life his face towards you and place upon you peace
If these words sound familiar, you’ve heard similar riffs from Bob Dylan, in Fiddler on the Roof, and possibly even from Leonard Cohen, who is himself a kohen.
As an Ashkenazi Jew in America (traditions vary wildly within our global tribe), the benediction is only given by the priests on major holidays even though the text is in our daily prayers. Many of us have the tradition to bless our children with it on Friday nights. It has become a tradition in Israel to have a large annual gathering at the Kotel HaMaaravi, the Western Wall, for a massive blessing for thousands of people at once.
The question I’ve been thinking about lately is whether the salute is cultural appropriation. Ultimately, Judaism is an inclusive religion. Our Holy Temple was always intended to be a place where people of all religions could come worship. I like the idea of our blessings being shared, but I wish more people understood the significance of the gesture. The motion, devoid of the history and meaning, is stripped of its significance. That’s the point at which it does feel like a bit of my culture has been stolen away.
To my eyes, it’s a doorway to God’s spirit, and not something to do as a pop culture reference. I don’t begrudge anyone doing it, but you’re not going to see me throw a Vulcan Salute anytime soon.
Live Long and Prosper, and join me for our next exploration of Judaism and pop culture.