Throughout history, many societies have had secret, and not-so-secret hand signs. These hand signs have religious, political, cultural and social meanings. The origins and significance have often been lost to history, even when the signs are still used.
Some signs are used to communicate information, either of support like the thumb's up sign, or two thumbs up, or that of an insult. Signs differ from culture to culture. The same sign may have a very different meanings in different societies. For the international traveler, this may cause embarrassment, and even conflict.
There are also signs used as part of an organized political, military or religious group. The military is perhaps the most famous for its hand signs, namely the salute. The form of salute varies from country to country, and military to military.
Some military salutes were adapted for civilian use, such as the salute used by Boy Scouts throughout the world. Other signs are purely civilian such as that of the Hindu greeting of placing one's hands flat against each other. Some signs have no connection with any organization, such as the "high five" used by young African-Americans and adopted by American teenagers regardless of ethnic background.
Many religions use hand expressions and signs. The more traditional Christian denominations use numerous methods of making the sign of the cross. Moslems use upraised hands and cover the face during prayer.
Why Use Signs?
Hands are used to communicate or to show signs of respect or loyalty. In the religious sense, it may be to communicate with G‑d, or to make others aware of respect or obedience to G‑d. A hand sign also adds a physical dimension to the religious involvement expressed by speaking, singing or chanting.
The making of a sign signifies a group or community. Those who enter and recognize the sign will know that they have entered their own community. In some communities, these signs have been secret since the members had to impart a message that would have otherwise brought them into danger.
Jewish Hand Signs
Hand signs do not play as important a role in Jewish religious practice as in some other communities. Because the signs tend to be traditional, they are used less frequently and often not at all by less traditional Jews. There are no doubt many Jews who have never seen some of the hand signs, nor do they understand their origins and purpose.
The Sign of the Priestly Blessing
Of all the Jewish hand signs, the most famous is that of the priestly blessing, the Birchat Kohanim, and yet it is rarely seen. This is the sign of both hands outstretched at shoulder height under a tallit, with the fingers spread apart, as the Kohen blesses the congregation. The Kohen's face is covered. The hands in the position of the priestly blessing are often seen as decoration on jewelry or on the tombstone of a Kohen.
The hands are held with the fingers straight ahead with the little finger of each hand separated from the ring finger and a space between the second and third fingers. There is a further space between the two thumbs, making a total of five spaces. The palms are face downwards. The right hand is placed slightly above the left. This raising of the hands during the blessing is called the nesiat kohanim.
At any time during a confessional, when the words "we have sinned" or words to that effect are stated, it is the custom to beat the left breast over the heart with the right fist. Self-flagellation is common in many religions. The Jewish practice of breast beating however, is not flagellation and is not intended to be painful. It is a symbol to remind the person of the words being spoken and to encourage penitence.
Pointing at the Torah
Following the reading of the Torah, the scroll is raised while still open for all to see. Once the act of raising the Torah or hagbah takes place, some communities have the custom to point at the Torah with the small finger, others point while holding the tzitzit or fringes of one's tallit while reciting the words "and this is the Torah."
Blessings over Shabbat Candles
When Shabbat candles are lit, a ritual involving hands takes place. Usually this is done by the woman lighting the candles, though if there is no woman in the house, a man is obligated to do it. The candles are lit, and with both hands she waves the light towards her three times. The symbolism is to draw the spirit of the holiness of the Shabbat towards her. She closes her eyes, covers them with her hands, and recites the blessing. It is this sight of physical movement, bathed in the soft glow of the candles, and the faint murmur of her prayers that has been etched into the memories of so many generations of Jews.
It is often the physical aspect of a ritual that not only adds to but impresses on us the importance of the ritual, so that we remember it long after the ritual is over. That is what Jewish hand signs are all about.