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Hand Signs of the Jew

Hand Signs of the Jew

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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.

Breast Beating

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.

Lorne E. Rozovsky (1943-2013) was a lawyer, author, educator, health management consultant, and an inquisitive Jew.

This article is based on the author’s article which originally appeared in The Jewish News, Richmond, Virginia.
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E.B.A. Brooklyn May 29, 2017

Bene Romi I recently returned from a trip to Rome, where I went to erev Shabbos davening at the Grand Synagogue there. They explained that their nusach is distinct from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions. I noticed that when they recited (what I believe to be) the names of people whose yahrzeit it was, the relatives of those people would make a sign that seemed to involve kissing their clenched fist, moving their fist to their chin, then kissing it again. I was wondering if anyone has any more information about this practice? Thank you. Reply

Elisheva Silver Lake, L.A., CA April 12, 2017

Great explanations. Still seeking, however, an explanation about the hand signs employed during Hamotzi by some (is it Sephardic?) traditional Jews--as well as during the Birkat HaMazon, when they enact an 'opening of the hands', in a very specific way (facing upward, as if to HaShem), when a phrase stating just that, is read. I believe it has to do with desiring a blessing for parnassah--but would love to hear a more accurate explanation from an authority like Rabbi Naftali Silberberg--as well as a clarification as to the exact wording when these hand signals are employed, coupled with perhaps a source--as he does so well! Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org May 3, 2017
in response to Elisheva:

Re: Open Hands while praying Indeed, some have the custom to open their hands while saying specific verses in Prayer (as well as in the Birchat Hamozon) which have to do with blessings of livelihood. This is done as a symbol of our acceptance of the many blessings G-d bestows on us as well as a way to remind the person that one’s entire livelihood comes only and directly from G-d (thus the custom is to have the hands open in a receiving position).

The idea is that the physical action arouses one’s concentration, can be found by the war against Amalek about which the verse states, “And it was when Moshe would raise his hands, Israel would be victorious.” Our Sages ask, “Do Moshe’s hands win the war or lose the war?” “Rather, when Moshe raised his hands, the Jewish nation would raise their eyes towards Heaven and they would win the war. ’s concentration. Thus, this action of spreading one’s hands wide open while reciting this verse will surely remind us to believe that one’s entire livelihood comes only and di Reply

Shani D NYC September 2, 2017
in response to Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org:

Thank you for the above. How would Moshe raise his hands? At what level relation to his eyes, were his palms up were his fingers relaxed? How long would his hands stay up and what would result in Moshe from this that poured out on the people?
That's a lot of questions. I know... Thank you.
Shanna Tova
Shani Reply

Sharon Hughes yorba linda California May 9, 2015

israel Glad to be the chosen! Reply

SP Far Far Away February 15, 2012

The Priestly Blessing Is this the symbol (looking sort of like a diamond) that has been perverted in many occultic circles to mean something different? What does it mean? Reply

Ben Bitlis, Turkiye September 21, 2011

Breast beating The etymology of "davenen" has been explored countless times and some have suggested a Turkic basis.

Dövünmek - to beat oneself

Dövünen - one who beats themselves Reply

Ms. Kelly Leeba Kinseth January 5, 2011

The Vulcan Hand Sign - seem familiar? "In his autobiography I Am Not Spock, Nimoy wrote that he based the Vulcan salute on the Priestly Blessing performed by Jewish Kohanim with both hands, thumb to thumb in this same position, representing the Hebrew letter Shin (ש), which has three upward strokes similar to the position of the thumb and fingers in the salute. The letter Shin here stands for Shaddai, meaning "Almighty (God)". Nimoy wrote that when he was a child, his grandfather took him to an Orthodox synagogue. There he saw the blessing performed and was very impressed by it. I thought this might be an interesting bit of trivia to enjoy. Reply

Lorne Rozovsky Bloomfield, CT, USA March 7, 2010

Origin of the kohanim hand signs In response to Mr. Mortman's question, the reasons for the priestly blessing hand sign are explained in Rabbi Naftali Silberberg's article: The Blessing. Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin of Chabad.org's "Ask the Rabbi" service advises that the spreading of the hands is based on what Aaron did in blessing the Jewish people (Leviticus 9:22). He also points out that the Midrash says that the separation of the fingers is symbolic of looking through windows or lattice (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:9), and also to show the priest's awe of the divine presence (Shibolai Haleket - siman 23). He points out that there are kabalistic reasons as well. I have not been able to find any explanations of a cultural or historic nature. Reply

Irwin Mortman cincinnati, OH March 1, 2010

Kohanim Hand sign How did the Kohanim hand sign originate? For example, Is it from another culture? Reply

Lorne Rozovsky Bloomfield, CT, USA January 3, 2010

head covering further reading As a follow-up to my response regarding head covering and the wearing of a baseball cap in a court of law, readers may find this article useful: The Kippah (Skullcap). Reply

Lorne Rozovsky Bloomfield, CT, USA January 3, 2010

head covering No one said it is easy to be a Jew. We are often faced with competing religious and secular standards of behavior. How you balance these may be very different than how I or others would. For me, I firmly believe that we should conduct ourselves in both our religious and secular practices in a manner that maintains our dignity as citizens and as Jews, regardless of what country we live in. A baseball cap is a symbol of entertainment and is never considered as dignified or respectful in a law court regardless of the level, even though it may satisfy the religious requirement of having one's head covered. It also gives the impression to others that Jewish religious practices are neither dignified nor can they be taken seriously. In a court, it suggests that that the court cannot be taken seriously. It equates it with a sports stadium. If you are not going to wear a kippah (yarmulke) at all times, I suggest you always keep one in your pocket in order to avoid these situations. Reply

Anonymous Memphis, TN December 30, 2009

head covering Mr. Rozovsky, a few years back I was in City Court paying a traffic ticket. I had left the house in a hurry and forgot my yarmulke. I grabbed a ball cap that was in the van, using it for a covering ( a bad choice but still a covering). Before I entered the courtroom an officer of the court asked me to remove it. I explained that I was Jewish and needed to keep it on. He told me, " yeah, and I'm the President, take it off now or leave the building".
Please give me your opinion on the correct way to handle a situation as this. I took it off but was very uncomfortable.
Thanks in advance, Baruch. Reply

Peter Pusnik November 10, 2008

Why not pointing ? In order to not show the person where she is ? Reply

Aaron Alexander lahore, pakistan January 6, 2008

thanks i am preparing a presentation about israel for my university .Thank you Lorne Rozovsky your site has been a great help to me. Reply

Lorne E. Rozovsky Bloomfield, CT October 9, 2006

pointing at a person I have not been able to find any prohibition against pointing at another person, except the rules of good manners. However, the custom is that you do not count Jews by assigning numbers to them. Therefore in counting to determine if a minyan is present, various words are used rather than numbers. See "The Book of Jewish Customs" by Harvey Lutske (Jason Aronson, 1986) p. 157 Reply

Kate Friedman STL, MO September 25, 2006

why not pointing? Why does Judaism have the idea to not point at a person? Reply

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