Question:

I recently discovered that the famous Vulcan salute is actually a Jewish symbol. Is that true? If so, what does it mean?

Response:

Yes, the Vulcan salute is an authentic imitation of the manner by which Cohanim spread their hands in most congregations when blessing the congregation to this day.

Cohanim are those people that today comprise about four to five percent of the Jewish population,1 all of whom trace their paternal lineage back to Aaron, brother of Moses, who was also the first High Priest. The Cohanim performed the offerings in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. They are still afforded certain honors, and they still bless the congregation with exactly the same words with which Aaron blessed us over 3,300 years ago when we finally got the first Tabernacle up and standing.

We have a dedicated section on the priestly blessing here, but to make it short:

When the Cohanim bless the people, they stand at the front of the synagogue, face the congregation, cover their faces with their tallit (prayer shawl), and spread out their hands. They say the words of the blessing, one word at a time, following word by word the prompts of the cantor. In most congregations, they do this along with a melody, which differs according to the custom of the congregation.

The reason the Cohanim raise and spread out their hands is because that’s just what Aaron did when he blessed us: “And Aaron lifted up his hands towards the people and blessed them…”2

Spreading the Fingers

But why do they spread their fingers? The Midrash explains that the Shechinah—the divine presence, peers through the fingers of the Cohanim during the priestly blessing, in keeping with the verse, “…behold, He is standing behind our wall, looking from the windows, peering between the cracks.”3

In Hebrew, those last words are מציץ מן החרכים– meitzit min ha-charakim. That last word,ha-charakim, can also be read as “five cracks in the wall.” That provides us the clue to the common form by which the Cohanim hold out their hands—it’s in order to have a total of five separations between the fingers: One space below and between the thumbs, another two spaces between the thumb and first finger of each hand, and another two between the second and third finger of each hand.4

Do that correctly, and you have the original version of what became popularized three thousand years later as the Vulcan salute (just with both hands).

Just one caveat: If you are not a Cohen and are attempting the authentic two-handed salute, don’t say the priestly blessing while doing it.5 The Torah’s instruction to Cohanim is exclusive. Bless everyone you want, but using those words with your hands raised and fingers spread as though you are a Cohen is reserved exclusively for Cohanim at the appropriate time.6 Indeed, the Zohar warns that one who does so brings judgement and curses upon himself.7

Peeking

Leonard Nimoy stated that he got the idea for this salute because, as a small boy, he peeked when he was told not to, and saw the fingers of the Cohanim. The Talmud states that the Cohanim should not look at the people and the people should not look at the Cohanim at the time of the blessing, so that their minds will not be distracted. As the Zohar Chadash states, “Woe unto him who would seek favor from his Master while his heart is far off.”8

But here is a passage from the Zohar that provides a deeper reason:9

…Rabbi Yosi said that when the Cohen raises his hands to bless the congregation, the people must not look at him, since the Shechinah rests on his hands.

Rabbi Yitzchak asked, “If they cannot see the Shechinah, what harm is there for them? After all, it is written: "For no man shall see Me and live.”10 Our Sages explained this to mean that no living man can see G‑d.”

Rabbi Yosi answered Rabbi Yitzhak, “It is because the Divine Name is alluded to in the fingers of their hands, and a person should have awe. Although they cannot see the Shechinah, they should not look at the hands of the priests, so the people should not be impudent towards the Shechinah.”

How is the Divine Name alluded to in the ten fingers? Because our ten fingers correspond to the ten sefirot, which are the ten divine modalities by which G‑d is known in this world, corresponding to ten divine names.

The Zohar continues:

We learned that when the priest raises his hands in blessing, the people must be in awe and fear, and know that at that time a time of goodwill prevails throughout the worlds, the upper and lower beings are blessed and there is no judgment among them all.

That is the time when the most ancient and concealed is revealed in the small faces, and peace prevails in all.

Quite befitting, as the last words of the priestly blessing are “and give you peace.” May the most concealed become revealed, and peace prevail in all our world.