The hand gesture itself is a slight modification of the Hebrew gesture forming the letter “Shin”, which represents the name “Shaddai” meaning “Almighty” (God). This gesture is still used today by orthodox Jews of the Kohanim, which are priests descended from Ahron by the patrilineal line. These Kohanim form a subset of the descendants of the priestly Levite tribe.
The Kohanim use the Shin gesture during a blessing ceremony, the nesiat kapayim or the “Priestly Blessing”, that accompanies the prayer service. The actual Jewish blessing is done with both hands, not just one, extended outward. In this gesture, the arms are then held at a roughly 45 degree angle, level with the shoulders, as opposed to the completely vertical salute fashion in the “live long in prosper” version of the gesture.
This modified gesture used by Star Trek’s Vulcan’s was originally Leonard Nimoy’s idea. Though Nimoy was not an orthodox Jew himself, when he was a child, his grandfather would take him to the synagogue. During his time there, he observed this blessing and subsequent gesture and, according to his autobiography, was very impressed by the ceremony; remembering it later while filming “Amok Time”, which is the first place the now iconic gesture appeared in Star Trek.
In “Amok Time”, Spock was originally supposed to kneel before the Vulcan matriarch, with the matriarch placing her hands on his shoulders in a knighting type gesture. Nimoy didn’t like this as Vulcan’s were touch telepaths. Thus, he felt this original gesture would be an invasion of privacy for a Vulcan. He then drew on his Jewish roots to come up with an alternate gesture.
The hand gesture itself wasn’t the only part that was borrowed from Jewish tradition. The “live long and prosper” and the lesser known Vulcan traditional response of “peace and long life” was based on the Jewish “Shalom Aleichem” (peace be upon you) and the traditional reply of “Aleichem Shalom” (upon you be peace).
- The Hebrew Priestly Blessing itself can be found in the Bible in Numbers 6:22: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
- Nimoy also was the one to come up with the Vulcan nerve pinch. In the first episode this pinch showed up, Spock was originally supposed to club evil Kirk over the head, knocking him out. Nimoy thought this was inconsistent with Spock’s personality. He felt a non-violent nerve pinch would be more fitting with Vulcan’s being able to emit energy from their fingertips; this energy when applied to the correct nerves of a human would then render the human unconscious.
- Jewish worshipers are not supposed to look at the Kohanim while the blessing is being given as this would distract them from the words of the blessing itself. As a child, Nimoy couldn’t contain himself however and snuck a peak. As he said, “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.)
- In Act 5 Scene 3 line 42 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says to Balthasar, “Live and be prosperous, and farewell good fellow.”
- The actress who played T’Pau, Celia Lovsky, couldn’t do the salute, which was a problem in the filming of “Amok Time”. In order to get around this issue, they simply filmed with her hands starting below the camera frame; she’d then use her other hand to get the one hand into the proper position, which she could then hold for a couple seconds before losing it.
- Ancient Egyptians had a common phrase that is properly translated today to, “May he live long, prosper, and be in health.”
- After Star Trek was canceled, Nimoy immediately joined the cast of Mission Impossible as an IMF agent. He played this role in the fourth and fifth seasons of the show.
- Nimoy officially retired in April of 2010, his reasons being his age and his hope that by bowing out, Zachary Quinto would be able to better enjoy the full media attention of being Spock.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt.
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