In A Nutshell
Even if you’re not a Star Trek fan, you’re familiar with the Vulcan salute. It’s one of those gestures that seems to be rooted in our consciousness, and with good reason. The gesture, ad-libbed by Leonard Nimoy during the filming of the episode “Amok Time,” is a Jewish gesture signifying the letter “shin,” the first letter in the name of God.
The Whole Bushel
You don’t have to be a Trekkie to be familiar with the Vulcan salute. It’s just one of those things that everyone knows where it’s from, even if they don’t know the canon lore behind it. And even for those who do know that it’s a traditional Vulcan greeting, they still might not know the long history of it.
“Amok Time” is one of the most well-known episodes in classic Star Trek history. As a quick recap, it’s the story of Spock’s journey back home to marry and mate. It was the first time showing Spock’s home world, and viewers got a more in-depth look at the Vulcan culture than what had previously been shown.
It was Leonard Nimoy who came up with the gesture, on the set while they were filming the episode. During the scene where Spock meets the official that will be presiding over his wedding, he felt that there was something missing. Humans have a number of symbolic gestures that we’ve done over the years when we’re greeting each other—there are handshakes and bows, curtsies and hugs. Nimoy felt that a similar yet alien greeting was needed for the Vulcan, and he knew that it couldn’t involve touching. (To a race that was touch-telepathic, that just wouldn’t have been done.)
So he modified a gesture that he had first seen in a synagogue when he was a child. He recalls not being old enough to know what was happening and why things were being done, but he does remember being old enough that he didn’t listen to his father’s instructions not to look at the people conducting the blessing.
The original gesture was made with both hands held out over the congregation and was performed by kohanim, or the descendants of ancient Jewish priests. When done correctly, the hands form the letter “shin,” which is meant to be the first letter of God’s name.
There’s some mystery surrounding the gesture, and those who do as they’re supposed to shouldn’t be looking at the people performing the blessing. According to Nimoy, members of the congregation are not supposed to look at those standing before the congregation, repeating the blessing; as they are channeling the feminine spirit of God and the light could be damaging to those who look upon them (although alternate reasons for not looking include the idea that blessings are coming from God, not from a human individual, and it’s easier to concentrate on that when you’re not looking at the people speaking).
Little Leonard didn’t listen to his father, though, and peeked. He became enamored with the gesture, and later, would amend it to the gesture we all know as the Vulcan salute. The gesture ended up being an appropriate one, a blessing designed to spread peace from God to man, now known more popularly as an invitation to “live long and prosper.”
Nimoy also thinks that Gene Roddenberry wasn’t aware of the salute’s Jewish origins, or would have protested having something so deeply religious associated with the show. For years, rumor had it that the Vulcan salute was a version of the peace symbol, and Nimoy was content to leave it at that.