Did you know that Star Trek‘s Vulcan “Live long and prosper” greeting with the distinctive upraised hand sign comes from Jewish tradition? Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock on the original TV series, grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue. In these YouTube videos of interviews with him and talks he has given, he describes how the saying and the hand gesture came onto the set of Star Trek.
He opens this talk with the question, “Is there Judaism in Star Trek?” He enumerates the many qualities valued by the crew of the Enterprise and throughout Star Trek episodes: value of education, social justice, tolerance and dignity for every individual, as well as charity and compassion for those in need.
Nimoy grew up in Boston, a very Catholic city. He knew what it felt like to be an outsider, so to be cast as an outsider who’s half-human, half-Vulcan, he felt very comfortable in Spock’s character.
During the filming of the episode “Amok Time,” Spock returns to his home planet of Vulcan to fulfill a betrothal that was arranged when he was a child. The landing party from the Enterprise meets the matriarch of the Vulcans, and he needs to provide an appropriate ritual greeting for Vulcans.
“So we had this greeting scene,” Nimoy says, “and I said to the director, we need to do something special when Vulcans greet each other and he said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ I said, well, military people salute each other, humans shake hands when they meet, Asians bow to each other, what do Vulcans do? The director said, ‘What do you want to do?'”
Nimoy describes going back in time to when he was a child attending synagogue with his family on the high holidays. There’s a point when the Kohanim would bless the congregation, a very theatrical and powerful moment. He used a large tallit (prayer shawl) to demonstrate how they looked and sounded during the priestly blessing. You’ve just got to watch the video to get the full flavor of the moment.
And his dad tells him not to look! Everyone in the congregation is looking away. The reason? His family rabbi said it’s because that’s a very holy moment when the Shechina, the essence of God, is present in the congregation. And to see the presence of God can kill a human, so you look away to save your life.
But he peeked, and he survived. He saw the Kohanim holding their fingers up with two of the four pressed to each other, with a space in between. The shape forms the letter shin, the first letter in the name of Shadai, one of the names of the Almighty. He was entranced, and practiced the somewhat difficult hand sign until he got it right and could do it at any place, any time. This became the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” salute.
Watch this eight-plus minute video for the full story.
Here’s a shorter version of the story in an interview (less than three minutes).
And here is the “Live long and prosper” salute! FYI, both Nimoy and William Shatner are Jewish. Live long and prosper, y’all!