When Leonard Nimoy playing Spock separated the middle and ring fingers of his hand in what became his signature Vulcan greeting, he was taking up an ancient Jewish ceremonial ritual in which the priests (Kohanim in Hebrew) blessed the nation. Not everyone has the agility to perform this finger trick. Zachary Quinto, who played the role of young Spock in the 2009 film Star Trek had to resort to rubber bands, which Trekkies argued proved that he was not a true Vulcan and didn’t deserve the role.
In contemporary synagogues, when there is a qualified priest—a direct patrilineal descendent from the tribe of Aharon—he performs this ritual while the members of the congregation cover their eyes and their children’s eyes to protect them from what are said to be blinding magical powers this finger trick conjures. I couldn’t have been the only child who peeked and survived. My friends and I practiced the finger tricks and concluded that those who could were daughters and sons of priests. I, granddaughter of a priest, can easily separate the middle and ring fingers of both my hands.
My grandfather, who is said to have had written proof of priesthood, blessed the members of the renowned Breslover synagogue in Jerusalem every Sabbath and holiday. On Friday nights, after candle lighting, he also blessed all his grandchildren (there are a lot of us) who lived within walking distance. When I moved with my family to America, opportunities for his blessings diminished, a loss of biblical dimensions for a child raised on the stories of Isaac and Ishmael, of Jacob and Esau, who for a bowl of pottage sold his birthright, which was his right to the first-born’s blessing.
Perhaps to make up for this loss, my father provided us with alternate opportunities: Family trips took us to the homes of significant scholars and grand rabbis and the visits would end with each of us receiving blessings. And every September, for the Jewish New Year, my father blesses each of us. When I’m unable to be there in person, he offers the blessing over phone lines and though his voice and the whispered words of the prayer— May you be as the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah—convey the heat of his passion, I have to imagine his warm hands on my head.
The notion that one needs more than the genetic gifts and abilities one is born with can be off-putting. It means that persistence and hard work aren’t enough. It means that complete independence is a disadvantage. It might require that you stay in the good graces of the patriarch, whose hovering hands can hold sway over your future. Most startlingly, it informs you that the metaphysical matters.
Of course respect for magic, superstition, miracles, and the extraordinary are all part of religious life and came to me as a birthright practically. So that if more than one thing goes wrong on a given day, if disaster strikes too often, I can’t help but give myself up to an accounting of my sins, or think of Job, hapless pawn in God’s plan. Though in modern life we might call such behavior paranoid, a persecution complex, I’m not entirely ungrateful for my built-in overinvestment in meaning. Some days I might go so far as to say that my early indoctrination was a sort of blessing. It’s taught me how to read literature, alert to pattern. It’s taught me that humans are endowed with imagination as well as intellect for a purpose, because we are meant to rely on both. In our attempt to grow beyond superstition, in our enlightened embrace of the rational, we’ve abandoned knowledge of the extraordinary, the hidden, the transcendent, blessings that make for human excellence.