Leonard Nimoy, the actor who rose to fame in the breakout science fiction television and movie series, “Star Trek,” reached cult status mostly because of his unique character of Mr. Spock. Nimoy, who died Friday, left the world with many memories, but one in particular has remained standing the test of time: Spock's Vulcan salute, the popular hand signal that Nimoy employed in many "Star Trek" scenes.
The ubiquitous hand gesture caught on like wildfire among fans both ardent and casual, even being reproduced by the likes of musical sensation Pharrell Williams, who named his record label Star Trak Entertainment after the influential show. But one little-known fact is that Nimoy's Jewish heritage played a prominent role in the famed hand signal's timeless notoriety.
Nimoy discussed that fact in an anthology of famous Jews, and related the hand signal’s Jewish origins. Nimoy said that as a boy he just imitated men making the sign during the priestly benediction in a synagogue -- a ritual performed by "kohanim," the descendants of the ancient Israelite priesthood. He and the rest of the congregation were instructed not to look at the men conducting the ritual.
“These men from our synagogue would cover their heads with their prayer shawls, and they were shouters — these were old, Orthodox, shouting guys. About a half a dozen of them would get up and face the congregation, chanting in a magical, mystical kind of way,” Nimoy said in “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” a book by Abigail Pogrebin.
His father instructed him not to look. “But I peeked,” Nimoy said, adding that he saw the men holding both arms out with their hands and fingers in the now-famous V gesture that Nimoy ultimately replicated for his Spock character. Nimoy went on to say that his cousin, a rabbi, explained why his eyes should have remained covered: "The traditional belief is that during that blessing, the Shekhina — the feminine presence of God — enters the congregation to bless the congregation. And you shouldn’t see God, because the light could be fatal to a human. So you close your eyes to protect yourself," his cousin said, according to Nimoy.
Watch the video below to see Nimoy discuss in depth how his Spock hand signal eventually came to life on the screen.