Image: Live Long And Prosper by Tom Estes Digital map of all the known galaxies in the universe projected onto the artist’s right hand. The artists work was first shown at All The Worlds Futures: The 2015 Venice Biennale. The hand is in a salute which first appeared in popular culture through the television series Star Trek. But this salute has nuch older origins. It turns out it is an ancient priestly blessing that forms the Hebrew letter Shin.
The world lost Leonard Nimoy on Friday at the age of 83. “Live long and prosper”‘ is one of the most famous phrases in the history of entertainment, and most certainly the collection of words that comes to mind when you think of science fiction’s beloved Mr. Spock. The character Spock was, of course, half Vulcan. And along with that famous phrase came a famous Vulcan salute. The Vulcan salute first appeared in “Star Trek” in 1967 with the episode “Amok Time.” But where did it come from? It turns out it came from Nimoy himself and has very personal origins. He says in his autobiography that it is a priestly blessing that forms the Hebrew letter Shin. Shin stands for the word Shaddai, a name for God. Because of this, a kohen (priest) forms the letter Shin with his hands as he recites the Priestly Blessing.Shin also stands for the word Shaddai, a name for God. Because of this, a kohen (priest) forms the letter Shin with his hands as he recites the Priestly Blessing. In the mid 1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy used a single-handed version of this gesture to create the Vulcan hand salute for his character, Mr. Spock, on Star Trek.
The letter Shin is often inscribed on the case containing a mezuzah, a scroll of parchment with Biblical text written on it. The text contained in the mezuzah is the Shema Yisrael prayer, which calls the Israelites to love their God with all their heart, soul and strength. The mezuzah is situated upon all the doorframes in a home or establishment. Sometimes the whole word Shaddai will be written. The Shema Yisrael prayer also commands the Israelites to write God’s commandments on their hearts (Deut. 6:6); the shape of the letter Shin mimics the structure of the human heart: the lower, larger left ventricle (which supplies the full body) and the smaller right ventricle (which supplies the lungs) are positioned like the lines of the letter Shin. A religious significance has been applied to the fact that there are three valleys which comprise the city of Jerusalem’s geography: the Valley of Ben Hinnom, Tyropoeon Valley, and Kidron Valley, and that these valleys converge to also form the shape of the letter shin, and that the Temple in Jerusalem is located where the dagesh (horizontal line) is. This is seen as a fulfillment of passages such as Deuteronomy 16:2 that instructs Jews to celebrate the Pasach at “the place the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his Name” (NIV).
Though he had a wide-ranging career that included acting on stage and screen, directing, and writing, Nimoy was (and will be) forever associated with Spock.
In the Sefer Yetzirah the letter Shin is King over Fire, Formed Heaven in the Universe, Hot in the Year, and the Head in the Soul. The letter shin appears engraved on both sides of the head- tefilin. On the right side, the shin possesses three heads, while on the left side it possesses four heads. In Kabbalah we are taught that the three-headed shin is the shin of this world while the four- headed shin is the shin of the World to Come. The secret of the shin is “the flame [Divine Revelation] bound to the coal [Divine Essence].” A simmering coal actually possesses an invisible flame within it, which emerges and ascends from the surface of the coal when the coal is blown upon. The three levels: coal, inner flame, and outer flame, correspond to the secret of chash-mal-mal, as will be explained in the next letter, the tav.
One of the meanings of the word shin in Hebrew is shinui, “change.” The coal symbolizes changeless essence, the secret of the verse: “I am God, I have not changed,” meaning that relative to God’s Essence absolutely no change has occurred from before Creation to after Creation. The inner flame is the paradoxical latent presence of the power of change within the changeless. The outer flame of the shin is continuously in a state of motion and change. As in the above-quoted verse, the changeless Essence is the secret of the Name Havayah. The power of change, as latently present within God’s Essence before Creation and thereafter revealed in the infinite intricacy and beauty of an ever-dancing flame, is the secret of the explicit Name of Creation, Elokim, the only Name of God which appears in the plural. The number of the letter shin, 300, unites these two Divine Names as the “flame bound to the coal.” In at’bash, the Name Havayah transforms to the letters mem-tzadik-pei-tzadik, which total 300. The five letters of Elokim (alef-lamed-hei-yud-mem) when written in full, also equal 300. The three heads of the shin of this world correspond to the three levels of the changeless, potential, and actual change as discussed above. In this world, the changeless is symbolized only by a black, dark coal, not as the revealed light of the flame. Nonetheless the endurance of the flame depends upon the changeless essence of the coal. In the World to Come, the changeless essence will reveal itself within the flame. This revelation of the future is the secret of the fourth head of the shin. In the flame of a candle one sees three levels of light: the “dark light” around the wick of the candle, the white flame encompassing it, and an amorphous aura around the white flame itself. Each of these three levels of revealed light manifests a dimension contained within the invisible flame present in the coal. In general the flame symbolizes love, as is said: “as mighty as death is love…the flame of God.” The dark light corresponds to the love of Israel, souls enclothed within physical bodies. The white light corresponds to the love of Torah. The aura corresponds to the love of God. These are the three essential manifestations of love as taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov. The fourth head of the shin of the future – the revelation of the essence of the coal itself – corresponds to the love of the Land of Israel and, as our Sages teach: “the Land of Israel will in the future spread to incorporate all the lands of the earth.
The salute, which Nimoy devised himself, was taken from a Jewish prayer. The split-finger gesture represents the Hebrew letter shin.
The Proto-Sinaitic glyph, according to William Albright, was based on a “Tooth” and with the phonemic value š “corresponds etymologically (in part, at least) to original Semitic ṯ (th), which was pronounced s in South Canaanite”The Phoenician šin letter expressed the continuants of two Proto-Semitic phonemes, and may have been based on a pictogram of a tooth (in modern Hebrew shen). The Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972, records that it originally represented a composite bow. The history of the letters expressing sibilants in the various Semitic alphabets is a bit complicated, due to different mergers between Proto-Semitic phonemes. As usually reconstructed, there are five Proto-Semitic phonemes that evolved into various voiceless sibilants in daughter languages. Shin (also spelled Šin (šīn) or Sheen) literally means “teeth”, “press”, and “sharp”; It is the twenty-first letter in many Semitic abjads, including Phoenician, Aramaic/Hebrew ש, and Arabic ش (in abjadi order, 13th in modern order). Its sound value is a voiceless sibilant, [ʃ] or [s]. The Phoenician letter gave rise to the Greek Sigma (Σ) (which in turn gave Latin S and Cyrillic С), and the letter Sha in the Glagolitic and Cyrillic scripts ( Ш).The South Arabian and Ethiopian letter Śawt is also cognate.
In gematria, Shin represents the number 300. Shin, as a prefix, bears the same meaning as the relative pronouns “that”, “which” and “who” in English. In colloquial Hebrew, Kaph and Shin together have the meaning of “when”. This is a contraction of כּאשר, ka’asher (as, when). Shin is also one of the seven letters which receive special crowns (called tagin) when written in a Sefer Torah. See Gimmel,Ayin, Teth, Nun, Zayin, and Tzadi. According to Judges 12:6, the tribe of Ephraim could not differentiate between Shin and Samekh; when the Gileadites were at war with the Ephraimites, they would ask suspected Ephraimites to say the word shibolet; an Ephraimite would saysibolet and thus be exposed. From this episode we get the English word Shibboleth. You can see the whole interview segment here:
Leonard Nimoy explains the Jewish story behind the hand-gesture he made famous through his role as Spock on in the Star Trek science fiction series.