Spock, Leonard Nimoy & the Vulcan Salute
Spock, Leonard Nimoy and the Vulcan Salute
By June Williams
The Vulcan. A friend contacted me recently about a posting found on a popular Star Trek Yahoo group. Someone had posted that Leonard Nimoy developed Vulcan culture based on Leonard’s experience of Jewish culture. Now I respect Mr. Nimoy but he has never claimed to have constructed or developed Vulcan culture. He was asked to come up with a physical gesture of great dignity to accompany the Vulcan greeting of Live Long and Prosper. What happened then was he added to Star Trek and geekdom everywhere the bifurcated Vulcan salute. I remember him talking about it at more than one Sci-Fi convention and he also wrote about it in his autobiography I Am Spock:
During the synagogue service worshippers are not supposed to look at the kohanim while the blessing is being given but you know kids. The real reason for not looking at the kohan is to focus on receiving blessings directly from God, not from the humans who are acting as the channels not the source. In traditional Jewish services the blessing is done with both hands, is called Nesiat Kapayim (raising of the hands), and accompanies the Birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing). Even if you are not Jewish you very likely have heard the blessing translated into English:
This blessing gesture is used by the kohanim (priests) during the worship service and harkens all the way back to Aaron and his sons when they blessed the Israelites. The kohanim are the descendants of the Jewish priests who served in the Temple at Jerusalem. If you have ever met a Jewish person with the surname of Cohen or Kohen or some variation of that, they are part of the priestly line. This blessing is different than many prayers as it is less an intercessory prayer or a request and more of a communion with God. This explains why the kohen extends his palms outward towards the congregation rather than the traditional posture for prayer, upwards towards God. With his palm, the kohen forms a vessel into which God pours a blessing. A palm extended upwards forms a vessel for ourselves from which we may later drink. A palm extended outwards forms a vessel through which God channels his blessing to others. The kohen at this time is not a supplicant but a conduit. He asks not for our sake but for God’s sake. He asks not so that we can plead but so that God can give. Both arms are held horizontally in front, at shoulder level, with hands touching, to form the Hebrew letter ?? “shin.” This stands for the Hebrew word for “Shaddai”, meaning “Almighty [God].” Nimoy modified this gesture into one hand held upright, making it more like a salute. So, technically, the Vulcan greeting is not exactly the same as the Nesiat Kapayim but it is close enough that an observant Jew should recognize its roots.
While this was to just be about the origin of the Vulcan salute there is another Spock/Leonard Nimoy/Trek connection that I feel was sheer genius. The Vulcan nerve pinch. This one has nothing to do with Judaism and everything to do with Leonard Nimoy’s understanding of Spock. Back in the early days of the original series of Star Trek Leonard was given a script that called for Spock to sneak up behind a character and knock him out by smashing him on the head with the butt of a gun. Leonard Nimoy objected. A Vulcan bred to peace wouldn’t be so crude. Instead he proposed what we now know of as the Vulcan nerve pinch. Elegant, it disables without the violence of a right cross or a whack on the head with a boulder. It also has the virtue of having a real life connection to some physiological facts although I’m pretty sure neither the Mr. Nimoy nor the writers nor Gene Roddenbury were aware of this back when it was first used on the show. It is possible to lose consciousness when pressure is applied to the vagus nerve in the neck. This can occur through internal stimulation such as vomiting, or can be an on-the-field treatment for people who have tachycardia. Since the vagus nerve directly influences the heart, a massage on it does slowly decrease the heartbeat rythm. However violent hits to the vagus nerve can cause (in weaker hearts) heart failure completely. Similarly, the subclavian nerve pinch is known in certain Asian martial arts. Properly applied, it can render a human unconscious for several minutes. Myself, I’m loving the martial arts connection.
Let’s hear it for Leonard Nimoy. For all the joy he has brought us through the years and for continuing to entertain and enlighten us in his 78th year.
By June Williams
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