At the beginning of the ritual, the hands of the Kohanim are washed by the descendants of the tribe of Levi, the Levi’im. The Kohanim then remove their shoes and stand up in front of the congregation. They cover their heads with their prayer shawls, turn towards the congregation, and raise their hands (underneath the shawls) in what is now popularly referred to as the Vulcan salute. With the fingers and thumbs spread in this manner, each hand looks like the Hebrew letter shin, which is the first letter of the word “Shaddai,” a name for God. The Kohanim then recite the words of the priestly blessing set forth in the book of Numbers: “May the Lord bless you and guard you; may the Lord make His face shed light upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up His face to you and give you peace.” (If the words sound familiar, that’s because the song “Sabbath Prayer” in Fiddler on the Roof is based on them.)
On February 28, 2015, following the death of beloved Star Trek TOS Spock actor, Leonard Nimoy, astronaut Terry W. Virts tweeted an image from the International Space Station of his Vulcan Cohanim-inspired salute (which had been improvised by the late actor when he was asked to portray an alien life form's desire that others live long and prosper) as a sign of reverence as the ISS flew over Boston, the city of Nimoy's birth.
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