February 23, 2005

Vulcan phylogeny

In response to my post on jokey conspiracy theories about the history of the phrase "live long and prosper", Michael Gilleland suggests the Latin equivalent "Ad multos et faustissimos annos," which he translates as "To many and very prosperous years." The sense is the same, but the specific words are not. And in this case, the sense seems too diffuse to track. I imagine that many a cup of mead or barley wine was raised at many a neolithic celebration to express a similar sentiment, and if that sentiment alone is an indication of alien influence, we're pretty much all co-conspirators. A proper sense of historical paranoia, as Dan Brown knows, requires a more exclusive in-group.

Lance Nathan also sent in some questions and suggestions. One idea was to check out the nominal version "long life and prosperity":

It's hard to tell from a websearch, of course, the extent to which it's a phrase that isn't influenced by the Vulcans; but a casual scan of Google Groups gives it as a translation of Gaelic "Saol fada agus rath ort". 

Lance may be referencing this post on rootsweb.com, which translates "Saol fada agus rath ort" as "Long life and prosperity to you". This is a suggestive connection, and a search on LION turns up many interesting instances of the English version (which I'll spare you for now), but it's still not exact enough to convince me.

Another of Lance's ideas:

The web also suggests that "live long and prosper" was, like the hand gesture, an ad lib by Nimoy (can a gesture be ad-libbed?); and that the phrase, like the gesture, was taken from Jewish tradition. The gesture I can attest; that the phrase was spoken by rabbis I, pardon the express, take on faith. 

The web does indeed say that, most elaborately in a response by Jordan Lee Wagner on a religious Q&A site, in which he quotes from his book The Synagogue Survival Kit:

Another common decorative motif is a hand, with a wide spread between the middle and ring fingers; or a pair of such hands. This is the ancient handsign of the ko-ha-nim (priests) in the Temple. The priestly handsign is symbolic of divine immanence. The handsign was used by the kohanim when they pronounced The Priestly Blessing on the congregation. This ritual is still a part of the service, and is discussed later. This Jewish ritual has been popularized by the Star Trek TV show, which used it as the Vulcan ritual of greeting. The Vulcan ritual of greeting consists of the handsign accompanied by a blessing: "Live long and prosper," which is an abbreviated paraphrase of the original Jewish blessing.

and adds:

Birkat Kohanim (The Priestly Blessing) is also called duchening, as though there were an English verb "to duchen". This ritual is discussed extensively in the section of my book describing the structure of the Amidah. The commandment to duchen, and the text of the blessing, is found at Numbers 6:23-27. It is done during the repetition of the Amidah, just before Sim Shalom. It includes ritual handwashing of the kohanim by the levites. This is done privately after the K'dushah and before Modim -- after the kohanim have removed their shoes (or loosened their laces so as not to touch their shoes again). Then the (now shoeless) kohanim ascend the bima. There is a public benediction by the kohanim before they perform the mitzvah, the blessing itself, and accompanying meditations. All kohanim (descendents of Aharon) present in the synagogue participate in the duchening and make the "kohanic" handsign. Their taleisim are pulled way forward over their heads so as to cover their raised hands. Also, the congregation often does the same, and in any case does not look at the duchening. Ashkenazim duchen only on major holidays, while Sephardim duchen frequently. (Reform congregations are an exception. They generally do not recite The Priestly Blessing.)

The origin of Nimoy's "Vulcan" hand gesture seems securely kohanic, but the accompanying text is still elusive. Here's Numbers 6:22-27 in the King James version:

22 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
23 Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them,
24 The LORD bless thee, and keep thee:
25 the LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:
26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
27 And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.

Familiar words, and comforting ones, but no amount of faith can make me read in them the specific phrase "live long and prosper".

Lance continues:

Very possibly you knew this. It *does* raise the question, of course, of why Kerr and Burke gave the line to Rip van Winkle. Perhaps they were covert Jews, expressing their common bond with other Jews who would recognize the line and see that the Jews, like Rip van Winkle, were isolated from the culture around them because of their necessary adherence to traditions, which...or, well, not.

Indeed not. The plays' stage directions for Rip don't say anything about hand signs, and the words of his toast are not the words of the priestly blessing, so I'll conclude that this is a false trail, leading us into "Protocols of the Elders of Vulcan" territory...


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 23, 2005 08:41 AM