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Chiromancy (Palmistry)

The determination of a man's character and frequently of his fate and future from lines and other marks on the palm and fingers was one of the mantic arts which developed in the Near East, apparently, during the Hellenistic period. No early chiromantic sources from this period have been preserved, either in Greek or Latin, although they did exist. Chiromancy spread, in a much fuller form, in medieval Arabic and Byzantine Greek literature, from which it found its way to Latin culture. It would seem that from the very beginning there were two traditions. The first linked chiromancy closely with astrology and so produced a quasi-systematic framework for its references and predictions. The second was not connected with astrology at all, but with intuition, whose methodological principles are not clear. In the Middle Ages the Christian chiromantics found a scriptural basis for chiromancy in Job 37:7: "He sealeth up the hand of every man, that all men may know his work" which could be interpreted to mean that the hand imprints are made by God for the purpose of chiromancy. This verse is adduced in Jewish tradition only from the 16th century onward.

Chiromancy appears first in Judaism in the circle of *Merkabah mysticism . The fragments of their literature include a chapter entitled Hakkarat Panim le-Rabbi Yishma'el written in a rabbinic style. This chapter is the earliest literary source of chiromancy which has thus far been found. It is only partly comprehensible because it is based on symbols and allusions which are still obscure, but it has no connection to the astrological method. It uses the term sirtutim for the lines of the hand. A German translation of the chapter was published by G. Scholem (Liber Amicorum in Honor of Prof. C.J. Bleeker (1969), 175–93). From a responsum of *Hai Gaon (Oẓar ha-Ge'onim on tractate Ḥagigah, responsa section, p. 12), it is clear that the Merkabah mystics used chiromancy and Hellenistic physiognomy in order to ascertain whether a man was fit to receive esoteric teaching. They quoted as scriptural support for these sciences Genesis 5:1–2: "This is the book of the generations of man" (the Hebrew Toledot interpreted to mean "the book of man's character and fate") and "male and female created He them," which implies that chiromantic prediction varies according to the sex, the right hand being the determining factor for the male, and the left hand for the female.

Apart from the chapter mentioned above, there circulated for a long period of time translations of an as yet unidentified Arabic chiromantic source, Re'iyyat ha-Yadayim le-Eḥad me-Ḥakhmei Hodu ("Reading the Hands by an Indian Sage"). The sage is named in Hebrew manuscripts as Nidarnar. Of this source two translations and various adaptations have been preserved, and the work became known in Hebrew no later than the 13th century. One of the adaptations was printed under the title Sefer ha-Atidot in the collection Urim ve-Tummim (1700). At the end of the 13th century the kabbalist Menahem *Recanati had a copy of this text, which is based entirely on the principles of the astrological method of chiromancy relating the main lines of the palm and the various parts of the hand to the seven planets and their influences. The author was already familiar with the basic chiromantic terminology common in non-Jewish literature. His work deals not only with the meaning of the lines, or ḥariẓim, but also with otiyyot, i.e., the various marks on the hand.

Evidence of the chiromantic tradition among the early kabbalists is given by Asher b. Saul, brother of *Jacob Nazir , in Sefer ha-Minhagot (c. 1215; see S. Assaf , Sifran shel Rishonim (1935), 177): "[at the conclusion of the Sabbath] they used to examine the lines of the palms of the hands, because through the lines on the hands the sages would know a man's fate and the good things in store for him." In the Munich manuscript 288 (fol. 116ff.), there is a long treatise on chiromancy allegedly based on a revelation that was received by a Ḥasid in England in the 13th century. It does not differ in content from the astrological chiromancy current among contemporary Christians and the terminology is identical.

In various parts of the *Zohar , there are passages, some of them lengthy, which deal with the lines of both the hand and the forehead. A discipline was devoted to the latter, which corresponded to chiromancy and in the Middle Ages was called metoposcopy. Two different versions of this subject are included in the portion of Jethro and are based on Exodus 18:21, the first in the actual Midrash ha-Zohar (fol. 70a–77a) and the second an independent treatise called Raza de-Razin which is printed in columns parallel to the former, and continued in the addenda to the second part of the Zohar (fol. 272a–275a). Here the lines of the forehead are discussed in detail. A third account devoted to the lines of the hand is found in Zohar (2:77a–78a), and consists of three sections. Although the Zohar brings out the parallel between the movement of the heavenly bodies and the direction of the lines on the hand, the influence of astrological chiromancy is not apparent in the details of the exposition, which depends in an obscure way on five letters of the Hebrew alphabet (ז ה ס פ ר, zayin, he, samekh, pe, and resh). These are used as mystical symbols apparently referring to particular types of character. In a further elaboration of chiromancy in tikkun no. 70 (toward the end) of the Tikkunei Zohar, a relationship is established between the lines on a man's hand and forehead and the transmigrations of his soul. An interpretation of these pages in the portion of Jethro is found in Or ha-Ḥammah by Abraham *Azulai , and was printed separately under the title Maḥazeh Avraham (1800). As knowledge of the Zohar spread, several kabbalists tried to relate chiromancy back to the mysteries of the Kabbalah; especially Joseph ibn Ṣayaḥ, at the beginning of Even ha-Shoham, written in Jerusalem in 1538 (Jerusalem, JNUL, Ms. 80,16); and Israel *Sarug in Limmudei Aẓilut (1897, p. 17). Gedaliah *Ibn Yaḥya says in Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah (Amsterdam, 1697), 53a, that he himself wrote a book (1570) on the subject of chiromancy under the title Sefer Ḥanokh (or Ḥinnukh).

From the beginning of the 16th century several Hebrew books were printed summarizing chiromancy according to Arabic, Latin, and German sources; however, kabbalistic chiromancy received only incidental attention. Of these should be mentioned Toledot Adam (Constantinople, 1515) by Elijah b. Moses Gallena, and Shoshannat Ya'akov (Amsterdam, 1706) by Jacob b. Mordecai of Fulda, both of which were printed several times. Yiddish translations of the books also appeared. Abraham Hamoy included a treatise Sefer ha-Atidot on chiromancy in his book Davek me-Aḥ (1874, fols. 74ff.). Among the pupils of Isaac *Luria , the tradition spread that their master was an expert in chiromancy, and many traditions point to the fact that several kabbalists were knowledgeable in it. In the 19th century R. Ḥayyim *Palache mentions (in Zekhirah le-Ḥayyim, 1880, p. 20) that the contemporary Moroccan rabbis were skilled in chiromancy.

In Hebrew books on astrological chiromancy, the main lines of the hand are given the following names: (1) Kav ha-Ḥayyim ("the life-line"; Lat. Linea Saturnia); (2) Kav ha-Ḥokhmah ("the line of wisdom"; Linea Sapientiae); (3) Kav ha-Shulḥan ("the table line"; Linea Martialis); (4) Kav ha-Mazzal ("the line of fate") or Kav ha-Beri'ut ("the line of health"; Linea Mercurii). The idiomatic expression found in later literature, einenni be-kav ha-beri'ut ("I am not in the line of health"), meaning "I am not in good health," is derived from chiromantic terminology.


Steinschneider, Cat Bod, 929f., 1239, J. Praetorius, Thesaurus Chiromantiae (Jena, 1661); F. Boll, Catalogus Codicum Astrologicorum, 7 (1908), 236; F. Boehm, Handwoerterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, 2 (1930), 37–53. S.V. Chiromantie; G. Scholem, in: Sefer Assaf (1953), 459–95.

[Gershom Scholem]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.