The power of touch

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 3 May 2018

The arrival of a new royal baby this week has had many of us buzzing with baby fever. Prince Louis came on Monday morning, weighing in at 8 lbs 7 oz. Just hours after her birth Kate emerged from the hospital, looking practically perfect, to show off the newest prince, before strapping him into his car seat for his life at Kensington palace.


Whilst Kate’s public appearances over the past nine months and following the birth may have made both the pregnancy and the delivery look easy, it could be argued that it is not so simple being a pregnant princess. With her body constantly under scrutiny, and an endless stream of articles about her baby bump, a royal pregnancy leaves much to be desired.


Whilst unlike Kate, most pregnant women don’t have the media following their every move, no pregnant woman is immune to the numerous opinions and superstitions that surround her changing body. Many women state their baby bump felt like public property, as loved ones and strangers alike decided to cast their touch and opinion on it. The fascination with touching a pregnant belly is deep rooted in so many of us, with the superstitious among us believing it may bring luck, or provide a source of comfort to the baby. In other cultures this touch is viewed in a very different way. Chinese superstition states that rubbing a pregnant stomach can lead to the birth of a spoiled baby. Liberian culture states that strangers shouldn’t touch a baby bump as it can cause evil spirits to come and steal the baby.


In all these different societies one thing cannot be disputed, there is a great power placed upon our touch. Whether for good or for bad, the act of making physical contact with another has the ability to totally alter how they feel. We see this power of touch at many different stages in our life. When a baby is born, their skin is highly sensitive and new mothers are encouraged to have extended periods of skin on skin contact to allow them to bond. When we fall as a child, nothing is more comforting than the arms of a parent who can heal a million wounds. As we grow the fleeting touch of someone’s hand can make our heart skip a beat. Finally, when we come to the end stages of our life, touch is known to decrease stress levels and prevent feelings of isolation and anxiety.


Perhaps this is why in our Jewish tradition a lot is conveyed through the power of touch. We touch the Torah as it is paraded round, touch the heads of our children as we bless them and in more orthodox Judaism, put strict laws into place about who is and isn’t allowed to touch.


Our Tanakh also seems concerned with where we place our hands, with various points in our narrative referencing the laying of hands on a person, or animal, each moment coming with its own symbolism. In Genesis this gesture brings blessing and goodness, as Jacob places his hands upon Ephraim and Manasheh. To this day so many of us echo this behaviour on a Friday night when we bless our children or each other. The Kohanim of the temple were also famed for holding their hands out over the community whilst they gave the priestly benediction, as if laying their hands upon all the children of Israel.


As we move into Leviticus, touch is no longer used to pass on blessing, but rather gains a destructive quality as we see the priests lay their hands onto every sacrifice before it is burnt. In the instance of the goat for the sin offering, not only are the hands of the high priest laid upon it, but the sins are confessed over it, to metaphorically rid Israel of their iniquities and place them on the goat. Medieval commentator, Nachmanides, notes that the act of laying the hands on the sacrifice corresponds to us ourselves being sacrificed, as if blood of the sacrifice is our blood, and its soul is our soul. It is as if by laying our hands upon the sacrificial animal, we are transmitting our energy onto the it hence vicariously sacrificing ourselves.


Perhaps even worse than our touch placing sin onto a sacrificial goat is the next laying of hands that we read about in this week’s parasha, Emor. In the case of the blasphemer we are told that all who have witnessed his act of blasphemy must place their hands upon his head, before he is stoned. Commentators do not even puzzle over the reason, for them it is clear – the congregation transfers the guilt they incurred from hearing God’s name desecrated to the blasphemer. Every person is cleansed through this act, their sin transferred onto the sinner, just like a goat. This is the only case of a gesture of touch being associated with an act of criminality with a human left to bear the iniquities of others. The blasphemer becomes a sacrificial entity, we give no consideration as to the implications of our touch.


Finally, in the last chapter of our Torah, we again see this placement of hands, with yet another symbolic meaning. Before his death, Moses lays his hands upon Joshua, causing him to be filled with wisdom. It is in this act that the leadership of the Israelites is transferred from Moses over to Joshua.  Following this tradition, rabbis to this day are ordained through a process of touch from a member of more senior clergy.