By Rabbi David Geffen
As we celebrate receiving the Torah during Shavuot, it’s interesting to realize that the practice of throwing kisses to the Torah originated as part of pagan religious worship.
Even the word “adore,” which we regard as associated with “amorous,” is related to this type of worship. The word “adoration” has the dictionary definition of “act of paying honor to a divine being; act of addressing as a god.”
The derivation of the word is from the Latin ad (to) and os, oris (mouth), which literally signifies the application of the hand to the mouth — that is, to kiss the hand.
The act of throwing a kiss came from the ancient practice of making signs of reverence to a statue of a god. If the statue was low enough, people would kiss the figure. When the statue was too tall, they would kiss their hands and wave toward the idol.
We encounter incidents in the Bible that address the practice. Job alludes to the faithless ones in these verses: “If I beheld the sun when it shines or the moon which moved in splendor and my heart hath been secretly enticed, and my mouth hath kissed my hand, that also would be a crime to be punished by the judges, for I should have denied the G-d on high” (Job 31:26-28).
The kissing of idols was a common heathen practice, as can be learned when G-d spoke to Elijah: “I will spare seven thousand in Israel — all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (Kings 19:18).
Hosea (13:1-2) also describes the practice: “Whenever Ephraim spoke, men were in awe; he was a prince in Israel. But then he worshipped Baal, and for his guilt he died. And still they go on sinning, making metal gods of silver, idols in human form, the craftsman’s work — and these they call their ‘gods,’ and men at a sacrifice offer kisses to calves.”
“Laying the hand on the mouth” is also described as the highest degree of reverence and submission to a superior. It was a mark of respect in the presence of kings and people high in office. In these instances, the hand was not merely kissed and then withdrawn from the mouth, but held continuously before or upon the mouth. We glean from various books in the Bible evidence of such behavior.
Ancient sculpture also depicts scenes of respect to royalty. In monuments of ancient Egypt and Persia, there are scenes of a king seated on his throne, and before him is a person standing in a bent posture with his hand laid on his mouth as he addresses the sovereign.
It has been explained that the particular reason for this act of placing the hand on the mouth was to prevent the breath of the subservient from reaching the face of the superior. This was the ultimate conventional mark of respect and homage to a superior.
We have the beautiful custom of kissing a religious book or kissing the Torah by first placing a tallit on the scroll, then kissing the tallit. The custom of Sephardic Jews is to raise a finger toward the ark or Torah and then kiss the finger. This practice is observed by men and women.
Men also raise the corner of the tallit toward the ark or Torah, then kiss the tallit.
Whatever its origin, the custom of throwing kisses today is a charming, graceful gesture.
Rabbi David Geffen, a former Atlantan who lives in Israel, adapted this column from a piece he wrote in the 1990s when a congregation he served in Scranton, Pa., dedicated a new Sefer Torah.