I’m just going to be forthright about it: I have weird thumbs. The truth is that weird is relative (especially my relatives), and I’m pretty convinced that the rest of the world has weird thumbs, and I’m one of the few who have normal and proper thumbs. But by majority standards, I have unusual thumbs, especially my left thumb, which is somewhat short and stumpy. They say no one is perfect, so I guess that’s why I need to have unusual thumbs.
When I was in high school, I had a friend who told me that whenever he was in a bad mood, he would think about my thumbs and that would make him laugh.
Thumbs are one of those gifts G-d grants us that we fail to appreciate. One morning, a friend told me he had a dream that he had no thumbs, and he was really bummed about it because he likes his thumbs. (Yes, I have some interesting friends.)
Aside from being helpful, thumbs have more symbolism than any other finger. To hitch a ride, one sticks out his thumb. If a person wants to convey satisfaction or promote something, he gives it a thumbs-up. Conversely, if he wants to convey dissatisfaction, he gives it a thumbs-down. We speak about someone who doesn’t fit in as “sticking out like a sore thumb.”
For those of us who have the merit and privilege to study the timeless words of the Gemara, the thumb plays a particularly significant role. We can hardly imagine learning Gemara, trying to explain a particularly challenging, novel exegetical explanation, without passionately thrusting our thumb downward and then upward. The Talmudic thumb swipe symbolizes a shift of perspective, which is one of the hallmarks of studying Gemara.
This past Motza’ei Shabbos, my older sons and I attended Camp Dora Golding’s reunion at Great Wolf Lodge in the Poconos Mountains. While there, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Rabbi Noach Sauber, Camp’s learning director and a personal mentor. (This isn’t the first Musings that includes thoughts that Rabbi Sauber related to me during conversations we had.) We exchanged a few thoughts and stories, and then Rabbi Sauber said that he had to tell me one last thought:
When a person spoke lashon ha’ra and would contract tzaraas, part of the purification process included smearing some of the “sacrificial blood” on the ear lobe, thumb, and big toe of the m’tzora. That it was smeared on the ear and toe are understandable: The m’tzora listened to lashon ha’ra and likely walked to hear or relate lashon ha’ra. But how are one’s thumbs involved in lashon ha’ra?
Rabbi Sauber related that his father suggested that there is nothing beyond the purview of Torah. In our world, thumbs are vital for texting, and we all know how much lashon ha’ra can be spread through the medium of texting and social media! The Torah, which traverses time, includes a personal message for contemporary society: that there is a need for atonement of lashon ha’ra promulgated by thumbs.
Aside for the poignancy of the thought, I was stunned that Rabbi Sauber happened to relate that thought to me, just as I was mentally compiling this brilliant article about thumbs!
In closing, I take a moment to express my gratitude to Hashem for my thumbs and for all the benefits I have from them, including typing this article, to which I’m sure you’ll all give a thumbs-up.