Has palm reading ever been a part of Orthodox Judaism? If so, how does it work? If not, why not?
While I don’t have hands-on experience in palm reading, I can tell you what our sources say about it. Moses was told to select judges over the people, "And you shall discern (literally "see") from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, G-d-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money, and you shall appoint them leaders" (Exodus 18:21). The Zohar notes that Moses was told to choose the judges by "seeing" them, from which the Zohar learns that Moses was to perceive their qualities in the appearance of their hair, forehead, countenance, eyes, lips and lines in their hands.
In reality, although Moses possessed this lofty wisdom, he didn’t need to use it. The Zohar relates that whenever necessary, the Divine Presence would rest upon him and reveal to him through prophecy more than he would have seen by reading the face or palm: "Moses said, when they [the people] have a matter, it [the Divine Presence] comes to me". Nevertheless, the Zohar reveals that the Torah gives credence not only to palm reading, but also to reading facial features and even the hair. In fact, the Ramban (1195-1270) went one step further by asserting that this wisdom is actually found in the Torah: "every field of knowledge – whether it be science, agriculture, medicine or palmistry – can be learned from the Torah".
From the Tannaitic (1st – 6th century) through the Gaonic era (7th – 11th century), sages who knew the Torah’s secrets also knew how to read faces and palms, and they passed their knowledge down from one to another. However, like the other secrets of the Torah, the wisdom of reading faces and palms has been lost. One notable exception was the Arizal (1534-1572) who approached the level of the Tannaim and could see on a person’s forehead what he had transgressed, how many reincarnations his soul had been through, and what he had come to this world to rectify. Nevertheless, the Arizal refused to teach even his main disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, the wisdom of palm reading. Needless to say, the physiognomists and palmists of today have turned a lofty wisdom into a trivial pursuit.
According to the Kabbalah, the way palm reading works is that when a soul is garbed in a body, it becomes imprinted in the body, particularly in the face and hands, and its nature can thereby be revealed. One who knew how to read the face and palms could use this knowledge to determine who is suitable for leadership, as in the Zohar’s account of Moses’ choice of judges, or to discern who was worthy of learning the Torah’s secrets. Face and palm reading could also be used to expose the soul’s flaws so that they could be rectified through repentance and good deeds, as did the Arizal.
It is important to stress that in Judaism, reading the face and palm was used only to help ascertain whether one was worthy of a certain position or knowledge, or to help improve oneself. However, reading the face and palms in order to tell the future is a violation of the prohibition against divining auspicious times (Leviticus 19:26), and the commandment to have perfect faith (Deuteronomy 18:13).
Someone once sent a letter to the renowned Torah luminary, Rabbi E. M. Shach of blessed memory:
It is known that the lines of a person’s hand reveal his future, and I have seen on others that it comes true. After reading books on the subject, I looked at my hand and saw that the lines of marriage reveal a dark future. What I have seen gives me no rest, especially now that I have come of marriageable age.
Rabbi Shach replied:
It is absolutely forbidden to read palms [to see the future] or to believe what is seen in them. The Torah states, "You shall be perfectly faithful to Hashem your G-d". We must rely only on G-d. All else is nonsense. Do not worry about what you saw in your palm. You were simply shown what you wanted to see, for "in the path that a person wishes to go, he is led".
- Faith and Folly, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
- Zohar, Parshat Yitro, 78a
- Ramban, Introduction to Commentary on the Torah
- Responsa of the Geonim, 122
- Ramban, Derush Torah Temimah
- Chida, Midbar Kedemot, 8:17
- Toldot Ha-Arizal
- Or HaChama on the Zohar, Parshat Yitro
- Lechem Mishneh, Avoda Zara 11:19