Do we have any evidence that the Hebrews used to lift their right hand to take an oath, as some translations of Psalm 144:8 imply?

The original verse talks of a "right hand of falsehood" (KJV NAS) :

אֲשֶׁ֣ר פִּ֭יהֶם דִּבֶּר־שָׁ֑וְא וִֽ֜ימִינָ֗ם יְמִ֣ין שָֽׁקֶר׃

KJV Whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

But a Jewish translation (TNK) and the French Bible de Jerusalem both imply that the right hand is the sign of an oath, like people do in court in certain countries :

TNK whose mouths speak lies, and whose oaths are false.

FBJ dont la bouche parle de riens, et la droite est une droite de parjure. (whose mouth speaks of futile things, and whose right [hand] is a right of perjury)


Yes the custom of raising the right hand was a customary gesture of a person taking an oath, implying that he appeals to God as a witness to the truth of his affirmation.

From man to God:

But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ (NIV, e 14:22–23)

Or anthropomorphically from God also to man:

And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.’ ” (NIV, (Ex 6:8)

It is probably because of the literal practice of raising the right hand in an oath that 'I have lifted up my hand' became a Hebraism for 'I have sworn.' Therefore in the Psalm you mention the right hand indicating falsehood could be the falsehood represented by perjury.

And their right hand is a right hand of falsehood. The meaning here seems to be that even under the solemnities of an oath, when they lifted up their hands to swear, when they solemnly appealed to God, there was no reliance to be placed on what they affirmed or promised. Oaths were taken by lifting up the right hand as towards God. See Gen. 14:22; Ex. 6:8 (Marg., and Heb.); Deut. 32:40. (Barnes, A. (1870–1872). Notes on the Old Testament: Psalms, Volume 3 (p. 317))


Firstly, even if the reference to "right" is to the right arm as part of an oath, I'm not sure how one could conclude they raised the arm. Maybe they just held it sideways or against their body or some such.

Most Hebrew commentaries (Radak, Ibn Ezra, Metsudat David) explain "right" to be metaphorical - the right being typically stronger than the left, represents a person's power, strength and conviction. The translation "right hand" shouldn't be understood as having any relation to oaths according to these explanations. The first clause therefore refers to these people's words whereas the second refers to their actions.

This metaphor recurs throughout all of scripture. See Psalms 118:15-16 for example.

Interestingly there is a very relevant verse in Isaiah 62:8 where "God swears with his right and the arm of his strength". For these explanations this is proof not that the "right" is used in taking an oath (although that would be a very tempting first impression), but rather that "right" is a reference to strength (as supported by the end of the clause). The verse comes to say that God wears by His strength and might that your food won't be given to your enemies etc. See the verse in context.

Interestingly the masoretic Aramaic translation translates "right" as אוריתה - law or teaching. This explanation is also that "right" is metaphorical, but referring to a more spiritual strength and conviction. Referring more to the evil-doers beliefs and moral code than to their actions. Again, I emphasise that "right" doesn't correlate to oath-taking.

That covers most of the verse exegesis. Looking into Hebrew tradition, we see that swearing an oath in Hebraic tradition is almost purely a verbal thing (see Maimonidies Laws of Oaths, chapter 2. This doesn't exclude however the judge's oath, see chapter 11, during which there was a religious item held, presumably the basis for modern-day swearing on the bible, although that isn't the topic here). Scripture's description of oaths is often things people say - note how most verses are of the form "and he swore ... saying ...". Genesis 24 being an exception, although that seems to be related to the handshake concept we are about to discuss, see the Ibn Ezra's explanation of verse 2, and the Rashbam who says this is equivalent to a handshake.

There is some debate as to the status of a handshake. It is not mentioned in talmudic literature, however medieval codifiers disagreed as to its legal status. There are two separate uses for a handshake - one as an act of purchase (in talmudic law a transaction became official with some physical act - not relevant to our discussion) and one as an act of taking oath. Opinions vary from a covenant (considered more binding than an oath) to not even a valid oath. In any event, there does appear to be some (albeit late and not agreed upon) reference to the handshake as a form of oath, and this is what commentators (Divrei Ya'akov for example) believe Rashi is explaining in his commentary (the only Hebrew commentary I found that seems to consider "right" something other than the aforementioned) on the verse in question when he writes that the people would "come to make an oath with their right hand" - not raising their hand to swear since in Hebrew law that has no validity whatsoever, but rather swear an oath (i.e. enter into an agreement) with a handshake.

In any event, it seems highly unlikely that the reference "right" has anything to do with raising one's right arm to swear an oath.

For another interesting and relevant biblical example see Daniel 12:7, but compare it to Chronicles II 6:12-13 and Exodus 9:29,33.


I refer readers of hebrew to the half page explanations of Psalms 116:2 and Psalms 144:8 as well as possibly Psalms 137:5 in N.H. Tur Sinai's volume Hasefer (Mosad Bialik Publishing, 1951) which favors the possibility of right hand as oath taking. He also notes the similarity between the ימא orימי verb root in Aramaic where it means speech. Shmuel Klitsner Jerualem

  • (+1) Hi Steven, welcome to BH.SE - this is a really useful and insightful contribution, and could be the basis of a sound and well-argued Answer to this question. At the moment it's a little bare and has the 'feel' of a comment, but does contain enough substance to serve as an Answer. Please take the Site Tour when you get a chance, to find out more about the SE format. Very much looking forward to more contributions like this in future. – Steve Taylor Oct 12 '20 at 11:42

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