The sign of order in the 1st degree
Understand the 1st degree order sign
There is a gesture which since the origin of Freemasonry is always applied whatever the country, the rite or the workshop: it is the sign that we call of order (in England: we call it SIGN OF AN ENTERED APPRENTICE )! "It is done, standing with both feet square, the right arm horizontal folded, palm of the hand facing the ground, thumb square against the neck."
It's classic to read that this command sign means:
"I control and appease my instincts, I learn to moderate my words, to control my passions... »
"The right hand, placed squarely on the throat, seems to contain the bubbling of the passions that are stirring in the chest and thus preserve the head from any febrile exaltation that might compromise the lucidity of the mind. The Order of the Apprentice means that he seeks to be in possession of himself and to judge impartially."
It is not uninteresting to note that these interpretations have no historical credit; they are free interpretations due to the imagination of authors like Boucher and Wirth whose historical competence is questionable.
In order to understand, it is necessary to know that at the time when speculative Freemasonry was created, in England as in the whole of Europe, the Bible was the reference in terms of historical knowledge; in the 17th century, it had just become accessible thanks to the invention of printing. In England, it was James VI of Scotland and I of England who, in 1604, commissioned a college of clergymen to make a translation of it, and it was this Bible entitled KJV (for King Jack Version) that the initiators of Freemasonry would use.
One of the oldest rituals available is that published by Samuel Prichard in 1730 in his book Masonry Dissected.
In this ritual one evokes the sign of the new apprentice (sign of order in the 1st degree for us) without explaining its meaning.
If no explanation is given to this sign, it is perhaps that there is a reason; after having searched a lot, and having found nothing in the works of masonology, I came to elaborate an explanation which seems plausible to me.
This interpretation is based on the importance of the symbolism of the throat in the Bible; the Hebrew Bible refers to the throat in different ways, but it is the use of the word Nephesh that deserves all our attention.
Nephesh is often translated as spirit or soul or life force. But in Hebrew the meaning is much broader; it also refers to the throat but also to the thumb and thus connects us with the symbolism of Aaron, the brother of Moses!
The general idea that we must keep in mind is that the essence of the sacredness of the human being is found in this bodily area: the throat is not only the passage of the breath sometimes called spirit but also what penetrates the body whether it is air or food!
To put the hand to the throat is to bring the hand closer to the vital breath and one could add it is to give the hand this vital breath; this transmission is done through the thumb placed on the throat: the same word "Nephesh" is found in the three elements: the spirit, the throat as a container and the thumb!
Putting your hand to your throat by leaning on your thumb is to transmit to your hand something sacred that comes to us from your breath!
What could be more logical when we know that this hand is going to transform matter into a spiritual object in the construction of the temple of Solomon; and this hand is ours as Freemasons, we who have this genius in our genes!
As you can see, the sign of the new apprentice, which we call the sign of order, with the thumb on the throat, interpreted from Nephesh, is a fundamental gesture rich in meaning and without comparison with a simple sign of recognition. It is a sign of communication of something sacred!
If the sign of order has no formalized explanation in the first rituals, one can nevertheless understand its importance by the dramatization which is given to the sign which succeeds it that is called the penal sign: this one consists in moving the right hand horizontally then vertically along the body; here is what is said about it in Masonry dissected by Samuel Prichard:
"Having my throat cut across, my tongue torn out by its roots, and my body buried in the rough sands of the sea at low water mark, where the tide ebbs and flows twice in twenty-four hours, should I ever knowingly violate this my Entered Apprentice obligation. "The phrase "Knowing that I would have my throat slit, my tongue torn out, and my body buried in the rough sands of the sea at low water mark, where the tide ebbs and flows twice in twenty-four hours, should I ever knowingly violate this my Entered Apprentice obligation? "
This dramatization makes sense if one remembers the meaning of Nephesh; to have one's throat cut is a spiritually horrible death if one admits the biblical logic that in the sixteenth century in England was the reference in matters of knowledge!
To make the penal sign is to communicate a commitment to respect this obligation of secrecy, which we know is of companionly and not biblical origin!
Today, this penal gesture is not specifically Masonic, we find it in the secular world either with the hand or more often with the index finger or thumb: it means a threat of murder by slitting the throat, generally out of revenge or out of a desire to frighten in particular those who would not respect the law of silence!