Why do people lift their pinkies during Hagba?
It is from the Meam Loez (Ki Savo, 27:26) and Rabbi Hayyim Palagei in Lev Chaim, Orach Chaim (167:6) it is Sefardic in practice since it was originally written in Ladino now available in English and Hebrew but it is a translation, but most people do not know it to be a Sefardic custom and just saw others doing it and took it up too not in a mocking way as we know "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery".
Over Shabbos, I saw a recent work entitled Halachically Speaking, by Rabbi Moishe Dovid Lebovits (volume II). He discusses there what to do during hagbah.
In the discussion, it is reported there that both Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z"l, as well as Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv z"l, are not in favor of the pinky/finger pointing.
We say "THIS is the Torah ..."; anytime we use such a language, it implies something specific to which we can point. Okay so we're pointing, but why with the pinky finger?
I'm sure there are other (better?) answers, but here's one I heard: the Hebrew word for pinky finger, zeret, also means a "span", the measure from your thumb to pinky (spread out). That word, "zeret", occurs only about one thing in the Chumash -- the housing for the Urim VeTumim. So we're saying that the Torah is our way of understanding the will of G-d -- just the Urim VeTumim had been.
The custom you are talking about is a Sepharadic custom. It is not Ashkenazic minhag. Ashkenazic minhog is, as brought down in the Rama in Shulchan Aruch, to bow toward the sefer Torah during hagbah.
For some reason the pinky pointing has become a fad for some people. Maybe they picked it up in Eretz Yisroel, or in other places where they came in contact with Sepharadim. I guess it seems cute to them, but they should follow the Ashkenazic minhog if they are Ashkenazic Jews, which is more respectful to the holy Torah, instead of giving a finger to the sefer Torah.
In general, this is representative of a larger phenomenon, which is problematic, of people finding some custom which seems cute to them and adopting it, at the expense of their own tradition/mesorah. Not the way to go. Cuteness and style are not supposed to be the determining factors in minhogim.
It is stated here in the name of Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, that pointing with the pinkie finger, is a symbolism for approaching Torah with humility and a sense of smallness, just like the pinkie which is the smallest of the fingers.
There is no definitive reason as to why specifically the pinky is used to point. In fact, others advocate using the pointer (cf. R. Haim Palagi, Lev Haim vol. 2 §167 3.6)
R. Meir Mazuz suggested a novel theory (Mekor Ne’eman vol. 1 §976) that perhaps the pinky is used to signify the verse (Isa. 40:12) “מִֽי־מָדַ֨ד בְּשָׁעֳל֜וֹ מַ֗יִם וְשָׁמַ֙יִם֙ בַּזֶּ֣רֶת תִּכֵּ֔ן” (Sefaria trans.: Who measured the waters with the hollow of His hand, And gauged the skies with a span *) indicating that we believe that Torah is God-given.
R. David Barda (Kovetz HaMashbir vol. 3 pg. 186), in an extensive article on this issue and its specifics, quoted a journal ‘Asifat Hachamim’ in which the writer of an article there claims he heard the reason is because snuff was distributed during the reading of the Torah and by the time the raising of the Torah came about peoples’ fingers were mostly soiled with snuff and so they would use their pinkies.
*alt. = pinky
I once heard a long time ago that it is a derivation of making the word spelled Shin-Daleth-Yod with your hand. The three fingers that are bent downwards make up the Shin, as I recall the thumb, which is pointed outwards, is the Daleth, and the pinky, which is supposed to be bent partially, is the Yod. However, it seems logical to me that, if this is really the origin of the custom, then either my memory is faulty, or the description was backwards - the fingers bent over are the Shin, the thumb, which is sticking out, is the Yod, and the pinky, which is supposed to be bent partially, is the Daleth.
In any case, ever since hearing that I've made a point of bending my pinky partially.
Also, if memory does serve me correctly (and at this point that's not clear), I heard it in the name of the Meiri. I question that memory as well, though. It may have been the Me'am Lo'ez. If anyone has more information on that origin, I'd welcome it.
I was having a discussion with my son about the pointing of the pinky at the Torah during Hagbah. At some point someone told me that they heard a reference that this custom was somehow connected to Roman times and was a sign of respect towards Caesar, and for that reason he did not do it. Since that would be an indication of idolatry rather than respect for the Torah and G-d. Once I heard that I stopped doing it, but I cannot remember who told me this and have not been able to find any reference to it. If anyone can track this down or confirm or discredit this I would appreciate it. It is a custom that has been taken on in my conservative egalitarian Shul, which is Ashkenazi for the most part. Even though I understand here, that it is a Sephardi custom. Most members of my congregation when I ask them why they do it, have no idea...
It is easier and cuter to point a pinky than to bow.
Also, anything new has an attraction to some people as a fad. Bowing of that nature is done elsewhere in davening (e.g. modim, aleinu), so bowing another time has less attraction to bored people than a new practice of sticking out a finger.
Nevertheless, as stated earlier, the older minhag of bowing should be respected and followed. If the Shulchan Aruch says to do so, that it not a minor matter. It should be be respected. Those that want to see it inside in the Shulchan Aruch are directed to SA Orach Chaim 134:2.
Rabbi Shaul Lieberman discusses pionting with a finger on pages 15-16 of his Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. He does not say so explicitly but I would conjecture, based on what he does say, that because pointing can also be seen as a haughty act that it is done in a diminished capacity ie with the smallest finger. See notes 81-84 therein.
According to this article (p. 294)
The earliest mention of pointing during hagbaha is found in Divrei Mordekhai, a book of responsa by R. Moredekhai Krispin, a rabbi in Rhodes in the 1800s. No source for the custom is given, only a justification for why it is not considered inappropriate. In Bamidbar Rabbah (2:3) R. Hanina explains that while it is generally considered insolent and punishable by death to point to the image of a king using a finger, because of His great love for the Jewish People, God allows young children to point to His Name in the house of study. R. Krispin writes that this is what people rely on when they point to the Torah. This justification is quoted by R. Hayyim Palaggi
Based on this, and as mentioned in another answer I would conjecture that pointing with a pinky is less insulting/more respectful manner of pointing.
contra to the implication found in another answer the portion of the Me'am Loez in which this custom is described was not written by R' Yaakov Culi. (ibid p. 298)
the me-Am Lo’ez commentary to Deuteronomy, including the discussion of hagbaha, was written by R. Shmuel Kroizer (1921–1997),52 a fifth-generation Jerusalemite who lived most of his life in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. ... Thus, the earliest reference in writing to the custom of pointing to the Torah with the little finger is in fact in the book me-Am Lo’ez, but that particular section dates to 1969
See additional reasons mentioned in the aforecited article.
Oh but really guys...Isn't it obvious?
"This is the Torah" This phrase implies that the Torah is directly pesent in a way in which it could be pointed to. Especially in the sepharadic custom there is an emphasis on acting out the things you read, hence spreading the hands open when reciting "opens your hand" in Ashrei and a host of other little gestures that people do practically without thinking about them. As a matter of fact the common custom today in Israel is when the Hazzan reads the statement near the end of Shaharit "Whoever recites halachot every day is assured of a place in the world to come!" somebody will pull out a book and recite two (hopefully brief) Halachot. At any rate, it makes sense from the "act out what you say" angle to actually point when saying the verse "this is the Torah". Now...which finger to point with? Well, no-one points with their thumb. To point with the index finger (the pointer) isn't polite. It is not considered proper to single out a person out in this way. It is like counting that person. How much more so it would be considered a lack of reverence towards the Torah. Howabout the middle finger? I suspect that the middle finger has always meant what it means today, so one could hardly use that one. Lets try pointing with the next finger...Most people cannot comfortably extend that finger without simultainiously extending the little finger too. Since pointing is done with one finger only that won't do. So the only finger left is the little one. Walla! Mystery solved.