Tradition Today: Blessing the people

The priestly blessing serves as a historical reminder of the Temple and of an earlier stage of Judaism.

Several years ago a well known Jerusalem archeologist, Dr. Gabriel Barkai, came up to me in the synagogue we both attend and asked me some questions about the blessing of the kohanim (Numbers 6:22-26) that was being read in that week's Torah portion. In a dig in Jerusalem he had recently discovered a silver medallion dating from the days of the First Temple on which those words were written. This was the earliest biblical text ever discovered and later went on display at the Israel Museum. Barkai was of the opinion that it had been used as a kind of talisman, perhaps worn as tefillin are worn. They too contain texts of the Torah, although not the same ones. I must admit that I have a special feeling for that beautiful blessing, undoubtedly based upon the fact that I have wonderful childhood memories of hearing my grandfather, of blessed memory, a kohen, perform the ceremony with great feeling and intensity. I have always regretted that many synagogues in America abandoned it for one reason or another, often because they felt that it was too elitist or too old-fashioned. Properly done it has an emotional power that can add so much to the experience of prayer. One objection I have heard is that there may be a kohen who is inappropriate in some way. I believe that that is one of the reasons why the kohanim cover themselves and people do not look directly at them. In that way one is cognizant of the fact that it is not that particular individual who is the source of the blessing. He is only the voice that conveys the words. Even when the blessing was recited in the Temple, where the kohanim were the officiants, it was clear that they were only the transmitters, the surrogates. The blessing was to come from God, as the verse indicates, "…and I will bless them" (Numbers 6:27). The midrash (Sifre Numbers 43) explains, "Israel should not say, 'Our blessings are dependent upon the kohanim,' and the kohanim should not say, 'We grant a blessing to Israel.' Therefore the verse says, 'And I will bless them.' I will bless My people Israel." Although one is not to see the kohen for that reason, one is also not supposed to turn one's back on him. This stems from the idea found in midrash that the Shechina - God's Presence - shines through the fingers of the kohen at that time of the blessing. Symbolically one does not turn one's back upon God's Presence. Another modern objection has been that this is not democratic because only kohanim can perform it, as if they are an elite caste, better than the rest of us. Although it seems that the Torah indeed granted them the role of teacher and transmitter of Torah on the basis of birth alone, the democratic revolution which took place in Judaism during the Second Temple period saw to it that these tasks were taken from the kohen and granted to the sage - the rabbi - a role to which anyone could aspire. What remained to the kohanim was only a symbolic role in certain ceremonial activities. Those of us who are not kohanim may envy that, but we should not begrudge it. As a religion that places so much emphasis on continuity and tradition, it is healthy for us to have reminders of the past. The priestly blessing serves as a historical reminder of the Temple and of an earlier stage of Judaism. The blessing has been seen as so important that Jewish law actually determined that it should be said every day at every service, at least in the morning. In the afternoon, since the kohen might have imbibed wine, he could not say it. The Ashkenazi practice in the Diaspora of reciting it only at Musaf on holidays is really a very strange custom without any real justification. The blessing of the kohanim is one of the very few liturgical texts that we have in the Torah and the only one that was to be recited in the Temple day in and day out. One came to the Temple bringing gifts - sacrifices - and left it having received God's gift - the blessing. "He shall carry away a blessing from the Lord," says Psalm 24:5 concerning one who comes to the Temple. The blessing was not confined to the Temple but was recited in other places even when the Temple existed. The paragraph that concludes the Amida, developed thousands of years later, Sim Shalom, is nothing more than an expansion of the priestly blessing. A different but similar liturgical expansion has also been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. And what a beautiful blessing it is. Constructed in ascending steps - first three words, then five and finally the sacred number seven - it asks God to guard us, to favor us and to grant us peace. The rabbinic interpretations in Sifre Numbers 39 explain this as blessing us in our possessions, in our bodies, guarding us from our own inner evil as well as from enemies, so that others will not rule over us, granting us peace "when you go out and when you come in, peace with all people, peace within your home. Great is peace for all other blessings are included in it." What more could we want? The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.