“It mounts by gradual stages from the petition for material blessing and protection to that for Divine favor as a spiritual blessing, and in beautiful climax culminates in the petition for God’s most consummate gift, shalom, peace, the welfare in which all material and spiritual well-being is comprehended.”
So Rabbi Joseph Hertz quotes biblical scholar Emil Kautzsch in describing the sublime words of Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:23-26), from this week’s parasha, Naso.
The simple three-line blessing in Hebrew expands in an ever-embracing structure from three to five to seven words:
“May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn to you and give you peace.”
“May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn to you and give you peace.”Birkat Kohanim
One of the oldest prayers in Judaism
Its words are the oldest of the Torah ever found, Aharon Varady points out; also the earliest artifact of Jewish liturgy we have in physical form, some 500 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls. Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay discovered two silver amulets, with parts of the blessing on them, in a burial cave in Jerusalem just below St. Andrew’s Church and behind the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. There is an extensive explanation of the discovery and its significance at that site. The amulets can be viewed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They date from the late seventh or early sixth century BCE, around the time of King Josiah.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer comments on the historical liturgical significance of Birkat Kohanim:
“The practice of having Kohanim recite the blessing in the synagogue is an ancient one. Originally the blessing was a part of the Temple service, but nothing in the Torah restricts it to the Temple site. The Mishna records that it was recited outside of the Temple as well, and tells of certain differences in such cases. In the Temple it was pronounced as one blessing; elsewhere, as three. In the Temple, the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter Name of God) was pronounced; elsewhere, the word ‘Adonai’ was substituted. In the Temple, the priests raised their hands above their heads; elsewhere, only as high as their shoulders. (See Sota 7:6)” (Hammer, Or Hadash, p. 177).
Significantly, this blessing is written in the second person singular – you – while most Jewish liturgy is framed in the first person plural – us. There is the communal concern when we pray as Jews for the larger community we live within, but in the case of blessings there is a shift to our individual needs and hopes. The individual blessings listed in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 are also in the second person singular.
Traditionally, only a male Kohen can offer this blessing as part of the Amida section during certain synagogue services (there are different customs based on where in the world one might be, as well as per denomination). Regardless, it is one of the Amida blessings recited silently or in the prayer leader’s repetition of the morning and afternoon Amida (Birkat Kohanim was not pronounced in the evening in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem). In many non-Orthodox circles, the Priestly Blessing solely offered by a male Kohen is no longer practiced. In the Reconstructionist siddur, we find this alternate:
“Another way to enact the Priestly Blessing is for each congregant to turn to a neighbor and recite the first half of each blessing, while the neighbor responds with the second half of the blessing” (Kol Naneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim, p. 318).
When Kohanim recite the blessing, they take their shoes off – an echo of when Moses encountered God at the burning bush: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). In addition, Levites wash the hands of the Kohanim before they invoke Birkat Kohanim. This, too, is a reminder of earlier practices:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it” (Ex. 30:17-21).
We also read in the Mishna: “Rabbi Yehuda says: Even the high priest lifts his hands above the front plate, as it is stated: ‘And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them’ (Leviticus 9:22)” (Sota 7:6).
And so, after covering their heads with their tallitot, the Kohanim raise their hands to bless the congregation. They also move their fingers so they look like the Hebrew letter shin, signifying one of God’s names, Shadai. That hand configuration was made famous by the Star Trek character Spock. Actor Leonard Nimoy explained:
“I still have a vivid memory of the first time I saw the use of the split-fingered hands being extended to the congregation in blessing. There were a group of five or six men facing the congregation and chanting in passionate shouts of a Hebrew benediction.... My dad said, ‘Don’t look.’ I learned later that it is believed that during this prayer the Shechina, the feminine aspect of God, comes into the temple to bless the congregation. The light from this Deity could be very damaging. So we are told to protect ourselves by closing our eyes. I peeked. And when I saw the split-fingered gesture of these men... I was entranced. I learned to do it simply because it seemed so magical. It was probably 25 years later that I introduced that gesture as a Vulcan greeting in Star Trek... It gives me great pleasure since it is, after all, a blessing.”
There is a custom, based on the Birkat Kohanim roles of the Kohanim and the Levites, that in Jewish cemeteries an image of the hand symbol is carved on the gravestone of a Kohen, and a pitcher on that of a Levi. According to the Talmud (Brachot 55b), if one had a dream and is uncertain about its meaning, then, while the Priestly Blessing is offered in the synagogue, a prayer should be said by the congregant. The Priestly Blessing is also incorporated into the home Friday night ritual. Parents recite its words to their children while placing their hands on their children’s heads. This usually takes place between the lighting of the Shabbat candles and the singing of “Shalom Aleichem.” Rabbi Tamar Fox adds:
“Beyond the weekly blessing on Friday nights, many parents recite this blessing on special occasions, such as at a child’s brit milah or naming ceremony, bar or bat mitzvah, and wedding. Any important milestone in a child’s life, from the first day of school to birthdays, to the day they graduate high school or college, can be appropriately marked with this blessing.”
A shortened variation of Birkat Kohanim is found in Psalm 67: “May God grant us grace and bless us, may God’s face shine upon us” (Ps. 67:2).
We note that it is written in the first person plural, unlike Birkat Kohanim, which is composed in the second person singular. By combining the two sources, we are reminded: I can only be blessed if you are blessed, and you can only be blessed if I am blessed. ■
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.