Parashat Naso contains several seemingly disparate sections of biblical legislation. It encompasses ritual purity, a sacrificial ritual for those who need to make restitution to another person, trial by ordeal for the suspected adulterous wife, vows of abstinence, and the order of sacrifices for the dedication of the Tabernacle. Tucked in among these in Numbers 6:24-27 is the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction. These fifteen words are recited in both synagogue and home rituals and are also found in Christian worship. A version of the Priestly Benediction, inscribed in silver, is perhaps the oldest biblical text ever discovered.
In Orthodox and some Conservative synagogues, the kohanim, priests, recite this benediction on the High Holidays and on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals. (Leonard Nimoy based Mr. Spock's Vulcan greeting on the way the kohanim hold their hands during the recitation!) This benediction is also part of the parental blessing of children and is used at weddings as well as at b'nei mitzvah and brit milah ceremonies. Since the Reform Movement abandoned all vestiges of priestly privilege, it is rarely included in formal Reform worship. Nevertheless, many Reform rabbis use it regularly as a benediction.
The blessing consists of three sentences with three, five, and seven words, respectively. God's name (YHVH) appears three times, as the second word in each sentence. Forms of the word "you" appear six times. The other words describe six divine actions. Four of these involve blessing, protecting, being gracious, and giving peace. The other two divine actions are found in two clauses that sound similar: May God's countenance (literally, "face") shine upon us and be lifted up toward us. "Shine" is usually understood in terms of God being present with us as opposed to God hiding God's face. "Lifting" does not mean looking up, since that might imply that God is "below" us: It refers to an expression of benevolence rather than anger (a "fallen" face). When God looks at us, we hope God is pleased.
When Jews reflect on prayer, we do not immediately think about praying for others. We tend to think first about communal worship, in which we ask for God's blessing primarily in the first person plural for ourselves and for the community, for example, "Grant us peace..." or "Our God and God of our ancestors?." Into the relationship between God and us, the Priestly Benediction brings a third party in the form of kohanim, rabbis, and parents, who also invoke God's blessing for us.
For Further Discussion
- Can you identify some other instances in Tanach and Jewish practice during which one person blessed another?
- Have you ever blessed anyone? Have you ever been blessed? When? What words were used? What did the blessing mean to you then? What does it mean to you now?
- Offer an interpretation for the different "blessings" in the Birkat Kohanim. How does "bless" differ from "protect," etc.? Can you give an explanation for the way the three blessings are ordered?
- What does the person who receives the blessing gain? How does the person who invokes the blessing benefit?