The Eternal One spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
The Eternal bless you and protect you!
The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Eternal bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace!
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Numbers 6:22-27)
Some of us are old enough to remember when services ended with the rabbi, clad in a black robe, raising his arms and intoning the "Priestly Benediction," Birkat Kohanim, which is found in this week's parashah, Naso. It was a moment of great majesty in keeping with the style of Reform worship in those days.
In Orthodox and many Conservative synagogues, Birkat Kohanim is chanted in a very different way. On weekdays and Shabbat, it is chanted with no special fanfare during the repetition of the Amidah, the "standing" prayer. But on High Holy Days and Festivals, it is pronounced bykohanim-men (and in some synagogues, women) who claim priestly descent-in a ceremony that recalls the ritual in the ancient Temple. After the K'dushah, the "sacredness" prayer, kohanim leave the sanctuary to remove their shoes and wash their hands. Each kohein covers his (or her face) with a tallit, so as not to distract people and to prevent them from looking at the kohanim. Facing the congregation, they spread their outstretched fingers to form the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter of the Hebrew word Shaddai, meaning "Almighty." To make certain that the kohanim pronounce the words correctly, the cantor chants each word from a written text, and they repeat it. Then they return to their seats and once again become ordinary members of the congregation.
Classical Reform's placement of Birkat Kohanim at the conclusion of the service also follows biblical precedents. The Rabbis identified it with the blessing recited by Aaron at the conclusion of the first public service after the consecration of the wilderness Tabernacle (Leviticus 9:21-22).
But the reenactment ritual is not seen in Reform synagogues-not even after the priestly hand language was made famous as a Vulcan greeting by the Star Trek character "Spock," played by Leonard Nimoy, who first saw it when his grandfather took him to an Orthodox synagogue. Reform Judaism long ago rejected the notion of priestly status. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, priests and Levites had specific jobs to do. They conducted the sacrificial cult, sang and played the accompanying melodies, and were responsible for the Temple's physical maintenance. But when the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., these duties and the prestige that went with them were lost-at least until the Messiah comes to rebuild the Temple and restore the priestly cult. To ease the pain of suddenly finding themselves no more privileged than the common folk, priests and Levites were granted a few courtesies, such as being called to the Torah before anyone else and being invited to stand before the congregation to recite Birkat Kohanim several times a year. As a modern religion with a bent toward egalitarianism, the Reform Movement would have none of that.
This too follows earlier precedents. Even in biblical times the Israelites were wary of priestly prerogatives-a fact picked up by the ancient rabbis in commenting on this week's parashah. They point out that the instruction, "Thus shall you bless the people of Israel" implies that priests were limited to repeating word-for-word what God told them to say. The tragic fate of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were punished by death for offering "before the Eternal alien fire," stands as a warning to priests who would interpret the service, deviating from the exact instructions God gave to them (Leviticus 10:1-3). Moreover, in Numbers 6:27, the concluding phrase, "and I will bless them," makes explicit that it is God, not the priests, who blesses the people.
Limitations on priestly authority serve not only to limit their power, but also to enhance the stature of other Israelites by blurring the lines separating the classes. Immediately prior to giving the Ten Commandments, God says to the Israelites, "You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). As noted in Etz Hayim, the Conservative Movement's Chumash and commentary, being a "kingdom of priests" assigns a special responsibility to the Jewish people: "The priest is set apart by a distinctive way of life consecrated to the service of God and dedicated to ministering to the needs of the people" (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary [New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001], p. 437). This is the self-image Jews must have in defining their role among the nations of the world.
Moreover, thanks to the impulse toward democratization in Jewish life, every Jew is entitled to pronounce Birkat Kohanim. Rabbis and cantors do so when they bless b'nei mitzvah and confirmands, couples under the chuppah or reaffirming their marriage vows, Jews-by-choice, and now and again, congregants at the conclusion of services.
But clergy do not have sole title to Birkat Kohanim. Parents recite it when blessing their children at the Shabbat dinner table. Indeed, this may be the most spiritually gratifying utilization of these ancient words. Kids today are not accustomed to being blessed by their parents. Hugs are in (but not enough), as are high fives and backslaps. Blessings are something else. One sees the special impact of a blessing when parents introduce the brief ritual into their Shabbat home observance. The blessed children radiate a special glow that is assuredly a reflection of God's presence.
This is precisely the intended effect of Birkat Kohanim. The Torah offers this explanation for why God commands the priests to pronounce it: "Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them" (Numbers 6:27). In word and deed, and in bestowing an ancient blessing at important times in people's lives, all of us can help make God's presence felt in the world around us.
By the Way
Indeed the very wording of the verses prompts this question. The blessings are introduced by an order addressed to the priests "thus ye shall bless" and conclude with the divine statement "And I will bless them." An easy solution to the above dilemma would be to take the object of the last phrase "I will blessthem" as referring not to all Israel but to the priests engaged in blessing Israel, as R. Ishmael observes in the Talmud (Hullin 49a):
"We have learned regarding the blessing of Israel; but regarding a blessing for the priests themselves we have not learned. The additional phrase "And I will bless them" (repairs this omission and) implies: the priests bless Israel and the Holy One blessed be He blesses the priests." (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980], p. 61)
The Torah specifies that the benediction is to be spoken by the priests and that, upon their pronouncement, God will bless them. This appears to suggest that the threefold benediction has special qualities in that it forces the hand of God: a human word, delivered by the right person is the right manner, will call forth a predictable divine response. (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 941)
"May the Lord bless thee"-that thy goods may be blessed. (Rashi)
This implies the blessing appropriate to each person; to the student of Torah, success in his studies; the businessman-in his business, etc. (Ha'amek Davar, quoted in Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 65)
Can you think of instances when people who are busy thanking others do not get the thanks that they themselves have earned? What can be done to rectify this?
The power of "the right word being spoken by the right person at the right time" is a double-edged sword. Too often, the power is used for evil (witness the Jack Abramoff scandal). Can you think of times when the power can be used for good?
Should people always be "blessed" with what they seek? Can you think of examples where this has been catastrophic?
Rabbi Ira S.Youdovin was the founding Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
Watch this Bimbam video to learn more:
Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842