This article discusses the function of the Kohanim. Click here for the congregation's participatory role in the blessing.
Calling Upon the Kohanim
The chazzan recites the prayer which precedes the Birkat Kohanim ("Our G‑d and G‑d of our fathers, bless us with the threefold [Priestly] Blessing…"), until he reaches the word "Kohanim"—which he proclaims out loud; officially summoning the Kohanim to discharge their priestly duty. The chazzan then continues, "am kedoshecha ka'amur" ("Your holy [priestly] nation, as it is said...").
At this point, the Kohanim – who are facing the Ark – rotate themselves clockwise to face the congregation and incant a blessing, thanking G‑d for "sanctifying us with Aaron's sanctity and commanding us to bless His nation Israel with love."
Immediately after the blessing, the Kohanim lift their hands beneath their tallits—shoulder-high, palms outstretched and facing downwards. The right hand should be slightly more elevated than the left one.
The fingers are positioned in a manner which leaves five "windows" through which G‑d's blessings flow to the congregation. The general idea is to separate each hand into three "sections"—leaving spaces on each hand between the thumb and index finger, and between the middle and ring finger. The fifth space is completed by the way the two thumbs are configured together. There are different traditions regarding this configuration—Kohanim should consult with their father or rabbi to determine their family/community tradition in this matter.
Sephardim have a completely different tradition. They raise their hands above their heads and separate all their fingers.
The Kohanim should not gaze at their hands during the Birkat Kohanim.
The Chazzan Leads
The chazzan then leads the Kohanim in the Birkat Kohanim. He recites aloud the fifteen words of the blessing:
'May G‑d bless you and guard you.
'May G‑d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you.
'May G‑d turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.'" (Numbers 6:24-26)
The Hebrew words are:
The Kohanim repeat after the chazzan word-for-word. The Kohanim must chant the words of the Birkat Kohanim in a loud voice—but not a shout. It is traditional in many communities for the Kohanim to precede each word with a short melody. The Kohanim must wait for the chazzan to completely conclude saying a word before repeating it.
After the conclusion of the Birkat Kohanim, the Kohanim remain facing the congregation until the chazzan begins the Sim Shalom blessing. At this point they turn around – clockwise again – and only when they are once again facing the Ark may they bring down their outstretched hands.
While the chazzan recites the Sim Shalom, the Kohanim recite a short prayer, "informing" G‑d that they had complied with His command to administer the Priestly Blessing, and now He must do as He has promised—"Look down from Your holy Heavenly Abode and bless Your people and the Land which You have given us…"
Ideally, the Kohen should conclude this prayer as the chazzan finishes the Sim Shalom blessing—allowing the congregation to respond "Amen" to both prayers simultaneously.
The Kohanim remain at the front of the sanctuary until the conclusion of the kaddish which immediately follows the Repetition of the Musaf Amidah. They then (put on their shoes) and file back to their places.