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The Priestly Blessing

The Priestly Blessing

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The Ritual

If you have ever been to the synagogue during the Priestly Blessing, you know it is a celestial experience. The kohen removes his shoes1 and approaches the podium, his face hidden behind his prayer shawl. He extends his hands towards the congregation, fingers parted and palms stretched outwards. He waits, in anticipation of the holy moment. Those in the congregation hide behind their own prayer shawls to avoid gazing directly upon the kohen, for it is believed that the divine presence rests upon the kohen during this time.2

Prompted by the cantor, the kohen soberly intones the sacred words of the blessing (Numbers; 6:24–26): “May G‑d bless you and keep you. May G‑d shine his countenance upon you and may he be gracious to you. May G‑d lift his countenance upon you and may he give you peace.”

As the blessing concludes, a sense of rapture envelops the congregation, and many communities break out in joyful song. Somehow we sense that we have just been especially blessed by G‑d, the Bestower of all blessings. Somehow we feel elated, lifted to a higher plane, almost as if G‑d had just reached down from His celestial throne, scooped us up and drawn us close.

What is it about the Priestly Blessing that triggers such euphoria? Why does it have the power to uplift? How does this blessing differ from those we utter ourselves?

Two Forms of Request

My son loves to play ball in the yard. He often asks me to play with him, and I enjoy every minute of it. How I wish that I could grant his request every time. Unfortunately, I am often forced to turn him down because of my time constraints.

My son knows how much I enjoy his company, and he feels sorry for me. There are times when he actually suggests that we play for my sake. Instead of saying, “Can you play with me, Dad?” he says, “How would you like to take a break, Dad, and I’ll play with you?”

When he puts it that way, I find it almost impossible to resist. Here is my little son, who instead of being concerned with his own fun, is eager to provide me with the enjoyment of his company. Only one thought floods my mind at that time: I love this little boy, and nothing is more important to me than my time with him.

When he phrases it that way, all other considerations somehow fade. All other tasks somehow lose their significance. At that time, only one thought consumes my mind: my son loves me and I love him.

Two Forms of Prayer

Typically, we approach G‑d in prayer to ask for something. We contemplate our lives and our needs and then proceed to make our requests of G‑d. G‑d listens carefully. He listens to our words but he reads our hearts. “You have needs that you want me to fulfill,” G‑d muses, “but I have desires that I want you to fulfill. Let’s see how well you tend to my desires. Then I’ll decide how well I shall tend to yours.”

A kohen approaches G‑d differently. He pours his heart out in prayer and says, “Dear G‑d, I know how much you love your children and how much you enjoy providing for them. Happily, I am in a position to offer you one such opportunity. This is what your children lack, and here is how you might engage in your favorite pastime of providing for them.”

The kohen, a descendant of Aaron, inherits Aaron’s spiritual qualities. Aaron was famous for his loving character. Indeed, the Hebrew name “Aharon” is an abbreviation of two Hebrew words, ahavah rabbah—“great love.” Aaron loved G‑d and he loved his people. When he prayed for the people of Israel, he reflected on the two objects of his love. On the one hand, he thought of the people and their needs. On the other hand, he thought of G‑d’s love for the people and of how much G‑d enjoys giving to them.

Aaron prayed completely without guile, in absolute devotion and love. His loving fervor, in turn, aroused G‑d’s love. G‑d would listen attentively and say, “You desire to provide for me, and I desire to provide for you.” The kohen, who inherits this quality from Aaron, is endowed with the ability to do the same.3

Extended Palms

This explains why the kohen extends his palms outward towards the congregation, rather than the traditional posture for prayer, upwards towards G‑d. With his palm, the kohen forms a vessel into which G‑d pours a blessing. A palm extended upwards forms a vessel for ourselves from which we may later drink. A palm extended outwards forms a vessel through which G‑d channels his blessing to others.

The kohen at this time is not a supplicant but a conduit. He asks not for our sake but for G‑d’s sake. He asks not so that we can gather but so that G‑d can give. It is this manner of asking that G‑d loves most. It elicits an accelerated response from above that is impervious to any and all obstacles.4

In Love

This is why the kohen introduces his blessing with the words, “to bless His people Israel with love.” He speaks of the love between G‑d and the Jewish people. He also speaks of the love among the Jewish people themselves, for when G‑d’s children are united, the vessel is made whole and properly performs its function.

Our sages write that the “vessel” best suited to hold blessing is unity.5 Without unity the vessel is fractured; with unity the vessel is strong. The Hebrew word for vessel, keli, is an acronym of the three groups of which the Jewish community is comprised—kohanim, Levites and Israelites. When Jews love each other, the three components of the keli are united and our vessel is strong, enabling the kohen to successfully channel blessing to the community.6

FOOTNOTES
1. Cf. Exodus 3:5: “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
2. The laws that govern these blessings can be found in the Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chayim, ch. 128. The Talmud states that it is forbidden to gaze upon a kohen during the chanting of the blessing (Chagigah 16a). Rashi explains that this is because the Shechinah (presence of G‑d) rests upon the kohen at this time, especially on his outstretched hands, fingers and knuckles.
3. See Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar 55b.
4. See Kedushat Levi on Numbers 6:23.
5. Mishnah, Uktzin 3:12.
6. See commentary of Ketav Sofer on Numbers 6:23.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.
About the artist: Sarah Kranz has been illustrating magazines, webzines and books (including five children’s books) since graduating from the Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan, in 1996. Her clients have included The New York Times and Money Marketing Magazine of London.
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Discussion (9)
February 4, 2012
Ok... I understand all that is on this page concerning "The Priestly Blessing." I know that somewhere in The Torah, directions concerning the hand gesture is written... I cannot remember where. If you know please do share! Love, Miss N. A. C.
Anonymous
June 3, 2011
hand position
The hands look like they are making the shape of a crown, as if the king of heaven was there blessing the people.
Seth Speiser
West Hempstead, New York
May 31, 2011
Grateful Levite
Dear Rabbi Gurkow:

Thank you for this article as a Levite not sure if we are Kohen, I find it interesting that there are some Groups who still see the value of the Priestly Blessings. I have been having some conversations of late with a Jewish person who is of the belief that the Levites and the Kohen’s only duties were to serve at the Tabernacle/Temple. Many Jewish people today refuse to understand or even give credit that the Levites and the Kohen’s never lost their connection between them and Ha-Shem even during these times of the absence of the Tabernacle.
While our Authority in Spiritual matters are denied and our Tithes are handed over to those who have no claim to them. I’m so grateful to read that there are those who still accept that my Family still offers a great service to the people of Israel.
Brian Brody
Sherman, Tx
April 10, 2011
To Gary in Toledo
See Leviticus 9:22.
Anonymous
April 4, 2011
Priestly Blessing
What is the history of the use of the hands in the Priestly Blessing? Was this practice used during the time of Aaron or was it a later addition to the prayer?
Gary Trzcinski
Toledo, Ohio/USA
June 9, 2006
Priestly Blessings
I really enjoyed the article. Could you clarify...is it allowed for an Israellite, not a Kohen, to ever perform the Aaronic blessing, hands and all...whether as a father to his children, or as the head of a minyan or study group?

Thank you in advance
Randy
Santa Ana, Ca
June 7, 2006
Response to Robert
Dear Robert,

It is customary for fathers to bless their children before the Chupah and many fathers choose the words of the priestly blessing.

It is even more common for fathers to use the Biblical blessings that the patriarchs and matriarchs gave to their children and were given by their parents.

in addition to the parents' blessing, it is appropriate to call upon a Kohein (if there is one in the assembly) to offer the priestly blessing.
Lazer Gurkow
June 7, 2006
Priestly Blessing
When my older granddaughter was married, I sent her and her husband off with the Priestly Blessing. I am an Israelite, not a Kohen. Was this appropriate? Her sister is next in line, and I would do the same for her.
Robert B Godwin
June 4, 2006
Great
Wow! This is great information. I have all my life been wondering about this.
Jeff
Houston, TX
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