The Priestly Blessing, Birkat Kohanim—also known as Nesi’at Kapayim, the “lifting of the hands”—is a blessing that has been recited by the kohanim, the priests, since biblical times. Today, it is performed in the synagogue, typically during the holiday Musaf service. The source for this practice is Numbers 6:23-26:

Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel: “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.” They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.

Thus, G‑d granted the patrilineal male descendants of Aaron the ability to channel divine blessings to the congregation. The Priestly Blessing is one of the most spiritually uplifting moments in Jewish life, as the entire congregation is embraced in a “divine hug.”

Text of the Priestly Blessing

יְבָרֶכְךָ Yivarechecha May [G‑d] bless you
וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ viyishmirecha and guard you
יָאֵר Ya'er May [G‑d] shine
פָּנָיו panav His countenance
אֵלֶיךָ elecha upon you
וִיחֻנֶּךָּ veechuneka and be gracious to you
יִשָּׂא Yeesa May [G‑d] turn
פָּנָיו panav His countenance
אֵלֶיךָ elecha toward you
וְיָשֵׂם viyasem and grant
לְךָ lecha you
שָׁלוֹם shalom peace

When Is the Priestly Blessing Performed?

In ancient times, the priests recited the blessing every day while standing on a special platform in the Holy Temple known as a duchan. In some synagogues today, the recitation of the blessing is informally known as “duchaning.”

Today, the blessing is administered in the course of the prayer services, during the chazzan's Repetition of the Amidah. In Jerusalem, the Birkat Kohanim rite is performed every morning. On days when the Musaf service is recited, the Birkat Kohanim is performed both during Shacharit and Musaf. In many other Israeli cities, some (mostly Sephardim) perform Birkat Kohanim every day, while others (mostly Ashkenazim) do so only on Shabbat (or only on holidays). On public fast days, the kohanim recite the blessing during Minchah as well.

For more on this, see When Is the Blessing Administered?

In the Diaspora, many Sephardic communities perform the Birkat Kohanim every Shabbat, while in Ashkenazi communities, the Birkat Kohanim is only performed on major holidays during the Musaf prayer. An exception to this rule is Simchat Torah, when the Birkat Kohanim is done during the Shacharit (morning) services instead.

For more, see Why Is the Priestly Blessing Only on Yom Tov?

How Is the Priestly Blessing Performed?

Before Birkat Kohanim, the kohanim prepare for the blessing by having their hands washed and removing their shoes. They then come to the front of the synagogue, cover themselves with their tallits, 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." They then lift their hands beneath their tallits. The exact configuration of the fingers depends on one’s tradition, but the general idea is that the fingers are spread into sections resembling “windows.”

The chazzan then leads the kohanim in the Birkat Kohanim. He recites aloud the fifteen words of the blessing, which the kohanim repeat word-for-word.

It is traditional in many communities for the kohanim to precede each word with a short melody.

For more on this, see The Priestly Blessing.

It is customary for the congregation to stand for the duration of the Birkat Kohanim, out of respect for the Divine Presence. The congregation should face the kohanim—it isn't respectful to turn one's back (or side) to a blessing—but should not gaze at them. The men customarily cover their heads and faces with their tallit. Young children join their fathers beneath the tallit, which makes for a memorable childhood experience.

The congregation listens attentively and responds "amen" to the kohanim's preliminary blessing, and at the conclusion of each of the three verses of the Birkat Kohanim. While the kohanim sing the melody before the final three words of the Birkat Kohanim, the congregation recites a prayer requesting the "healing" of all their negative dreams.

For more on this, see Role of the Congregation.

The Blessing of Love

This beautiful blessing has a strong rhythmic structure, and the verses become increasingly more personal. The first line, “May G‑d bless you and guard you,” refers to material blessings: sustenance, physical health and so on. The second, “May G‑d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you,” refers to the interpersonal blessing of grace between ourselves and others. The third line is the deepest of all: “May G‑d turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” There are seven billion people on the earth. What makes us anything more than a face in the crowd, a wave in the ocean, a grain of sand on the sea shore? The fact that we are G‑d’s children. He is our parent. He turns His face toward us. He cares.

This knowledge gives us a profound sense of inner peace. We do not need to prove ourselves in order to receive a blessing from G‑d. All we need to know is that His face is turned toward us. G‑d sees us, hears us, holds us in His everlasting arms.