The Priestly Benediction

June 2nd: Naso

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our weekly portion contains one of the most famous passages in religion.
“May the Lord bless you and protect you!
May the Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you!
May the Lord shine upon you and bless you with peace!”

It is a very moving passage, especially when used as a blessing. This is the blessing with which our Tradition teaches us to bless our children on Shabbat. It is a standard conclusion of the Jewish wedding ceremony. Many rabbis use it to bless Consecration, B’nay Mitzvah and Confirmation students. When I was growing up, many rabbis used this to conclude the service. I can still see our rabbi lifting his hands to bless the congregation and saying the words, first in Hebrew and then in English. It was a very solemn moment.

And, it is used by our Christian neighbors. I’ve heard it many times in Roman Catholic services, and, just the other night, Sister Julienne of Nonnatus House (in Call the Midwife) used it in wishing recovery to one of her patients.

The original context of the blessing, in Numbers 6 (verses 22-27), is very interesting. 
“The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: May the Lord bless you and protect you! May the Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you! May the Lord shine upon you and bless you with peace! Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

The blessing was spoken by Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim/priests, in ancient times, and Tradition has accorded this blessing as one of their few remaining priestly duties in Post-Temple Judaism. In a ceremony called duchanen, the priests present take off their shoes and go to the front of the synagogue. They cover their eyes and hands with their tallesim. Though the others cannot see their hands, the tradition is for them to make sign of the Shin with the fingers on each hand. Then, the prayer leader intones each line of the blessing, and the Kohanim repeat it. I have only seen it in Orthodox synagogues.

There is some discussion in Rabbinic texts about the process of this blessing, and, even though the priests are special, the Rabbis are clear that the Kohanim are not the ones blessing the people. They are just conduits for God’s blessing; the actual blessings come from the Lord.

By and large, the Reform Movement does not set apart the Kohanim (or the Levi’im) for special consideration or duty. As the Pittsburgh Platform (1885) explained it:
 “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

 As a result, duchanen is not something one would find in a Reform synagogue. However, the blessing itself is so compelling that an interesting parallel developed. In many Classical Reform Temples, at the conclusion of the service, the rabbi—whether a Kohen or not—would lift his hands recite this Priestly Benediction.

As I said above, I found this a very moving part of the service when I was a child, and, when I became a rabbi, it seemed like something I should do. I even learned how to make the Shin sign with my hands—though I am not a Kohen. Though rabbis are not priests, we do often function in a kind of priestly role, and there is that Rabbinic teaching: the blessing does not come from the Kohanim; it comes from God.

Why is this benediction so moving? There are, no doubt, many answers, but I like to focus on the last phrase of the instructions: “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” This translation is subjective. The literal translation is: “Thus they shall put My name on the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” When God’s name is put on us, we are reminded that we are one of God’s most important investments in the world. We have the ability to manifest God’s wisdom and goodness, and the Priestly Benediction reminds us and inspires us to fulfill our holy mission.