The Priestly Blessings (Num. 6:24-26), while concise, are quite comprehensive, encompassing the entirety of human existence. They speak to the dual nature – body and mind – of man. All creatures share instinctive striving for sustenance and species survival. Man, alone, is endowed with the capacity of comprehending his surroundings, able intellectually to probe the secrets of nature, while also driven to discern the unseen Higher Power behind it.
Judaism sees God, though, not as a remote Creator (a la Aristotle’s ‘Prime Mover’), but as the Covenanting God of the Patriarchs and their descendant nation. In Temple times, that was reflected in the communal sacrificial service performed by the Cohanim, priestly descendants of Aaron. That service’s culminating act (as per Lev. 9:22) was the calling-down of blessing on those assembled in the Azarah (Temple courtyard). Since the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, prayer must now substitute for sacrifice (Hosea 14:3). The priests, however, still continue to perform their last remaining precious sacred task.
In translation, their three-fold blessing has found a place in many sectarian liturgies. Its sublime grandeur, though, can only fully be appreciated in the Hebrew. These three exquisitely wrought verses, bearing multiple mystical meanings, broaden in length and scope, forming in their totality, an ever-expanding outpouring of blessing.
Of its fifteen words, there are three in the first verse, five in the second, and seven in the third. Corresponding letter counts are 15, 20 and 25, respectively. for a total of 60 letters. Each verse contains two verbs. The second word in each is God’s, unpronounced as written, four letter name, the Tetragrammaton. It is referred to below as ‘HaShem’ (literally, ‘The Name’).
The blessings are enunciated as follows:
1: Y’vahrecheca HaShem V’yishmahrecha.
(May God bless you and protect you.)
2: Yaw’air HaShem Pah’nav ailekha V’kuneka.
(May God shine His face upon you and be gracious to you.)
3: Yee’sah HaShem Pah’nav ailekha V’yah’saym l’cha shalom.
(May God lift His face to you and grant you peace.).
The first blessing is for fulfillment of material needs, Left unsatisfied, full spiritual life is difficult of attainment. Physical possessions,once gotten, however, can be lost or taken away. Hence, the need for the asked-for protection.
The second blessing is for “enlightenment”, especially spiritual, but also general. It seeks ever-deepening Divine assistance in one’s intellectual exertions, and for the retention of such knowledge, despite the potential ravages of age and illness. May one, as well, find favor in the eyes of others.
Possessions and knowledge, however voluminous, though, can become decidedly mixed blessings. Without contentment, they are worth little. Hence, the third blessing, for coherent, complementary combination of those first two blessings, leading to complete contentment and ever-advancing closeness to God.
Though these blessings are addressed to a multitude, the ‘you’ that is employed is in the second person singular. The particular blessing conveyed is that which is most appropriate to each individual.
While the Priestly Blessings are recalled daily in the Reader’s repetition of the morning Standing Silent Prayer (‘Amidah’), their actual impressive ceremonial pronouncement, requiring a high joy of joy in the congregation, is far rarer, varying by locale and rite. In Jerusalem, it is performed daily. In the Ashkenazic Diaspora, it traditionally has been restricted to the first two and last two days of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, the two days of Rosh HaShanah, and Yom Kippur, for a total of thirteen times over the course of the year.
It is a three-way collaborative undertaking – among congregation, Cohanim and God. During the Reader’s Repetition of the Additional Amidah (Mussaph), the hands of the Cohanim are ritually washed, preferably by Levites. Having slipped out of their untied shoes (foot covering not having been worn in the Temple), the Cohanim are audibly summoned by the Reader, as representative of the congregation, to come forward and ascend the platform fronting the Holy Ark. Once there, they recite in unison the blessing “…Who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron and commanded us to bless His people Israel in love (‘Ahava’).
‘Ahava’ presents a dual meaning. It connotes the love with which the blessings must be offered and received, as well as the words themselves, fifteen being the numerical equivalent of ‘Ahava’. The priests stand, facing the congregation, their heads enveloped in prayer shawls, and their hands raised, with adjoining fingers paired, leaving five gaps between the pairs, so as to simulate a lattice work (as per Song of Songs 2:9).
The Reader softly intones each word, which is then repeated in a loud voice by the Cohanim. Before reciting the final word of each blessing, they voice a wordless traditional melody. The congregation then responds ‘Amen’ to each completed blessing.
The Priestly Blessing (‘Bircas Cohanim’) is also known by two other descriptive names: ‘Nesias Kapayim’ (Raising the Hands) and ‘Aliyah laDuchan’ (Ascending the Platform).
But why this ceremony at all? Though God needs nothing from Man, neither space nor surrogate, nonetheless, He greatly desires Man’s participation in advancing the Divine plan. How reflective of that are these two complementary verses: “They shall make a sanctuary for Me that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:6)” and “Let them (i.e. the Cohanim) place My Name upon the Children of Israel, and I shall bless them (Num. 6:27)”!
Why the choice of the Cohanim to perform it? The Priestly Blessing, being the culminating act of the sacrificial service, vividly demonstrated the sanctuary’s ultimate purpose – to bring peace, peace between Man and God, peace between man and man. The first High Priest, Aaron, was renowned as a “Lover of Peace, Pursuer of Peace, Lover of People …(Pirke Avoth 1:12)”. His descendants, being wholly dependent on the people’s good will, would additionally have strong motivation to bless them wholeheartedly, inasmuch as their blessing would also be theirs. As for those blessed, they would recognize how much they depended on the priests’ total dedication to a life of service.
It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the Cohanim have no independent power to bless. They serve only as conduits for the blessing that can emanate only from God. Both the preamble – “So shall you bless …(Num. 6:23)” and the summation “I shall bless them (Num. 6:27)” make that abundantly clear. The Cohanim cannot deviate in the least from the prescribed text nor from traditionally established procedures. They must wait both for the congregation to summon them to bless and to dictate the words that they will speak. Nonetheless, that does not, in the least, diminish the significance of their efforts. Scripture, moreover, assures that both recipients and profferors of these blessings, in great or small ways, will indeed be blessed.