Priestly Blessing

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PRIESTLY BLESSING (Heb. בִּרְכַּת כֹּהֲנִים), the formula in Numbers 6:24–26 ordained by God and transmitted to the priests by Moses for the blessing of Israel. Verse 27, "They shall invoke My name on behalf of the Israelites and I will bless them," makes explicit the intent of the ordained formula: to invoke the power of the Lord, who alone dispenses blessing. The threefold arrangement of the benediction may reflect an older incantation form; the three verses probably represent synonymous rather than climactic parallelism.

The blessing has been customarily translated "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and grant you peace." The literalness of this translation obscures the force of the Citerew and fails to convey the court imagery of the biblical idiom. In biblical idiom the king shows favor (the verb ḥanan) to his subjects by giving them audience, access to "the light of his face," whereas his disfavor is expressed by "hiding" his face from them. The third verse of the benediction presents a problem, for the king never "lifts up his face upon" his subjects as a token of favor: "to lift one's own face" means "to look up" (ii Kings 9:32), and it is rather the recipient of favor whose "face is lifted up" (who is nesu panim by the one who shows favor, see ii Kings 3:14; Job 42:8, 9). In the blessing, however, the idea seems to be that of raising the features in a smile, the opposite of dropping them in a frown (cf. lo appil panai ba-khem; lit. "I will not drop my face against you," Jer. 3:12; cf. Gen. 4:5–6; Job 29:24). Finally, favor is a good deal more than the mere absence of hostility; consequently not just "peace" but friendship is what shalom means here, as in Judges 4:17 and in beriti shalom (Num. 25:12), and berit shelomi (Isa. 54:10), both of which mean "my covenant/promise of friendship." If one further assumes that a ו (vav) has been omitted at the end of שָׁלוֹם before the ו (vav) at the beginning of וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שְׁלוֹמוֹ, וְשָׂמוּ will mean the exact opposite of אָסַפְתִּי אֶת שְׁלוֹמִי מֵאֵת הָעָם הַזֶּה ("I have withdrawn my friendship from that people"; Jer. 16:5). With this small change, the rendering of Numbers 6:24–26 in the Jewish Publication Society's translation of the Pentateuch (1962) is reproduced below in order to bring out the synonymity of the verses:

The Lord bless you and keep you!
The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you His friendship!

The structure of this threefold blessing is interesting to note: the first sentence contains three words, the second five words, and the third seven words. The name of the Deity (*Tetragrammaton) is found in the second word of each sentence.

[Herbert Chanan Brichto]

In the Halakhah

This priestly blessing was part of the Temple cult. Every morning and evening at the *Tamid offering, the priests ascended a special platform called *dukhan (the Yiddish expression dukhenen, i.e., "to deliver the priestly blessing," is derived from this), and pronounced the blessing with their hands uplifted (Mid. 2:6; Tam. 5:1; 7:2; Sot. 7:6; Meg. 18a, etc.). In rabbinic literature the Priestly Blessing is also known as nesi'at kappayim ("raising of the hands"). On Sabbaths and festivals the Priestly Blessing was pronounced also at the Musaf service and on certain public fast days during the Minḥah service, too (Maim. Yad, Tefillah, 14:1–2). In the Temple the priests uttered the *Tetragrammaton whereas in the synagogues Adonai was substituted (Sot. 38a). The congregation then responded "Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, to all eternity" (Sot. 40b).

During the time of the Second Temple the Priestly Blessing was pronounced outside the Temple in the synagogues; after the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the sacrificial cult it became the main remnant of priestly ritual. It was also inserted into the last benediction of the Amidah. Every adult kohen is enjoined to perform this function unless disqualified by certain physical and other defects. Thus a kohen may not participate in the ritual if he has killed a person, committed idolatry, married a woman forbidden to him, or is intoxicated. He is also disqualified if he suffers from certain physical deformities or is unable to articulate the words properly (Ber. 32b; Meg. 24b; Ta'an. 26b; Maim. Yad, Tefillah, 15:1–6; Sh. Ar., oḥ 128:30–41). It was argued, in explanations of these rules, that physical defects might distract the attention of the congregants, or that bodily perfection was a symbol for a perfect soul (Philo, De Monarchia, 2:5).

The Priestly Blessing is pronounced only at a public synagogue service with the required quorum of 10 male adults (Sh. Ar., oḤ 128:1). If all worshipers are priests, some of them ascend to say the blessing while the rest listen to it as "congregants" (Sot. 38b). Priests in mourning are exempted from participating in the ritual, but should leave the synagogue before the ḥazzan invites the priests to ascend the platform. Originally the Priestly Blessing was part of the morning service each weekday, but as the daily business of the people did not allow them to concentrate with proper devotion, it was reserved, in the Diaspora, for Sabbaths and holidays. Local customs differ as to the place (*Shaharit or *Musaf) and time of the recital of the Priestly Blessing. The general *Ashkenazi Custom is to recite it only on the High Holidays and three *pilgrim festivals. In Ereẓ Israel, it is customary to recite it every Sabbath both at Shaḥarit and Musaf and in Jerusalem, every day. If the Priestly Blessing is not performed for some reason, its text is recited by the ḥazzan at the end of his repetition of the Amidah before the last benediction.

The general procedure of the Priestly Blessing is: After *Kedushah the priests prepare themselves, removing their shoes and washing their hands with the assistance of the levites, whereafter they ascend the platform before the Ark. The ḥazzan then recites the prayer: "Our God and God of our fathers, bless us with the threefold blessing of the Law, written by the hand of Moses Thy servant, which was spoken by Aaron and his sons the priests…" At this last word, the priests turn toward the congregation and pronounce the benediction for the mitzvah of the Priestly Blessing. In Israel, however, it is customary for a member of the congregation to call out "kohanim" immediately after the 17th blessing of the Amidah at which the priests begin their benediction. The ḥazzan says each word of the Priestly Blessing which is then repeated aloud by the priests.

The kohanim recite the blessing with their prayer shawls drawn forward to cover their heads and their hands stretched out at shoulder height with the palms facing forward. The hands are held touching at the thumbs with the first two fingers of each hand separated from the other two, thus forming a sort of fan. This figure became the device of the kohanim and is often inscribed on their tombstones. It has become the custom not to look at the kohanim while they are performing the Priestly Blessing. In many communities the father draws his children to himself and covers them with his tallit. Originally the congregants listened silently to the Priestly Blessing, but in the course of time they began to accompany it with the silent recital of appropriate biblical quotations (Sot. 40a). There is a widespread custom to respond "Amen" after each of the three sections of the Priestly Blessing, when said by kohanim but "so may it be Thy will" when the ḥazzan recites it. In the course of time considerable magical power came to be ascribed to the Priestly Blessing, especially the power to neutralize bad dreams, which were considered to be evil omens for the future. Thus, a special prayer to God to turn bad dreams into blessings was inserted in some rites, and said by the congregants at the end of both the first and the second verse (Bet. 55b). Later, other prayers of kabbalistic origin were added to those recited by the congregation. They necessitated the prolonging of the Priestly Blessing, and this was accomplished by the insertion of a chant by the priests before the final word of each section. This custom impinged on the solemn character of the Priestly Blessing, but although opposed by some rabbis (e.g., Moses of Przemysl, Matteh Moshe, 1 (1591), 193) it became widely accepted.

In Conservative Judaism the recital of the Priestly Blessing by the priests is optional. *Reform Judaism discarded the notion of special priestly privileges in modern times; the Priestly Blessing is read by the rabbi as a closing benediction at the end of the service. The Priestly Blessing is also used as a formula of blessing at other ceremonies such as circumcisions or weddings (*ḥuppah) where it is recited by the officiating rabbi.


S. Abramson, in: Turei Yeshurun, 16 (1970), 15–17; Maim., Yad, Tefillah; Sh. Ar., oḤ 128f.; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 67ff.; Eisenstein, Yisrael, s.v.Nesi'at Kappayim, Eisenstein, Dinim, 58, 276f.; je, 3 (1902), 244–7; H.D. Halevy, in: "Shevilin," 18–19 (1967), 114–28.