My favourite part of the synagogue services is “Birkat Kohanim”, the “Priestly Blessing,” in which the Kohanim stand next to the ark, raise their hands above their heads and bless the congregation. This happens only a few times a year in the Diaspora, but here in Israel it is a daily experience. I particularly enjoy Birkat Kohanim when I am joined by my two sons[1] and I cover our heads with my tallit[2] as we are being blessed. The feeling of closeness as I place my hands on their heads is indescribable. I find the experience emotionally invigorating and I believe my sons feel the same way.

The Priestly Blessing is described in the Torah in Parashat Naso. The Kohanim are commanded to bless the people with three blessings, no more and no less. They may not diverge from the prescribed wording – they may not add even one word of their own. The Torah begins the laws of the Priestly Blessings with a preamble [Bemidbar 6:23]: “Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, say (amor) to them.” Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to tell Aharon “This is how you shall bless the children of Israel”? What do the words “Say to them” come to add?

Rashi asks this question and he answers “[The word ‘amor’ – ‘say’] is similar to the words [Shemot 20:8] ‘zachor’ – ‘remember’ and [Devarim 5:12] ‘shamor’ – ‘keep’”[3]. Apparently the word amor is an imperative, as in “Do this!” or “Do that!” The thing is that there are 613 imperatives in the Torah. Why did Rashi pick specifically zachor and shamor as examples? Further, in the first verse in Parashat Emor the Torah orders [Vayikra 21:1] “Speak (emor) to the kohanim”. Why doesn’t Rashi tell us that the word “amor” is similar to the word “emor”? The two words appear nearly identical.

Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, in his supercommentary on Rashi, teaches that the words “amor” and “emor” do not mean the same thing. “Emor” is an imperative while “amor” is an infinitive. According to Rav Mizrachi, the verse should be translated as follows: “This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying (amor) to them”. While Rav Mizrachi answers one question, he begs another: The words “zachor” and “shamor” are imperatives. Why does Rashi compare the infinitive “amor-saying” to the imperatives “zachor-remember” and “shamor-keep”?

Rav Yissacher Dov from Belz, the Belzer Rebbe, answers this question. He notes that there is a commandment to constantly keep the Shabbat in mind. The Talmud in Tractate Beitzah [16a] tells of Shammai the Elder “that all his days he would eat in honour of Shabbat. How so? If he found a choice animal, he would say: This is for Shabbat. If he subsequently found another one choicer than it, he would set aside the second animal for Shabbat and eat the first.” Like Shammai, we must always be actively thinking about Shabbat seven days a week. When the Torah commands us to “zachor” and “shamor” the Shabbat day, it is not a one-shot command. It means that we must be in a constant state of remembering and keeping. Similarly, says the Belzer Rebbe, a Kohen must strive to be constantly blessing Am Yisrael. Obviously he cannot bless them all the time – there is a hard limit of once per day – but he must always have a burning desire to be blessing them.

Why is it so important for the Kohanim to bless the nation – or better – to constantly be blessing the nation? Rav Tzvi Hirsch from Rimonov suggests that this indicates the power of human speech. A person’s speech has the capability to create new realities and to make changes on a cosmic level. For this reason, the Kohen is commanded to “speak to them” – to bless the nation verbally and not just “in his mind”. The more the Kohen uses his power of speech to bless the nation, the more powerful his blessings become, so that the impact of his blessings is maximized when he is “constantly speaking to them”.

Let’s take a closer look at the power of human speech, specifically, the source of its great power. The Torah tells us that when Hashem created man, [Bereishit 2:7] “[Hashem] breathed into his nostrils the soul of life and man became a living soul” Onkelos translates the words “living soul” as “speaking spirit”. In other words, the “soul” that separates man from beast is inextricably tied to man’s ability to speak. Modern science agrees wholeheartedly. Charles Hockett, a linguist who lived late in the last century, was – and remains – the leading expert on the differences between human language and animal communication. To compare the two, he devised a list of thirteen features that must exist in a language. For instance, one of these features is called discreteness, meaning “Linguistic representations can be broken down into small discrete units which combine with each other in rule-governed ways.” One example of discreteness is turning the singular into the plural by adding the suffix “s” to a word. Hockett argues that while many animal communication systems have some of the thirteen design features, only human spoken language has all thirteen features. This means that there is a qualitative difference between human spoken language and animal communication. Scientists, particularly neurologists, have been trying, with extremely limited success, to understand why animals do not speak and whether or not they will ever be able to speak. At the end of the day, it boils down to belief. Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writing in the Tanya, teaches that when Hashem created man, He inserted a microscopic amount of His “essence” into the soul of each person. This essence manifests itself in our ability to speak. We believe that an animal lies on a lower spiritual level than man and so will never be able to speak, no matter how large the “Broca’s Area” in his brain becomes.

Now we can understand why it is so important that a Kohen verbally bless the congregation. After the Torah lists the three Priestly Blessings, it tells us [Bemidbar 6:27] “They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them”. When the Kohen blesses Am Yisrael, it is “Hashem’s Essence” that is actually doing the blessing. This is what enables the Priestly Blessings to affect real change. For example, one of the Priestly Blessings is for peace. A person can wish for peace, he can hope for peace, and he can pray for peace. But as peace is a function of virtually unlimited human and geopolitical factors, only Divine power can bring about real peace. The words of the Kohen unleash this power.

The episode of the Priestly blessings is preceded in the Torah by the episode of the Nazirite, in which a person makes an oath not to drink wine, not to come into contact with a corpse, and not to cut his hair. The episode of the Nazirite is preceded by the episode of the Sotah, the “wayward woman”, who has, against her husband’s express wishes, secluded herself with another man in a way that is highly suggestive of hanky-panky. The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [2a] asks why the Torah chose to connect the two episodes. The Talmud answers that their proximity will ensure that a person who sees the humiliated Sotah will keep far away from wine, ostensibly the cause of her behaviour. What the Talmud doesn’t ask is why the Torah chose to connect the episode of the Nazirite with the episode of the Priestly Blessings. Implementing what we have learned, the answer is clear: A Nazirite, by virtue of a vow he has verbally made, changes the fabric of Halacha. Not only is he not allowed to come into contact with a corpse, but if he does come into contact with a corpse he must bring a sacrifice to the Beit HaMikdash. Note that it is halachically forbidden to bring a sacrifice unless specifically mandated by the Torah (Chullin ba’Azarah). And yet, merely by virtue of words he has spoken, the Nazirite’s sacrifice is now considered Divinely mandated. In the same way, when the Kohanim verbally bless Am Yisrael, they, too, are making quantum changes in the fabric of reality, Divinely mandating a new and better future.

Let’s keep that in mind next time we open our mouths.

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Freida, and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] If they happen to be home at the time. This is becoming less and less of a regular occurrence.

[2] Not everyone covers his head. It depends on one’s custom. I find that people who were born in the diaspora tend to cover their heads far more than people born in Israel.

[3] These words appear in the Ten Commandments in the commandment of Shabbat. “Shamor” is mentioned in the first version and “Zachor” is mentioned in the second version.