Hashem: When he talks, we listen

Our previous two discussions—here and here—focused on the words of Birchat Kohanim, the priestly blessings. Turning to the process of delivering them, a Mishnah in Sotah 37b contrasts how it worked in the Beit haMikdash, the Temple, to everywhere else.

The kohanim, the priests, invoke the ineffable Name of God in the Mikdash, whereas outside they use the same Name (Adon) we all do. To figure out how using this Name affects the bracha as a whole, we need to look a little more into the role of the Divine Name and what we are doing when we say amen. Along the way, I think we’ll learn about an element of the Temple service we haven’t even known to miss.

Making the Mikdash a Relatable Loss

Keren Orah, R. Yitschak Minkovsky (1784-1852, Lithuania), pointed out that Tosafot and Rambam differed on how often we said Birchat Kohanim in the Mikdash, affecting our understanding of the relationship between that blessing and the ones we still say.

Tosafot offers the easier model. They assume Birchat Kohanim occurred at the conclusion of each service in the Beit haMikdash.  When the Rabbis ordained prayers to parallel those lost services, they included Birchat Kohanim as well (morning and Mussaf, and Mincha on fast days when the priests will not yet have eaten or drunk). That is why we recite it in the blessing that mentions the Temple service, since that’s when the kohanim would have said it in the Mikdash.

People often speak of their difficulty relating to sacrifice and/or hoping for its restoration. Here’s an aspect of the Mikdash to which we can immediately relate: it used to be, according to Tosafot, that every time our representatives offered service to Hashem on our behalf, they immediately, in their role as Hashem’s representatives, brought us a response! And it was a response that expressed Hashem’s interest in giving us physical and spiritual wealth.

For those who bemoan the lack of interactivity of prayer, who complain about feeling like they’re talking with no indication of anyone listening, take note: in the Mikdash that wasn’t true, and when Chazal set up communal prayer, they included that element. Residents of Israel and Sefardim still have it, if they pay attention: a daily reminder that Hashem wants to do good by and for us, is wishing us well each time we approach to serve.

Rambam’s Model: The Lost Power of the Mikdash

Rambam held that the kohanim only gave their bracha once a day in the Mikdash, but at all possible prayers outside. Keren Orah assumes it’s because of the Divine Name; whether out of respect, not wanting to overuse it, or because it delivered so well that more than once a day was unnecessary, that was what limited it to once a day. Where that wasn’t true, Chazal instituted the blessing with each prayer.

This shows us, a bit, of what Ashkenazi custom (outside of Israel) forgoes by limiting Birchat Kohanim to holidays. It’s the difference between a child who hears a parent’s declarations of love frequently and one who knows of that love intellectually, but has only infrequent explicit affirmations.

Do We Even Need to Be There?

The Gemara is clear that the blessings have to be said in the language of the Torah, in contrast to Birchat haMazon, Grace After Meals. Be’er Sheva (Rabbi Yissachar Dov ben Yisrael Lezer Parnass Eilenburg, ca. 1550-1623, Poland and Moravia) suggests that since Birchat haMazon is directed to Hashem, it can be said in any language; Birchat Kohanim, directed at the Jewish people, has to be in Hebrew, to be sure they understand it.

Be’er Sheva assumes a value in the people experiencing the blessing, not just receiving it. Sotah 38b gets itself into that question when it quotes R. Ada in the name of R. Samlai that a congregation of exactly ten kohanim, would have them all recite Birchat Kohanim

Who are they blessing? R. Zera says their brethren in the fields, which means that we don’t have to be there to experience it. On the other hand, Abba b. R. Minyamin b. Hiyya ruled that those standing behind the priests aren’t included. If being in the room but behind the kohanim doesn’t work, how could being in the fields?

The Gemara answers that those in the fields were unable to be there, whereas those behind the kohanim do not have that excuse. (This could be another way to push shul attendance—if you choose not to come, you deny yourself inclusion in Birchat Kohanim!).

Being Involved, or Not Being Uninvolved

That doesn’t dispense with the problem, because R. Yehoshua b. Levi included even people standing behind an iron wall. As Tosafot note, it’s unclear why these people are included and the people behind the kohanim are not.

Tosafot and Rambam again offer different answers. Rambam says the people behind the wall turn their faces towards the priests, actively involving themselves in the process. Tosafot goes at it from the other side, that the people behind the kohanim demonstrate their disinterest. Do we have to opt in or opt out?

Amen as Active Involvement

This all might explain the Mishnah’s saying that Birchat Kohanim is said as one bracha in the Mikdash—since there are no amens—but three outside. What’s odd is that in the Mikdash, the people would fall on their faces each time Hashem’s Name was said, and shout “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le-olam va-ed, Blessed is the Name of the honor of His Kingdom forever and ever.” Is that less of an interruption than amen?

The idea of the people’s involvement suggests an answer. When we say amen, we express our hope that the blessing should come true. There’s a positive value to involving ourselves in the process in that way, but it does also break up the blessings. When we fall on our faces, we’re not reacting to the blessing, we’re reacting to the Name, and that has no impact on the blessing itself.

That might mean that we’ve found another distinction between the blessings inside and outside the Mikdash—inside, we are more passive because of the greater power of the blessing being delivered. Outside, where the kohanim are using a Name that is not as awe-inspiring, we are allowed to enter the dialogue.

Next week, I hope to look at the meaning of ahavah, love, that the kohanim say characterizes the way they bless the Jewish people.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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