Forty years ago this summer, a group of archaeologists and volunteers headed by archaeologist Gabriel Barkay were involved in a modest dig, at a site overlooking the Ben-Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem. The excavation was done almost in the shadows – for one it was essentially a salvage operation, on a stretch of road that the city wanted to expand. Secondly, it involved ancient Jewish burials, so the conventional wisdom was to carry the excavation out respectfully but quietly, and handle the matter of reburial according to Jewish law – and potentially passionate protests against the burials’ disruption – once the scientific research was a fait accompli.
Plans for the road were soon cancelled, however.
A teenage boy tasked with cleaning out one of the burial chambers accidentally punctured the thin limestone floor and discovered a second chamber beneath it, which had been unknown and undisturbed for some 2700 years. In addition to the human remains, the chamber contained more than 1,000 objects of various kinds interred with the dead, such as oil lamps, arrowheads, jewelry, and other implements, including about 100 silver objects. A time capsule from the days of the Davidic dynasty of Judean Kings and the First Temple Period, when Solomon’s original Temple was still standing in Jerusalem.
Among the silver objects were two amulets containing Hebrew text (visible here) that was quickly identified as containing parts of the Priestly Blessing (Birkat ha-Kohanim) as known from the Torah. With this discovery, this blessing then became the biblical text with the most ancient archaeological pedigree – the most ancient verses of the Hebrew scriptures ever discovered.
More than that, this blessing is perhaps the most sentimentally charged piece of Tanakh there is. Not only is it used by Kohanim to this day to bless those gathered in synagogues on Shabbat and holidays (continuing their ancestors’ original use of the verses to bless the people from the Jerusalem Temple), but also at other occasions, and it is traditionally used by parents to bless their children and wish the best for them, to give them a brakhah.
The blessing, as it appears in this week’s Torah portion (specifically Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26), reads as follows:
Yevarékhekha H’* ve-yishmerékha יברכך ה’ וישמרך
Ya’ér H’ panáv eléikha viyhunnékka יאר ה’ פניו אליך ויחנך
Yissá H’ panáv eléikha ישא ה’ פניו אליך
Ve-yasém lekhá shalom** וישם לך שלום
To translate it roughly:
May H’ bless you and protect you
May H’ illuminate his face unto you and show you grace,
May H’ lift up his face to you
And establish for you peace
(Bolded sections in the Hebrew and English indicate the parts missing from the most complete amulet.)
The Ketef Hinnom amulets were produced on silver of a very high grade of purity, roughly 99%, which was not something easily done in ancient times. Perhaps referring both to this specific blessing, to the practice of inscribing it on such silver talismans, and the hard work involved, Tehillim / Psalms 12:7-8 says:
אִ֥מְר֣וֹת ה֮’ אֲמָר֪וֹת טְהֹ֫ר֥וֹת
כֶּ֣סֶף צָ֭רוּף בַּֽעֲלִ֣יל לָאָ֑רֶץ מְ֝זֻקָּ֗ק שִׁבְעָתָֽיִם׃
אַתָּֽה־ה’ תִּשְׁמְרֵ֑ם תִּצְּרֶ֓נּוּ ׀ מִן־הַדּ֖וֹר ז֣וּ לְעוֹלָֽם׃
“The sayings of H’ are pure sayings, silver smelted in the open, on the ground, refined seven times. You H’ will protect them; you will keep him, from this generation [and] forever.”***
Gabriel Barkay notes that the Tehillim / Psalms also include something of a shortened version of the blessing, at the beginning of the 67th song, so it is not too surprising that the formulation in the silver amulets has some words missing, even if they would have emerged from the tombs completely intact. One of the amulets also appears to have part of Devarim / Deuteronomy 7:9 added to it.
Gramatically, the Priestly Blessing addresses a single person, an individual recipient of the blessing. And, though as a default it uses the male second-person object form (-kha / –ka for “you”), it is said by parents for children of both genders, with the traditional addition of a more gender-specific wish beforehand (kind of like in the Fiddler on the Roof rendering that made the tradition more well-known among English-speaking and world audiences).
The blessing is universal. What parent doesn’t identify with the deep desire for their child to be protected from harm, to know peace, and to even be blessed and flourish?
Soon after my first son was born, I walked into Me’ah She’arim to find a sofér who would write out the blessing on parchment, which I then had framed. And did the same for my second son. For each one: I may not see him every day nor every Shabbat, but he can always see the brakhah and know what it means.
Perhaps for that reason, twenty-seven centuries ago, some parents or other loved ones made sure that those dear to them carried this blessing on an amulet in their lifetimes, and took it with them beyond.
* I am using H’ to stand for the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name.
** The switching of the second-person male pronoun suffix (“you”) from –kha to –kka at the end of the second line seems at first glance to be an archaic form, bringing it closer to Arabic and other Semitic and Afro-Asiatic languages. But the dagesh turning the kh into a kk is there in place of a nūn seen in other pronoun suffixes (making it –nu instead of –hu or –o for “him”, for instance, as in the verse from the Tehillim/Psalms noted above). This is what is known as an “energetic nūn”, apparently emphasizing the action of the verb.
Yasem, which I translated as “may he establish”, is often rendered in this verse as “may he grant”, but more literally means something closer to “may he put”.
*** The JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh translates the phrase בַּעֲלִיל לָאָרֶץ (ba‘alīl la-’aretz) as “in an earthen crucible”; the exact meaning is not clear. The last few words may also mean something more mysterious, Min ha-dor, zu le‘olam (מן הדור זו לעולם): “From this generation, which is forever”. That would be the reading if we look at other poetic verses using the word zū (זוּ), such as Shemot / Exodus 15: 13, 16, ‘am zu ga’alta (עם זו גאלת), “the people which you redeemed”, and ‘am zu qanita (עם זו קנית), “the people which you created”. This word was otherwise lost in Israel’s Hebrew but continued to be commonly used in Phoenician inscriptions (such as the royal inscriptions from Byblos visible in Phoenician and modern Hebrew here), where it is spelled זֻ (zu) and attached to the verb it precedes.