I love Birchat Cohanim!!! There’s something special to me about getting a loving blessing from a friend and neighbor. I always try to run up and wish them a YASHER KOACH. Then they say ‘BARUCH TIHIYE!’ And then, lo and behold, I just got another BERACHA. So, as we wend our way through the daily Shmoneh Esrei or Amida prayer, we have reached that spot right before the ultimate blessing where the priests ascend to bless the community. There’s so much to discuss about this process that I know I’ll never answer all the questions, therefore, please, feel free to contact me about anything I haven’t included.
The first question to deal with is: Why here? The verse says, Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being (SHELAMIM also called peace offerings, Vayikra 9:22). It seems the Cohen rises to bring the days’ offerings then blesses the congregation as he descends. That translates to the RETZE blessing for the daily ‘burnt offering’ and the MODIM blessing represents the SHELAMIM offerings of peace and thanksgiving. Based on this, the Talmud states, ‘The Cohen must begin his ascent by the blessing of RETZE (Sota 38b). Then he blesses after Modim.
At this point we have two options: 1. There are Cohanim who are going to bless us, or 2, There will be no Cohanim going up to bless us (sniff!). Amongst Ashkenazim the second scenario of no Cohanic blessing happens all the time except major Jewish Holidays (CHAGIM). This is because the Cohen can’t bless if he’s not happy, which must be hard to achieve in the Diaspora (at least according to Reb Moshe Isserles). However, on CHAGIM there is an obligation to be happy, and we get blessed. With many Sefardim, and here in Eretz Yisrael, this unhappy occurrence only happens when we don’t have a Cohen present.
When this sad state of affairs exists, we have an ersatz version of the blessing. The SHALIACH TZIBUR recites: Our God, and God of our fathers, bless us with the threefold blessing of the Torah, written by the hand of Moses, Your servant, pronounced from the mouth of Aharon and his sons, the Cohanim, Your holy people. There is a fascinating point raised by this short paragraph.
First, this blessing is MESHULESHET, or triple. In what way? Glad you asked. It has three verses of three, five and seven words. The blessings are of increasing intensity and power. There are many approaches to understanding the terms of the blessing. I will offer just one. Each verse has two verbs of blessing. Here is the interpretation of the Vilna Gaon: YIVARECHICHA (may you be blessed) is wisdom, YISHMAREACHA (may you be watched over) is wealth, YA’ER (may you be enlightened) is life, VI’CHUNECHA (may you have grace) is honor, YISA (may God lift) is children, and SHALOM is peace and fulfillment.
But that’s not all about this BRACHA MESHULESHET. The verse in Kohelet teaches us that a triple cord (in this case blessing) is not easily (or quickly) broken (4:14). This can mean so many things, for instance three generations of commitment to a cause is very powerful. In our case, it means that a blessing with three ascending powers of meaning will not be easily broken.
However, in that grand circumstance when we have Cohanim ascending to bless us, instead of that introductory paragraph, we have the following blessing: Blessed are You O Lord, King of the Cosmos, Who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon, and commanded us to bless His nation with love. There are two differences from our usual Mitzva blessing, first it’s the sanctity of Aharon, not of the nation. And secondly this Mitzva act requires love to work.
Rav Soloveitchik explained that every Cohen impersonates Aharon when he performs this act. This imitation is true in a metaphysical sense: for these few seconds our friendly, neighborhood Cohen becomes the embodiment of Aharon HaCohen.
Then the Cohen must perform this act with love. This mitzva is unique in that sense. There must be heartfelt affection for its fulfillment, because this whole act is a reflection of God’s Divine love for the Jewish people. Aharon, the lover of peace and pursuer of peace, could do that. Our Cohen strives to fill those shoes for this brief instant.
Rav Soloveitchik went on to ask how it is possible for the Cohen to accomplish all this? He answers that, of course, ultimately the blessing emanates from God. The Cohen is initiating a face-to-face rendezvous with God. The Rav stressed that the primary responsibility of the Cohen is educational, and that’s what he’s accomplishing in this instance. He’s teaching, guiding and coaxing us into this effort to bring us into contact with the Infinite. Love for both the nation and God is the catalyst for this enterprise.
Okay, we’ve set the scene for this dramatic assignation, but what is the content and power of the blessing? I’ve already given one approach (of many) to understanding the words of the blessing, but there’s power beyond the simple meaning of the words. In more mystical circles, there is an emphasis on the fact that not only is there a growth of power in the blessing, beginning with relatively simple ‘blessing’ to a crescendo of SHALOM, but the makeup of the short paragraph also lends power.
There are fifteen words. This corresponds to both the number of steps from the outer to inner courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash. Plus, it is the numerical value of YOD and HEY, which is the shortest name of God. Then these scholars point out there are sixty letters in this blessing. This is said to correspond to the verse: Behold, it is the couch of Solomon; Sixty mighty men around it, Of the mighty men of Israel (Shir HaShirim 3:7). We are being guarded, as well, by these mythic guardians when we receive this blessing.
There is much to this short but powerful ceremony. In the context of exploring Shmoneh Esrei, I believe that this gets across some insight into its daily impact. Personally, I find it a downer when the true blessing is replaced by the simulated version. But I hope that I’ve whet your appetite for the real thing.