The priestly blessing: Not quite what we assume it is

I recently had occasion to look at Birchat Kohanim, the priestly blessings, a little more closely than usual, and found that it wasn’t quite what I had always assumed it was. It’ll take me a few posts, but let’s see what we find.

An Interactive Temple Service

First, there’s a back and forth to Birchat Kohanim. The requirement for priests to deliver the blessing to us only comes if the people tell them to go up. A priest who walks into the room after the other kohanim have already gone up on the stage has no obligation to join them.

Second, the kohanim are required to say the blessing out loud, so that the people in the room can hear them. We don’t usually say that about blessings—when parents bless their children Friday night, do they make sure the children hear the words? Some do, some don’t, but would you have thought it was required?

Third, as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch reminds us, the ceremony is consciously placed right after the mention of the Temple service, the blessing before Modim that speaks of Hashem returning the Temple service to its place. R. Hirsch says we put Birchat Kohanim there because that’s where it would have been in the Temple itself.

In other words, Hashem set up a system where Jews would every day (the Ashkenazi practice to limit Birchat Kohanim to major holidays is a late custom, and hard to defend) offer their sacrifices and would, immediately, hear a reply from Hashem (through the mouths of Hashem’s agents), expressing Hashem’s interest in giving us much goodness. It wasn’t only about the blessing taking effect, either, it was about the people wanting it and then hearing it, ensuring that we experience Hashem, daily, as a force for goodness and blessing in our lives.

What was that goodness that Hashem wanted us to hear His agents wishing us?

The First Blessing: Physical Needs Come First

The simple term “bless you,” the first word of the first blessing, is generally taken to mean that our finances will be successful. I hope I’m not being too obvious if I point out that this means Judaism always recognized the importance of financial health, but also only as a first step.

The next challenge is making sure we keep that money—it’s not the making of the money that counts, it’s the having it and being able to use it. When the blessing speaks of Hashem “keeping” us (or guarding us), possible interpretations include making sure we don’t lose that money, become too ill to enjoy it, have others come to control us (restricting how much we enjoy our money), or lose sight of our religious obligations, which could also lead to losing our money.

The blessing of financial success can be severely constrained by many factors. Sum total, R. Hirsch says, the first blessing extends the hope for that success along with protection from anything that could reduce it or take it away.

The Second Blessing: The Shining Countenance and Grace

When the second blessing speaks of Hashem “shining His countenance” upon us and giving us “grace,” Sifrei records two kinds of views. One option is that Hashem will shine me’or panim, light of our faces; R. Natan says light of the Shechinah, of the Divine Presence. These two seem similar in that they are both externally imposed, Hashem causing our faces to light or giving us the light of the Shechinah.

The other main option in Sifrei, the light of the Torah, is one where we contribute to it directly, by immersing ourselves in that Torah and then hoping Hashem shines its light upon us.

This same dichotomy shows itself in the discussion of the “grace” indicated by vi-chuneka. A first option is that Hashem will give us what we want, which dispenses with any connection between the first and second half of the blessing. A second option is that Hashem will fill us with grace, that other people will look well upon us, as verses say about Yosef and Esther, that they found favor in the eyes of those with whom they came into contact. This would seem to build off the “shining” in the first half of the verse.

Then Sifrei suggests Hashem “will grace you with knowledge, insight, deeper insight, discipline and wisdom,” which seems to me to relate better to the “light of Torah” option in the first half of the brachah. Just as we could be shined upon with Torah, we can learn that Torah with more or less insight, depending on whether Hashem gives us the chen, grace, needed to find that insight.

What Kind of Brachah?

Our first look at the second blessing—we’ll have to do more next time—focuses our attention on which parts of these blessings are from Hashem alone and which expect our involvement. Financial success, generally, assumes human efforts aided by Hashem. The guarding of that wealth, depending on how we understand it, can be one or the other.

In this second brachah, that ambiguity is even more prominent. Those who focus on Hashem shining something on us, giving us favor or grace in ways over which we have no control, seem to see this as a call for Hashem to bless us without any relationship to what we do or don’t do.  If Hashem is shining us with wisdom and insight, that also seems to build off efforts we make in that direction.

What we have so far, I hope, is a new (or renewed) appreciation for the reciprocal nature of this brachah, that it’s not just what Hashem told the priests to do; it is what the rest of the Jewish people ask for, immediately following the Temple service performed as our expression of dedication to Hashem. Hashem has His messengers respond, so we can hear, with good wishes.

Those wishes start with the financial and maybe physical, and then move on to less tangible qualities that also improve our lives.

Next time, I hope to finish the blessings, and consider the overall message of birchat kohanim.

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.
Related Topics
Related Posts