The Priestly Blessing

Photo by Yehoshua Deston

I cried yesterday.

Yesterday was the very first day that I attended a synagogue service ever since the ban on attending was implemented more than two months ago.

It happened during the Priestly Blessing.

“Birkhat Kohanim” – The Priestly Blessing is an ancient Jewish tradition.

In the Book of Numbers we read:

The Lord spoke to Moses saying:

Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them:

May God bless you and guard you.

May God make His face shine unto you, and be gracious to you.

May God lift up His face unto you and give you peace.

Many people know about the Dead Sea Scrolls, written texts of the Bible from over 2,000 years ago. But did you know that on display at the Israel Museum is an inscription of these Hebrew verses from even hundreds of years earlier!

Thousands of years ago, during the time of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and earlier during the time of the Tabernacle, the Kohanim (Priests) would recite the Priestly Blessing after the conclusion of the sacrificial offerings.

Eventually, the Rabbis established that the Priestly Blessing would be recited, even when there was no Temple in Jerusalem anymore, during the prayer service, since prayer replaced the sacrificial offerings of old.

The tradition continues even until today. Those who are direct descendants of Aaron are today given the special status of being a Kohain (Priest) even without “The Temple” and Temple Service.

Customs differ regarding the timing of the Priestly Blessing. The Priestly Blessing is sometimes offered on special occasions, such as to a Bride and Groom under the marriage canopy.

When it comes to the Priestly Blessing being part of the official Service, again customs differ. A major difference is a Service taking place in Israel or outside of Israel.

Outside of Israel, although the Priestly Blessing is recited daily, it is only on Holidays (just a few times during the year) that it is actually offered by the Kohanim. During the rest of the year, the person leading the Service simply recites it himself. Whereas in Israel, in many congregations, the Priestly Blessing is offered every single day during the Service by Kohanim. (Every day in Israel is special!).

There is a bit of drama and reverence associated with the Priestly Blessing Service. Their hands are washed beforehand by the Levites in the Congregation. The Kohanim approach the front of the Congregation just before offering their Blessings, covering their faces with their Prayer Shawls as they Raise their Hands during the ceremony.

Many people in the Congregation itself will themselves cover their faces during the brief ceremony. A most beautiful custom during this ceremony is to be joined under your Prayer Shawl with your children and grandchildren.

And that’s why I cried.

Returning back to Synagogue was a very emotional experience. I expect that it was for many as well. Never throughout our long history had Synagogue Service been banned for basically the entire world Jewish community. So hard to imagine! Many of us have a daily routine of attending Synagogue three times each and every single day of the week, both for Prayer and Study. And for months, although for good reason, we were shut out.

It goes without saying that very strict Social distancing needs to be observed in the Synagogue today. You need to bring your own personal Prayer Book. Facemasks. But at least we can now return. Hopefully, it is a sign for better times ahead. I write this knowing that outside of Israel the Synagogue is still off-limits for many, again for good reason.

And so yesterday’s return was very emotional for me. Was our return to Synagogue a sign that we will very soon, hopefully, see the light at the end of the dark COVID19 tunnel? And it all hit me hard like a ton of bricks when I got under my Prayer Shawl to receive the Priestly Blessings. I right away recalled going under my father’s prayer Shawl when I was a young child. My father led the Services in a Congregation located in Miami Beach. Getting under his Prayer Shawl to receive the Priestly Blessings was a special experience, only occurring a few times during the year. Being close to my father.

And the many times that my own children came under my Prayer Shawl. And grandchildren.

The memories, the smells, the closeness, the hope, all came flooding back to me yesterday as I stood covered under my Prayer Shawl.

I cried like a child.

“May God bless you and guard you.

May God make His face shine unto you, and be gracious to you.

May God lift up His face unto you and give you peace.”


About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Weiss was born in Miami Beach, Florida, and served as an emissary for Chabad in Teaneck, New Jersey for 21 years. Together with his family, he made Aliyah in July 2003 and is the author of "You Come For One Reason But Stay For Another." He is a licensed Tour Guide, a real estate agent for Noam Homes, a father of 12 children, and a grandfather of many. He resides in Mitzpeh Yericho, Israel.
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