Birkat Kohanim: How Humans Reframe Traditions

Michael Graetz


The text known as Birkat Kohanim is usually called “the Priestly Blessing” in English, but that translation obscures—at least slightly—the simple meaning of the Hebrew, which literally means “the blessing of the priests.” It is not, after all, a blessing that has a “priestly” feel to it or “priestly” provenance. It is a blessing formula presented as a divine oracle vouchsafed directly to the prophet Moses—thus a specific text framed as a blessing—which Scripture ordains be recited only by members of priestly families. In the Bible, the tribe of Levi is accorded special status by being assigned oversight and stewardship of all matters pertaining to sacrificial worship, matters of holiness status, and issues relating to purity and impurity. The tribe of Levi is itself subdivided into the kohanim (priests), the sons of Aaron and their descendants, and the other male descendants of Levi son of Jacob, who are depicted in Scripture as the priests’ adjuncts and assistants.

The text of this blessing is found in Numbers 6:22–27:

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons as follows.
Thus shall you bless the people of Israel; say to them:
The Eternal bless you and keep you!
The Eternal deal kindly [literally, “make His face shine upon you”] and graciously with you!
The Eternal bestow divine favor upon you [literally, “lift up His face toward you”] and grant you peace!
And they shall link My name with [literally, “put My name upon”] the people Israel, and I will bless them.

One fascinating aspect of this passage is its literary setting. The passage that immediately precedes it is a description of a complicated ritual involving holiness, purity, and impurity, all in the case of the accidental violation of nazirite vows. Furthermore, the passage following the text of the blessing is the long and repetitive passage describing the dedication of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, a twelve-day operation in which the head of each tribe brought a tribute for the benefit of the Tabernacle and (presumably) its priests.

It is easy to fit the blessing of the kohanim into the following narrative, the one regarding the dedication of the Tabernacle, by supposing that the blessing given by the priests is intended to be part of that narrative. But it is also possible to read the text as a kind of coda to the preceding story of the hapless nazirite, who has suffered the unexpected misfortune of standing next to someone who suddenly dies. In that case, the text could be read as a reassuring promise of God’s grace to someone who has suffered an accidental setback to the serious desire to dedicate oneself to God. In both cases, we are given a hint as to the power of a blessing. Indeed, the passage itself stresses that this blessing text will be “put upon the people Israel,” using the language of physical placement1—in the wake of which a state of blessing will devolve upon the people who have had this “garment” put upon them. So perhaps the most basic question to ask in considering this text has to do with the concept of “blessing” itself. What does it actually mean to “put” a blessing on someone or something?


What Is a Blessing? 

Words derived from the Hebrew root bet-resh-kaf are commonly translated into English as some form of the word “blessing.” It is not an easy concept to define. In many passages, the word b’rakhah itself, usually translated as “blessing,” is juxtaposed with its apparent antonym, k’lalah, usually translated as “curse” and derived from a different verbal root, kaf-lamed-lamed. In one famous passage from the Book of Deuteronomy, the two are presented by God as distinct choices available to human beings:

Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: a blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, which I command you this day; but a curse, if you will not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, and turn aside from the way, which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. (Deuteronomy 11:26 28)

Most probably, the idea is that the choices made result in either a “blessing” or a “curse.” The paths are also identified: the former consists of following the commandments of God, while the latter consists of turning aside from them.

Some individuals are referenced in Scripture as being “blessed,” but these are not invariably people who have chosen the path of blessing by being faithful to the commandments—because it turns out that the act of blessing may be performed by a person acting unilaterally, the object of whose efforts is then called “blessed.”2 But, strikingly, human beings are also depicted as blessing God.3 Nor may humans bless God only indirectly, but also, as my teacher Rabbi Max Kadushin pointed out in his writings on prayer, they may do so in direct address, in the second person: “When the individual addresses God with the words of the b’rakhah, he feels that God is before him, and hence he can use the pronoun, ‘Thou.’”4

All of these verses, and there are many more, form a response to our question: blessing is a positive state, the opposite of a cursed state, which one may attain either through one’s own deeds or through the pronouncement of another (or an Other). One can therefore bless oneself, although that language is not actually used, by doing certain deeds, usually described as somehow connected to God’s commands, or even by saying certain words. The only hitch seems to be that one does not know if one is in fact “blessed” until after the fact. What is common to all blessings is that they express, in words, a state of improvement, satisfaction, or achievement different from and better than the state that the person being blessed is in at the moment. Blessing is the bestowing of positive benefits to a person by stating them out loud. It seems obvious that the power that might turn these words into reality is God, but the words are uttered by humans.

Some people point out that the usage of the root bet-resh-kaf implies “praise”; indeed, if people “bless” God then that is a clear interpretation of the meaning of “blessing.” I submit, however, that Jewish theology also allows the idea of effecting improvement in God’s own self via a blessing offered by human beings—for example, when we bless God as merciful, helping God to leave a state of anger.


What Is the Function of the Priestly Blessing?

The blessing is structured as an incantation whose recitation opens up the forces of blessing for those being addressed. There are three verses, consisting of three, five, and seven words each. In each verse there are two verbs whose subject is God, whose name is invariably the second word of each verse. If we present the verses vertically, we get the outline of a pyramid:

Y’varekh·kha YHVH v’yishm’rekha.
Ya·eir YHVH panav eilekha vi-unneka.
Yissa YHVH panav eilekha v’yaseim l’kha shalom.5

Both the wording and the structure imply an incantation of the apotropaic kind—that is, a formula whose purpose is to guard against evil. Indeed, the use of formula of God’s face and the benefits that one derives from it is a clear indication of an apotropaic formula.6

Another feature of the blessing that suggests it be read as incantation is the ceremony of n’si·at kappayim, literally “the raising of hands,” engaged in by the priests while reciting the blessing: tradition dictates that they are to raise their arms, straight forward to the height of their shoulders, and spread their fingers in a unique way. This practice is spelled out in rabbinic literature, but may well inhere unspoken within the biblical text.8 Such motions by “holy men” of various sorts are well documented by anthropologists as being part of incantation rituals.

The Mishnah sets Birkat Kohanim into the ritual of the Temple, where it is described as being part of the prayer service that accompanied the daily sacrifice.9 As such, it has strict laws governing who says it, as well as when and how it may be recited. Just as with any other Temple ritual, the recitation of Birkat Kohanim is esoteric; its rules are kept private as a way of guarding it from degradation. Most crucial of all are the strictures regarding its recitation solely by kohanim: a non-priest who raises his hands and recites the words of the blessing is deemed to have committed a grievous sin. At Ketubot 2:7, for example, the Mishnah sets out rules to define how to determine if a person who claims that he is a kohen is to be accepted as such. In the talmudic discussion of this mishnah, there is a long and involved investigation of what actions may imply that a person is genuinely a kohen, and how we may use those actions to determine priestly status.10 The discussion there about the ritual recitation of Birkat Kohanim raises the question of whether or not participation in the n’si·at kappayim ritual can be taken as proof of priestly status. Clearly, a non-kohen who raises his hands has transgressed. And yet, today, the words of the Priestly Blessing may be spoken quite freely by any Jew, even non-priests, on many occasions, most notably in the ritual blessing of children on Shabbat eve.


Is There Any Evidence for Use of the Formula in the Past?

One of the most exciting archeological find of the past few decades is the discovery, in a burial cave in Ketef Hinnom (an area of Jerusalem close to the Temple Mount), of two strips of silver upon which are etched, in ancient Hebrew script, the text of Birkat Kohanim. At the time of its discovery, the strips were considered to constitute the oldest physical example of a biblical text ever found.11 Because of the site and epigraphical evidence of the lettering, Gabriel Barkay, the archaeologist who found the strips, pronounced them to be from the last years of the First Temple, which was destroyed in 586 B.C.E.

Subsequently, as is always the case with archaeological finds, different parts of Barkay’s conclusions were challenged. Furthermore, with the development of advanced imaging technology, the strips were re-examined and much clearer images of the lettering were produced. Barkay himself published an update of his original findings, in which he admitted that some of his original conclusions might have been overstated.12 Yet subsequent scholarship has once again shown that these strips might well be pre-exilic and date from the end of the First Temple era.

In any case, these silver strips are certainly one of the most ancient physical finds of a biblical text in existence. But the enhanced imaging of the strips revealed that other biblical verses also appeared on the strips, which discovery suggested that much more investigation was necessary in order to establish their original purpose. Most researchers, however, continue to accept Barkay’s initial thesis that the strips were some form of amulets worn to ward off evil. Barkay even proposed that they were forerunners of t’fillin.

Following the revised publication of the texts, it became possible to discuss the literary and religious meaning of these strips in a new light—and thus also to discuss the concept of Birkat Kohanim being used in First Temple times as an apotropaic formula. Most intriguing to me, though, is that the discovery suggests a possible use of the Priestly Blessings in a context that is not connected directly to Temple ritual. That is: the words of the Priestly Blessing appear to have been used in a context that is not specifically priestly at all, and not connected to Temple ritual. In turn, this suggests that their importance lies, or at least eventually came to lie, in what the words themselves say and in the sentiments and ideas that they convey, and not in the formal framework of sacred ritual. This is the most ancient evidence we have for the usage of the formula of the Priestly Blessing outside of a formal priestly setting, and it dates from a period when a Temple stood and priestly classes were operating!


What Light Do the Ketef Hinnom Strips
Shed on Birkat Kohanim?

Barkay’s article from 2004 expands our understanding of the texts, based upon the clearer reading of the writing on the amulets. Most importantly, it makes it clear what other texts sharing language found elsewhere in the Bible are used in conjunction with Birkat Kohanim. For example, the line that precedes Birkat Kohanim on the strips, ha-eil ha-gadol shomeir ha-b’rit v’ha-esed, resonates with the language found in Daniel 9:4 and Nehemiah 1:5, both of which hark back to Deuteronomy 7:9. In Daniel and Nehemiah, however, this phrase appears in the context of a prayer for God’s mercy at a time of disaster for Israel, rooted in God’s obligations to observe the covenant with Israel. The common theme in all of these texts is the motif of God’s merciful redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt. This is our first clear evidence of Birkat Kohanim being used as a reminder of God’s protection, particularly in times of trouble or disaster. Birkat Kohanim was thus taken, at least in some sense, as an antidote to evil suffered by Israel.13 However, there is no attestation of the blessing being used against anything, or to remove something.14 It thus seems—at least with respect to the first strip—as if God’s protection is in the positive aspects of the blessing, and does not actively remove any of the evil that might befall the wearer of the amulet. The translation of the second strip reads as follows:

1[For PN, (the son/daughter of) [xxxx]lh/hu. May h[e]/
2sh[e] be blessed by YHVH,
3the warrior [or: helper] and
4and the rebuker of
5[E]vil: May YHVH bless you,
6keep you.
7May YHVH make his face shine upon you and
8grant you p[ea]ce.15

The interpretation of the whole text, and the citation of Birkat Kohanim at the end, is summed up by Barkay as follows: “Hence, while neither inscription makes specific reference to Satan, demons, or other agents of wickedness, they do offer God’s protection from Evil through the invocation of his holy name and the text of his most solemn of protective blessings. Given that context, it is safe to conclude that these artifacts both served as amulets and that their function falls in line with similar amulets whose inscriptions invoke divine protection for the wearer through the use of one of the tradition’s most famous prayers.”16


Do These Artifacts Shed Light
on Birkat Kohanim in Other Literature?

The analysis of this question in relation to Psalms relies on an article by Jeremy Smoak.17 (I will present his ideas in quotation marks, even when the language is my own.) Any comments about Jewish usage of Birkat Kohanim and rabbinic literature are totally my own, however.

“One of the main characteristics of ancient Jewish magical incantations which seems to be found in Birkat Kohanim is protection against evil.”18 As noted above, there is no claim that Birkat Kohanim removes evil, but it does offer some protection against evil. This protection is connected to God’s love (which will emotionally help sustain a person beset by evil), to divine abundance (which may help one cope with evil), and to God’s compassion (which might bring about some spiritual support for being beset by evil—or, at the very least, provide enough comfort and strength that one would not succumb to evil or disaster).

The biblical story of the conflict between Jacob and Esau over their father’s blessing suggests the high value placed upon the blessing of a patriarch, and invites us to suppose that even more value would have been placed on the blessing of a priest deemed able to channel God’s own blessing. Indeed, the opening lines of the rabbinic midrash on Birkat Kohanim recall the struggle between Jacob and Esau in precisely this context:

“In this wise you shall bless the people Israel, etc.” (Numbers 6:23). This bears on what is written in Scripture, “Envy not the man of violence, and choose none of his ways” (Proverbs 3:31). “The man of violence” refers to the wicked Esau….And the reason it says “envy not” is because it is manifest to the blessed Holy One that Israel is destined to be enslaved under the power of Edom [the rabbinic appellation of Esau] and will be oppressed and crushed in its midst, and that Israel will at some time raise angry protest against this….Accordingly the Holy Spirit, speaking through Solomon, said, “Envy not the man of violence”—envy not the peace enjoyed by the wicked Esau! “And choose none of his ways”—that is, you must not do according to their deeds!19

In this midrash, the very act of “placing” Birkat Kohanim “on” Israel is to aid them in eschewing the evil ways of Esau in favor of the sacred ways of Jacob. Thus, Birkat Kohanim is here depicted as a kind of a “power drink” that gives one the strength necessary to stand up to evil or to the temptations that evil presents. The blessing is not so much a magical formula as it is a kind of spiritual supplement for a weary and vulnerable person, or perhaps an additive that helps such a person to stand up to temptation and the lure of quick fixes to difficult problems.

This perspective is most notable in the following fascinating talmudic passage: “Our rabbis taught: Twelve questions did the Alexandrians address to Rabbi Joshua son of Ḥinanah [or perhaps: Ḥananiah]. Three were about wisdom [halakhah], three were matters of aggadah, three were mere nonsense, and three were about matters of conduct.”20 In the questions about aggadah, Rabbi Joshua is asked about biblical verses that seem to contradict each other—since, after all, one of the roles of aggadah is to supply a philosophical or a theological explanation of such seeming contradictions. And one of the three questions about aggadah references Birkat Kohanim: “One verse says, ‘God, who shows no favor [lo yissa panim] and takes no bribe’(Deuteronomy 10:19), but another verse says, ‘The Eternal bestows His favor [yissa adonai panav] upon you’ (Numbers 6:26). [How can the discrepancy be resolved? By positing that] the former refers to the time before sentence is passed, while the latter refers to the time after the sentence has been passed.”21

The Hebrew expression yissa panim, literally “to lift up (or: show) a face,” means to bestow favor, and there seems to be an inconsistency in how this notion is understood in the Torah. Although the first verse cited, from Deuteronomy, claims that God does not bestow favor, in Numbers—at least in the framework of Birkat Kohanim—God does just that! What is striking is the juxtaposition of the act of showing favoritism and of accepting bribes: God is praised for eschewing both in Deuteronomy, but God is depicted in Numbers as bestowing favors, thus being open to bribery! This surely must be questioned, and the Alexandrians jump at the chance.

Rabbi Joshua’s aggadic explanation is that there is no contradiction between the two verses, for God’s relationship to an individual changes according to the individual’s personal circumstances. God does do both, both withholding and bestowing favor—but there are times when one mode is appropriate, and other times when the opposite mode is appropriate. God shows no favoritism “before sentence is passed,” but will be merciful “after sentence is passed.”

The debate here has to do with the efficacy of blessing, and even more so with the perceived inefficacy of blessing. The notion that a sentence is passed on an individual, or on a larger group, is a well-known theme in rabbinic literature. In our day, this notion may be more abstract, something along the line of randomness or chance, the workings of the universe but not necessarily as the result of a heavenly court (beit din) passing a sentence. In either case the outcome is the same; what happens is inevitable. The main difference is that in the case of the sentence by a beit din, supposedly we should be able to understand the actions that led to the sentence. At the very least the beit din could, at least theoretically, supply the reasoning and the considerations that went into passing the specific sentence. The Book of Job calls this idea into question; yet we still tend automatically to suppose that there is rhyme and reason to the decision of the beit din. However, in the case of randomness (that is, our modern version of sentencing), the best we can do to express any understanding of what “caused” it is through a statistical mathematical formula. In other words, perhaps people may accept the sentence as an inevitable outcome of the workings of the universe.

A similar talmudic passage concerns praying for the sick to be healed, even though each person’s fate is written down on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. It reads as follows: “Rabbi Joseph said: Whose authority do we follow nowadays in praying [daily] for the sick and for the ailing? That of Rabbi Yosi, [who holds that people are judged daily].22 Or, if you like, I can say that it is, after all that, actually the opinion of the rabbis, but that at the same time we follow the counsel of Rabbi Isaac, who said: ‘Supplication is good for an individual, whether before the sentence is pronounced or after it is pronounced [so that daily prayer for the sick is of some effect, though judgment has already been pronounced on Rosh Hashanah.]’”23

Clearly this passage relates to prayer or blessing, totally apart from what actually happens to a person in reality. There is no guarantee of health, but even after the “sentence” has been passed, or the random occurrence occurs, one should not eschew prayer or blessing. They are good in and of themselves! Keeping the possibility of healing, compassion, support, nearness, and love out in the open, despite any evil going on, is a worthy enterprise in itself.

We can thus begin to understand the development of Birkat Kohanim from its beginning, in priestly ritual, to the present, as a vehicle for blessing one’s children every Shabbat. Reciting it highlights and focuses our attention on any thought or action that exhibits compassion, and that is meant to grant and/or enhance life. “Putting” a blessing into the world helps to make life safe and secure.


Blessing Children on Shabbat Evening 

The custom of blessing the children of a family on Shabbat, including a symbolic laying of one’s hands on the child’s head while reciting Birkat Kohanim, seems to be of a relatively late provenance. The earliest reference that I know of is in the kabbalistic book Sefer Ma·avar Yabbok, by Rabbi Aaron Berekhiah bar Moshe of Modena (d. 1639), who justifies the use of the fifteen words of Birkat Kohanim by parents on Friday night with reference to the fifteen joints of the hand.

Some rabbis question the propriety of this custom, as it was clearly deemed a halakhic transgression for a non-priest to recite Birkat Kohanim. However, in the Talmud we find the following statement: “Rabbi Yosi also said, ‘I have never disregarded the words of my neighbors. I know of myself that I am not a priest, [yet] if my neighbors were to tell me to ascend the dais [to recite Birkat Kohanim with the priests in the synagogue], I would ascend [it].”24

Different interpretations of this puzzling text have been proposed. According to one, Rabbi Yosi went up to the dais in order not to embarrass his neighbor, but he did not in fact participate in the recitation of Birkat Kohanim. According to another, it is indeed permitted to say the words of the Birkat Kohanim, as long as it is done without the attendant lifting up of the hands.25 And according to yet another, the text of the Talmud is corrupt, and instead of the word kohen, “priest,” we should read k’dai, meaning “worthy.” On this reading, Rabbi Yosi would be noting that although he was a priest, he nevertheless did not consider himself worthy.26

In any case, the custom to bless the children is based on the concept of the rest of Shabbat being a whole and complete rest, and thus there must be peace and feelings of support and love between parents and children. A parent may well have scolded a child during the week or become angry with a child over some matter, yet the warm embrace and the words of blessing change that residue to one of peace and harmony, which is the goal of Shabbat.27 Others have noted that the custom is for parents to continue to bless even adult children, and specifically daughters as well as sons.28

The custom is clearly another example of how humans have reframed traditions. Birkat Kohanim, even in the earliest period of the First Temple, was reframed by whoever created the spectacular silver strips found in Ketef Hinnom. In my opinion, this is also further testimony to the demystifying of Temple ritual and priestly status over the course of Jewish history. The Jewish people assume a more direct relationship to God, and to the rituals formerly reserved for a priestly caste. Thus the power of this biblical text continues to inspire a ritual that enhances and tightens the relationship between parents and children.












1 The same verb is used to denote the putting a bandage on a wound at Ezekiel 30:21.
2 Cf., e.g., Genesis 14:19 or 27:23. God can also bless individuals, presumably at will; see, e.g., Genesis 26:12 or Judges 13:24.
3 E.g., at Psalm 119:12, 134:1-3, 135:19-21 or 1 Chronicles 29:10, which latter verse is the origin of the blessing formula that became the norm for Jewish religious practice.
4 Max Kadushin, Worship and Ethics (1964; rpt: Binghamton, NY: Global Publications, 2001), pp.166-167. Kadushin makes this same point in almost all of his other writing on the fixed formula of blessing.
5 “YHVH” here represents the Hebrew letters yod-hei-vav-hei, known at the Tetragrammaton, which constitute the proper name of God. In Jewish tradition, the Tetragrammaton is spoken aloud (during the recitation of Birkat Kohanim, as well as in other liturgical contexts) as “Adonai” (meaning “my Lord”).
6 To understand the text of Birkat Kohanim as an apotropaic formula or a form of incantation, see Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on Silver Plaques from Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem,” in Tel Aviv 19 (1992), pp. 139-192, and Jeremy D. Smoak, “May YHWH Bless You and Keep You from Evil: The Rhetorical Argument of Ketef Hinnom Amulet I and the Form of the Prayers for Deliverance in the Psalms,” in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 12 (2012), pp. 202–236.
7 Readers will recognize something of the traditional stance in Mr. Spock’s greeting pose from the popular Star Trek movies and television show.
8 Cf. Leviticus 9:22, where we read that “Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them.”
9 M. Tamid 5:1.
10 B. Ketubot 24b–26b.
11 Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on Silver Plaques” (note 6 above).
12 Gabriel Barkay, Marilyn J. Lundberg, Andrew G. Vaughn, and Bruce Zuckerman, “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation,” in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (May 2004), pp. 41–71.
13 Cf. Barkay, “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom,” p. 55, column 2 (top).
14 Ibid., pp. 59, col. 2–60, col. 1.
15 Ibid., p. 68, column 1. Brackets around letter indicate that those letters are not totally clear in the original document and are presented by the scholars as the most likely letters at this place. The “xxxx” siglum represents four illegible letters.
16 Ibid., p. 68, column 2.
17 Jeremy D. Smoak, “May YHWH Bless You and Keep You from Evil,” see above, note 6.
18 Ibid., p. 209, n. 15.
19 Bemidbar Rabbah 11:1.
20 B. Niddah 69b.
21 B. Niddah 70b.
22 Cf. B. Nedarim 49a.
23 B. Rosh Hashanah 16a.
24 B. Shabbat 118b.
25 Cf. in this regard the comments of Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk (1680–1756) in his monumental P’nei Yehoshua volume to B. Ketubot 24b (ed. Warsaw, 5621 [1860/1861]), p. 20b, s.v. ba-g’mara.
26 In this regard, cf. the comment of the Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941) in his Torah T’mimah to Numbers 6, note 131.
27 Cf. the commentary on the traditional prayerbook entitled B’samim Rosh by Rabbi Ḥanokh Zundel ben Yosef, as published in the siddur Otzar Ha-t’fillot, Nusa Ashk’naz (Vilna: Romm, 5688 [1927/1928], p. 614.
28 Cf. the Imrei Shefer commentary included in the Siddur Ha-g‘ra, (New York: Kol Torah, 5714 [1953/1954], p. 87b.