Divine Encounter: The Priestly Blessing

Avram Israel Reisner


May the LORD bless you and guard you.
May the LORD light up His face to you and grant grace to you.
May the LORD lift up His face to you and give you peace.
—Numbers 6:24–261


The Priestly Blessing is usually discussed in terms of the blessings of protection, grace, and peace that it offers. But it is God’s Presence, God’s face, that occupies a central place in the blessing formula and requires our more focused attention.


God’s Presence

We are far removed, in our modern world, from the intimacy and immediacy of the divine encounter described in the Torah and recognized by some of our sages. The midrash famously says that at the Sea of Reeds, when Moses sang, “This is my God—I extol Him” (Exodus 15:2),2 God was present and visible to the whole people.3 The Haggadah insists on this when interpreting Deuteronomy 26:8, “and the LORD brought us out from Egypt, with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror and with signs and with portents,” in an interpretation that many later more buttoned-up commentators could not abide:

And the LORD brought us out from Egypt—not by an angel,
not by a seraph, not by an emissary. Rather, the blessed
Holy One, personally and alone, as it says: “And I will cross
through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will strike
down every firstborn in the land of Egypt from man to
beast, and from all the gods of Egypt I will exact retributions.
I am the LORD” (Exodus 12:12).
I will cross through the land of Egypt—I, and not an angel.
I will strike down every firstborn—I, and not a seraph.
From all the gods of Egypt I will exact retribution—I, and not an emissary.
I am the LORD—I am the one and no other…
And with great terror (mora gadol)—this refers to the
appearance of God’s Presence, as it says: “Or has God tried
to take Him a nation from within a nation…with a strong
hand and an outstretched arm, and with great terrors, like
all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before
your eyes” (Deuteronomy 4:34).4

But this is far from an aberration of rabbinic thinking. The Torah, read plainly, assumes a physical presence of God leading the people through the desert. It is God who is described by name as leading the people in a pillar of fire and of cloud (Exodus 13:21) and it is God’s own glory that offers the people comfort and encouragement when they hesitate (Exodus 16:10).5 Later, the cloud that God’s glory inhabits settles on the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:34) and as God’s Presence in that cloud travels, so too do the people of Israel. Thus it should be no surprise, when the Ark is lifted to proceed on their journey, that Moses says “Rise, O LORD” and when it rests, he says “Come back, O LORD” (Numbers 10:35–36). While these two verses standing alone might be taken as metaphors, the Bible is clear that God’s residence in the Tabernacle and appearance specifically upon the Ark (Exodus 25:22) is a real spatial phenomenon.

The Torah at several points is surprisingly candid, indicating that a real physical manifestation of God may interact with humans. This is most obvious in Exodus 24. After receiving the Ten Commandments but before ascending onto Mount Sinai for forty days to receive the tablets and whatever other material was transmitted at that time, Moses and the people sacrificed and feasted in celebration.7 That event is described, in part, thus:

And Moses went up, and with him Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like a fashioning of sapphire pavement and like the very heavens for pureness. But against the elect of the Israelites He did not send forth His hand, and they beheld God and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9–11)

It is again clear upon a plain reading of Exodus 33:

And so, when Moses would come to the Tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stand at the entrance of the Tent and speak with Moses. And all the people would see the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the Tent….And the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow.…And He said, “My Presence shall go, and I will grant you rest.” And he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go, do not take us up from here. And how, then, will it be known that I have found favor in Your eyes, I and Your people? Will it not be by Your going with us…? And he said, “Show me, pray, Your glory.” And He said, “I shall make all My goodness pass in front of you….You shall not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live.” And the LORD said, “Look, there is a place with Me….And so, when My glory passes over, I shall put you in the cleft of the crag and shield you with My palm until I have passed over. And I shall take away My palm and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Exodus 33:9–11 and 14–23)

To be sure, later theological readings would seek to interpret these as spectral visions, a product of excitement, “in a vision” as it were—but nothing about this biblical text suggests that this was not a physical seeing of some divine image.

Thus, when the Torah says, “And they shall make Me a sanctuary, 10 that I may abide in their midst” (Exodus 25:8), or when it speaks of choosing a place “in which to make His name dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:11), ancient Israel understood that God frequented that place.11 The sages second that image by insisting that prior to the time of Solomon’s Temple, God’s Presence resided only in those places where the Tabernacle resided:

When Rav Dimi came [to Babylonia from Israel], he reported: In [only] three places [in Israel] did God’s Presence [i.e., the Shekhinah] rest upon Israel: at Shiloh, at Nob and Gibeon, and at the permanent Temple.12

Though this image had long since lost its physical understanding by the time of the sages of classical antiquity, it is maintained in midrashim that speak of God’s leaving the divine home at the Temple to go with God’s children into exile.13 But it is within the matrix of that spiritual understanding that it is necessary to seek the power and lasting vitality of the Priestly Blessing.14


God’s Blessing

The Torah makes clear that the Priestly Blessing is not to be seen as a blessing by the priests about God’s protection, but rather as a blessing by God through the medium of the priests. The language of the Torah is plain: “And they shall set My name over the Israelites, and I shall bless them” (Numbers 6:27).15 Thus Sifrei Bemidbar §43:

So that Israel should not say, “Our blessings are dependent on the priests,” therefore it says: “I [Myself] shall bless them.” So that the priests should not say, “We bless Israel,” therefore it says: “I [Myself] shall bless them”—I will bless My people Israel.16

That same idea appears in an amoraic reflection in Talmud Yerushalmi:

So that you should not say, “That man is an adulterer, a murderer, and he blesses us?”— [therefore] God says, “Who blesses you? Is it not I who blesses you? As it says: “And they shall set My name over the Israelites, and I shall bless them.”17

Ramban, among the commentaries, seems clearly to have this in mind, when in his commentary to “and I shall bless them” he simply cites Isaiah 52:6: “I, the One who promised, am now at hand.”18

Not all midrashim take this approach,19 but it is this immediate connection to the Divine that best explains the extraordinary hold that the Priestly Blessing has held over the generations, even those generations who would deny such an interpretation.


God’s Name

We have discussed the words of the Priestly Blessing, but not the end of its scriptural setting. These too are significant indicators of the Bible’s meaning: “And they shall set My name over the Israelites” (Numbers 6:27). What is meant by this phrase? What precisely is happening?

The other instances of “setting God’s name” in the biblical text are all of a piece, in the writings of the Deuteronomist, and all refer to God’s choice of the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. The first such reference is Deuteronomy 12:5, where reference is made to “the place that the LORD your God will choose of all your tribes to set His name there (la-sum sh’mo), to make it dwell (l’shikhno).” The internal explanation serves to define the term: “to set His name” = “to make it dwell.”20 And there is external synonomy here as well, for in verse 11 “the place God chooses” is described as “the place that the LORD your God will choose in which to make His name dwell (l’shakkein sh’mo),” and then in verse 21 again as “the place…that the LORD your God will choose to set His name (la-sum sh’mo).” Thus the two terms serve identically throughout the books of Deuteronomy, Kings, and Chronicles. While the passage in Numbers is in some ways anomalous, the weight of this usage is suggestive.21 God’s name is equivalent to God’s Presence. God’s indwelling Presence was understood to inhabit the Temple, and that was the intent of the building of the Temple. Here, in the Priestly Blessing, the further claim is made that God’s Presence is to rest upon every member of the people of Israel, transferred through the Priestly Blessing.

This somewhat audacious claim is supported by a vestige of this early understanding alive among the classical sages. Mishnah Sotah 7:6 rules that the explicit divine name may be used only in the Temple precincts. This ruling is explained in a tannaitic text on B. Sotah 38a by way of a direct comparison between God’s Presence during the Priestly Blessing and at the Temple:

“Thus shall you bless the Israelites” (Numbers 6:23). Does this mean the explicit name (sheim ha-m’forash) or just its alternative? The Torah teaches: “And they shall set My name over the Israelites” (Numbers 6:27)—that is, the name specific to Me. Might you do so even throughout the country? It is written of this case, “And they shall set My name (v’samu et sh’mi)” and of that case, “to set His name there (la-sum et sh’mo sham)” (Deuteronomy 12:5). Just as that refers to the House of [God’s] Choosing, so here it refers [only] to the House of [God’s] Choosing.Rabbi Josiah says: This is unnecessary. It says, “in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you [and bless you]” (Exodus 20:21). Every place? Rather, this verse is disordered. “In every place where I will come to you and bless you, there will I cause My name to be mentioned.” Where will I come to you and bless you? In the House of [My] Choosing. That is where I will cause My name to be mentioned: in the House of [My] Choosing.22

The implication must be that, whereas outside the Temple precincts the Priestly Blessing is performed in a sub-optimal way, without a real connection to the Divine, that connection is alive and real at the Temple itself.23

At B. Yoma 39b, a story is told of the death of Simeon the Righteous. To mark that occasion, the text tells us that “his brother priests refrained from blessing with the name”—that is, they did not use the explicit divine name that was generally used in the Temple.24 This Simeon the Righteous has been identified for us in Pirkei Avot 1:2 as “one of the remnants of the Great Assembly” and is identified there by the commentator Obadiah of Bertinoro (c.1445–1515) as “the High Priest who followed Ezra.” There remains some uncertainty about the identity and date of this figure, but by all accounts he was a pre-Hasmonean High Priest.25 Nothing about the story guarantees its historicity nor, if it happened, that dispensing with the use of God’s explicit name was other than an immediate and short-term gesture of mourning. But the commentary of the Tosafot on B. Sotah 38a, s.v. harei, states that the priests refrained, from that day forward, from using the divine name. Noting that the language of the Sifrei, “in every place that I will come to you,” means “I, Myself, that is a place of divine manifestation (gillui sh’khinah)…specifically the House of [God’s] Choosing,” Tosafot goes on to explain that “it seems that that is the reason the priests refrained from using the explicit divine name after the death of Simeon the Righteous…because they no longer merited divine manifestation.” If Tosafot is right about the meaning of this story, and the context in Yoma suggests that that is the case, then it appears to reflect a tannaitic awareness of a historic shift from a sense of God’s real residence at the Temple and consequent real presence at the Priestly Blessing at the Temple (at the very time that a lesser form of Priestly Blessing was being given regularly throughout the countryside), to a lesser state where even in the Temple in its latter days God’s Presence was no longer felt. That time when God’s Presence was truly present in the Temple is reputed to be far in the legendary past. It is as if to say, “We do not know divine manifestation, although we are still serving at the Temple—but the ancients did.”

But another source, perhaps a more reliable one, while it casts doubt on this historic reconstruction, yet confirms the gradual loss of the speaking of God’s explicit name during the Priestly Blessing—consequently distancing the observers from the sense of God’s real Presence. Sifrei Zuta 6:27 recounts the following:

“And they shall set My name (v’samu et sh’mi)” (Numbers 6:27)—the name that is specific to Me. This teaches that they blessed with the explicit divine name. Might you do so even throughout the country? Therefore it says, “And they shall set My name (v’samu et sh’mi),” and there it says “to set His name there (la-sum et sh’mo sham)” (Deuteronomy 12:5). Just as that refers to the Temple, so here it refers [only] to the Temple.

When impious [priests] grew in number, they would [only] consign it to the pious priests. Said Rabbi Tarfon: It happened that I was standing with my brethren priests in line, I listened carefully to the High Priest, and I heard him saying it during the melody of his brethren priests.

Rabbi Tarfon does not say here when this might have happened, that the public declaration of God’s explicit name was no longer performed, but was consigned to select pious priests. From that moment on, with the divine name no longer pronounced during the Priestly Blessing at the Temple, the reality of God’s Presence surely receded. But Rabbi Tarfon was a young priest when the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., so if he heard the high priest utter the explicit divine name, even sotto voce, there was somehow still a vestige of the notion of God’s Presence even then. But whatever the chronological story behind the loss of the use of God’s explicit name during the Priestly Blessing, while it yet continued, it was reflective of the strong sense that God’s Presence was real, was present, and had a hand in the transfer of the blessing onto the people of Israel.26


The Priestly Blessing

If we have correctly identified the original weight of the Priestly Blessing, it is appropriate to rethink its message in that context.

The Priestly Blessing is comprised of three strophes of increasing length and complexity—three Hebrew words in the first, five in the second and seven in the third—which comprise Numbers 6:24–26. A close literal translation is that offered by Robert Alter:

May the LORD bless you and guard you.
May the LORD light up His face to you and grant grace to you
May the LORD lift up His face to you and give you peace.

The first strophe carries the essential meaning and message of a blessing: that God should bless and guard. Nothing extraneous. The language is clear and to the point. It is not at all surprising that this text finds itself in use in the oldest example of a biblical text found by archaeologists, dated to the seventh century B.C.E.—on apparent amulets of silver, found in a burial cave at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem.27 But it should be noted that the full text did not appear on either amulet that was found. The Priestly Blessing as recorded in the Torah has six clauses, which may be conveniently numbered as such: (1) bless, (2) guard, (3) light His face, (4) grant grace, (5) lift His face, and (6) give peace. One amulet had only clauses 1–3, being cut off at that point, and the other contained clauses 1–3 and 6, but clearly did not have clauses 4 and 5. This raises speculation about whether the biblical version is an expansion on a shorter earlier text, or whether, alternatively, the first amulet may have had the full text of the biblical Priestly Blessing and the second is simply a conscious contraction thereof or a simple scribal omission due to accidentally skipping from the first occurrence of the word “face” to the subsequent occurrence of the same word. There is no obvious way to resolve the question. The neat numerical word structure (plus the similar pyramid of 15–20–25 letters) recommends the Masoretic text as the original, but this is certainly not dispositive. The full Masoretic text clearly lay behind the Dead Sea Scroll text, 1QS 2:2–4, which has the priests saying:

May He bless you with all good and guard you from all evil.
And may He light up your heart with good judgment and grace you with infinite knowledge.28
And may He raise His kindly face to you for everlasting peace.28

But that is several centuries later than the amulets.

Yet the line of thinking developed here may yield a strong indication that the full Masoretic text was the original form of the Priestly Blessing. The first line of three represents a basic blessing: positive blessing and defense against harm, as represented clearly by the Dead Sea Scroll version. The second strophe differs, in that it contemplates God’s own specific acknowledgment of the individual being blessed, whereas the first clause might have been referring to something delegated to an angel or might otherwise represent the distance of upper management. It is the second strophe that insists on God’s personal involvement, God’s facing toward you, albeit at a distance, and indicating personal regard for or toward you (note the dual meaning of the English term “regard,” which is particularly apropos). The third clause is the one that strikes one initially as problematic, for it is unclear what it adds. Indeed, that might, prima facie, be an argument for the shortened version of the second Ketef Hinnom amulet mentioned above.

Baruch Levine, in his Anchor Bible volume on Numbers 1–20, walks squarely into this problem of redundancy when, in his notes, he speaks of ya·eir as “the request of God that he look upon his people favorably,” and of yissa as “the request of God that he pay attention to his people, that he look upon them favorably.”29 Levine favors the notion that the shorter version of the Ketef Hinnom text may have been the original and the Masoretic version a “fattened” version. He suggests that there are really only two primary blessings here: those of the first strophe, to bless and to protect. The Ketef Hinnom short version expanded “bless” with ya·eir, “to look with favor upon, be well disposed toward,” and expanded “guard” with sim shalom, a form of protection. The Masoretic text, in this view, doubled the instantiations of blessing and protection, offering both ya·eir, “to look with favor,” and yaon, “to grant grace” as the playing out of blessing, and yissa panim, here understood as to “show concern for,” and of course shalom as the explication of protection.30

But now we are in a position to suggest a different sense of the third strophe, which is specific to and necessary for the Priestly Blessing as we have understood it. The first and second strophes present God at a distance. The meaning of the third strophe, operatively the essence of the Priestly Blessing, is that God should carry God’s Presence through the medium of the priests, to the individual being blessed, closing the distance between them—so that God’s divine Presence might reside with the one who is blessed and thereby assure him or her of peace.31 Thus, Numbers 6:27, v’samu et sh’mi (“they shall set My name”) is indeed similar in meaning to Deuteronomy 12:5, la-sum et sh’mo sham (“to set His name there”). It is a late text, to be sure, but is it a wonder that after the Priestly Blessing the congregation says: “Powerful in heaven, residing in might, You are peace and Your name is peace”? For this strophe is precisely intended to convey that God’s Presence will close the distance between the Divine Presence and the individual, and place God’s own name (shalom) upon the congregation.32

If this is indeed the intent of the Priestly Blessing—as I think it is—then the three-strophe form, and the third strophe in particular, is substantively necessary. Furthermore, this accounts for the strange power of the Priestly Blessing across the ages. For it is not by chance that, long since the priests ceased speaking the Priestly Blessing in the Temple, long since they ceased to use God’s explicit name, Jews have adopted the Priestly Blessing to bless their children on Friday night and rabbis regularly choose it for blessing marrying couples under the uppah.

A well known hasidic story tells of the Baal Shem Tov:

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Ryzhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.33

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the Priestly Blessing which once brought God’s Presence, really; then brought it only metaphorically, though we still recited God’s name explicitly; then, using only a pale imitation of God’s name, the tradition carries forward; a pale imitation of itself, but treasured nonetheless.34

In Ruth 2:4 Boaz greets his field hands, saying: “The LORD be with you,” and they responded “the LORD bless you.” This may have been only a nicety, but it spoke the truth of the essence of the Priestly Blessing; that God being with you was the essence of blessing. And it is not in the world of ancient Israel alone that that was the regnant concept of blessing. Indeed, the same language of blessing upon greeting or departure can be found in virtually any language: God be with you (later, “goodbye”), Adieu (“with God”), Vaya con Dios (“go with God”). These expressions become immeasurably richer when we begin to understand that the notion that God might reside with us and travel with us, when we are most in need of God’s protection…that that was at its heart, in its inception, not just a turn of phrase, but the real thing.

We are unable to rekindle the fire of our ancestors’ burning faith. But at least we can tell the story.








1 The Priestly Blessing is here presented in the translation of Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), p. 714. English translations from the Torah throughout this article, unless otherwise noted, are likewise from Alter’s translation. Translations from the Prophets and Writings will be those of the new JPS translation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985). Translations of rabbinic texts are the author’s own.
2 Alter’s translation. Other translations have “honor,” “praise,” or “glorify.” The new JPS translation, however, differs, translating “I will enshrine Him,” understanding the unusual verbal form anveihu as derived from the common noun naveh, meaning a place, rather than the more standard view that it is a secondary verbal form based upon na·eh, “lovely.” Compare Exodus 15:17. (The “new JPS translation” of the Torah was originally published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1962, and subsequently reprinted in 1985 in The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures —Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim; and again in 1999 as part of The JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh.)
3 See B. Sotah 30b: “Rabbi Yosi the Galilean expounded: When Israel came up out of the [Reed] Sea, they sought to offer song. How was that? Every toddler on their mother’s lap, every infant suckling at their mother’s breast—when they saw the Divine Presence, every toddler craned their neck, every infant spit the teat out of their mouth and said, ‘This is my God; I honor Him.’” Other versions of this midrash are found at Y. Sotah 5:4, 20c, and T. Sotah 6:2.
4 The Hebrew of the midrash, u-v’mora gadol—zeh gillui sh’khinah, seems to hide a pun interpreting mora, “terror,” as mareh, “appearance.” This interpretation is seconded by the attached verse that speaks of God’s mora being displayed visibly. This is the standard Ashkenazic text of the Haggadah. See the extended discussion by Ernst Daniel Goldschmidt who, based on Genizah documents, discusses what he calls “the most ancient Haggadah that is in our hands” (Haggadah Shel Pesa: M’koroteha V’toldoteha B’meshekh Ha-dorot (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1981), pp. 30ff.; the quote appears on p. 73. It is noteworthy that though the midrash to these central verses of the Haggadah is much briefer there, it includes the first two lines above, without the prooftext and elaboration, making the point that it was God acting personally in Egypt.
5 It is true, however, that the pillar of cloud that stands between Israel and Pharaoh’s army is described as a messenger of God in Exodus 14:19. Noting the discrepancy, Alter comments, “The introduction of an agent of the deity here is either an explanation in the original narrative of what God’s presence before the people actually meant or an interpolation of later tradition in order to mitigate anthropomorphism” (p. 393).
6 After the revelation began, wherein God spoke directly to the people but which the people truncated (Exodus 20:16), Moses went up to God to receive the rest of the revelation (Exodus 20:18). This was not yet the whole of the Torah, for the receipt of which Moses would ascend Mount Sinai again for forty days. The extent of God’s verbal revelation may have been the Ten Commandments, or perhaps only the first two commandments; see the baraita of the School of Rabbi Yishmael on B. Horayot 8a and the way that it is understood by Rav Hamnuna on B. Makkot 24a–b. See also Shemot Rabbah 33:7, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1.2.2, Tanuma, Vayeilekh §2, and Pirkei D’rabbi Eliezer, chap. 41. Less clear is a possible reference in Sifrei Bemidbar §112. Moses would later write the full content of that revelation (Exodus 24:3) before ascending the mountain for forty days. The chronological presentation in the Torah suggests that the extent of the full revelation that Moses committed to writing at that point might have included the laws of parashat Mishpatim. It is not, however, possible to state that with certainty.
7 The dominant tradition has it that the whole of the Five Books of Moses was transmitted verbatim at that time, but the biblical narrative itself does not support that assertion.
8 The Hebrew here is particularly opaque, and interpretations differ vastly. The Hebrew is but four words: panai yeileikhu va-hanioti lakh. Alter here, and NJPS and others, interpret it as having positive import—namely, that God will in some way assure Israel’s well-being. But it is possible that this was a negative, as in verses 33:2–3. Indeed, from Moses’ response (“If Your Presence does not go”) it seems that he saw this as negative; thus, one could interpret as follows: “God said, ‘My Presence will go away (panai yeileikhu); it will leave you (va-hanioti lakh).’ Moses replied, ‘If Your Presence does not go with us, then leave us here—for how would we then go forward?’” (Note that in this interpretation, the same Hebrew root, hei-lamed-kaf, is understood to have two radically differing meanings: “go” and “leave”.) In his notes Alter comes close to, but does not actually adopt, this possibility, presumably because he sees God’s position as having progressed from what it was earlier in the chapter. He writes: “The Hebrew is altogether cryptic…Presumably, what God is telling Moses is that He will indeed go before the people…and thus lighten Moses’ burden, ‘grant you rest’…But God, scarcely willing to concede that He Himself will lead the people, words the response so laconically…that Moses is by no means sure what God means, and so he goes on to say, ‘If Your Presence does not go up….’” Everett Fox attempts to solve this by casting God’s statement as an interrogative: “If My Presence were to go (with you), would I cause you to rest easy?” See his The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken, 1995), p. 452.
9 Thus, for instance, the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra to Exodus 24:10 (both his short and long commentaries), and more extensively in his long commentary to Exodus 33:21.
10 The translation here departs from Alter’s translation. The Hebrew term is mikdash, which standardly refers to the Temple and is anachronistic here in the context of the desert. Thus Alter translates “Tabernacle,” though that is nowhere a translation of mikdash, but rather of mishkan. Surprisingly, Alter does not note the implied emendation in his notes, but compounds the question by seeming to take mishkan as the given (Masoretic) text. He writes: “Tabernacle—the Hebrew mishkan literally means ‘abode’…” I see no indication of the existence of such a variant.
11 The God of Israel was known as resident in Jerusalem, an expression used regularly by the prophets and in Psalms—see, for example, Isaiah 8:18; Joel 4:17, 21; and Psalm 135:21. It might be noted that the appurtenances of the Tabernacle described in the Torah are the Ark, a table, and a lamp (the menorah). These can be seen as the basic furnishings of an apartment. No chair? “God of Hosts, enthroned on the cherubim” (2 Samuel 6:2). Where is the bed? “See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4).
In his recent book The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), Benjamin Sommer argues that in the J and E sources, given “the absence of any statements telling us that these many verses are mere figures of speech…the ancients who talk about God’s body really do think that God has a body.” Of the P source, he concludes that the notion was of a lustrous presence rather than a physical corpus, but that “a central theme of priestly tradition—perhaps the central theme of priestly tradition—is the desire of the transcendent God to become immanent on the earth this God has created”—to wit, in the Temple in Jerusalem. Expressly, however, he finds that the D school separated between God (who resides in heaven) and God’s name—contrary to other scholars, who understand the sheim “as YHWH’s cultic presence in the Jerusalem temple” (see pp. 64–68). My inclination is toward those other scholars (B. Janowski, “Ich will in euer Mitte wohnen,” in Jahrbuch für Biblische Theologie 2 [1987], and S. Dean McBride, “Deuteronomic Name Theology,” doctoral dissertation Harvard University, 1969), as will be clear in the continuation. The crux of Sommer’s argument is from the prayer of Solomon, reported in 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 6, which does, indeed, insistently attach to every reference to God’s receiving prayer given at the Temple, that God will listen “in Your heavenly abode / in heaven” (verses 30, 32, 34, 36, 39, 43, 45, 49). But that very insistence and the awkwardness thereof suggests to me that these words each time could easily be a gloss, or the whole lengthy prayer an addition, since the opening succinct prayer reads otherwise: “The LORD has chosen to abide in a thick cloud. I have now built for You a stately house, a place where You may dwell forever” (1 Kings 8:12–13).
Be this as it may, the Priestly Benediction is clearly a P text and the palpable sense of God’s Presence described here is a feature of the earlier sources. And whatever the Deuteronomists may have intended, as Sommer recognizes, “the theological intuition found in JE and elsewhere did not simply disappear” (p. 79).
12 B. Zevaḥim 118b. This text clearly counts Nob and Gibeon as one place. An alternative text reads “four places,” in which case they might be counted separately. Alternatively, they might be counted as one and Gilgal, the first stopping-place of the Tabernacle in the days of the conquest under Joshua, might be intended for inclusion. A fuller list of the stations of the Tabernacle appears later on this page of Talmud: “The days of the Tabernacle in the wilderness were forty years less one. The days of the Tabernacle at Gilgal were fourteen [years], seven of conquest and seven of division; at Nob and Gibeon, fifty-seven. There were left to Shiloh three hundred seventy, less one.” A similar list is found in Y. Megillah 1:12 at the end (72d).
13 Avot D’rabbi Natan, version A, chap. 34, ed. Solomon Schechter (New York: Feldheim, 1967), p. 52a. See also B. Rosh Hashanah 31a. These midrashim are akin to the vision of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 10.
14 All this is alluded to by David Noel Freedman in an article focusing on a close reading of the wording to the priestly blessing, “The Aaronic Benediction (Num. 6:24–26),” in Journal of Biblical Literature 74 (1955), pp. 35–47. On page 40 there, he writes: “The Aaronic Benediction seems to reflect the experience of Moses, and to express the hope that the worshipper may have a share in it, and see the refulgent glory of God’s face….The conclusion is that the Aaronic Benediction is a product of that early period in Israel’s history when the people went up to present themselves to Yahweh and to ‘see His face.’”
15 My translation. Alter, recognizing the implication that it is God who is presenting the blessing, translates with the emphatic “I Myself shall bless them.” Though that translation is consistent with the argument being made here, the Hebrew (va-ani avar’kheim) need not be translated emphatically. Therefore, in the interest of transparency I have opted to avoid the emphatic translation and let the argument being made here stand on its own merits.
16 A more elaborate version of this midrashic idea is found in Bemidbar Rabbah 11:2: “When the blessed Holy One told Aaron and his sons, ‘Thus shall you bless…’ (Numbers 6:23), Israel said to the blessed Holy One, ‘Master of the Universe, you tell the priests to bless us—but we are in need only of Your blessings, to be blessed from Your mouth!’…Said the blessed Holy One to them, ‘Even though I told the priests to bless you, I will be standing with them and blessing you. That is why the priests spread their hands, so as to say, ‘the blessed Holy One is standing behind us.’ And that is why it says (Song of Songs 2:9–10), ‘gazing through the window’—between the shoulders of the priests; ‘peering through the lattice’—between the fingers of the priests; ‘my beloved spoke thus to me’—‘and I [Myself] shall bless them’ (Numbers 6:27).”
17 Y. Gittin 5:9, 47b. It is noteworthy, in this regard, that Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s well-known dictum, that even an iron wall cannot interpose between God and Israel (whose original context I cannot determine), was cited by the g’mara on B. Sotah 38b to justify the notion that the Priestly Blessing reaches beyond the synagogue’s walls; and it appears as well in that very context in Y. Gittin here, in the name of Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ba.
18 I have capitalized “One,” as the reference is clearly to God.
19 See Sifrei Zuta 6:27 and Tanuma, Lekh L’kha §4 (ed. Buber §5). In response to the question “What if the priests refuse to give the blessing?” the text of the Sifrei Zuta reads: ani avar’kheim min ha-shamayim, “I will bless them from heaven”—asserting that God is not present. But the words “from heaven” are suspect in my eyes, as the parallel text in Sifrei Bemidbar §43 does not have them. Regarding the Tanuma text, see note 26 below. And see in this regard also Rabbi Akiva’s dictum preserved at B. Ḥullin 49a.
20 The NJPS translation here, understanding these terms as synonyms, reverses the order for the sake of the flow: “the site that the LORD your God will choose…as His habitation, to establish His name there.”
21 “To set His name” appears in Deuteronomy 12:5, 21; 14:24; 1 Kings 9:3; 11:36; 14:21; 2 Kings 21:4, 7; 2 Chronicles 6:20; 12:13; 33:7. “To cause His name to dwell” appears in Deuteronomy 12:11; 14:23; 16:2, 6, 11; 26:2; Jeremiah 7:12, and Nehemiah 1:9. A third synonym, “that His name might abide” (lihyot sh’mo), appears only in Kings and Chronicles (at 1 Kings 8:16, 29; 2 Kings 23:27 and 2 Chronicles 6:5–6). At a later date, to be sure, there was a hesitation about making the claim that God was actually resident at the Temple, and more cautious language crept in. See Jeremiah chapter 7 (and elsewhere), which speaks of the House “which bears My name (nikra sh’mi alav).
22 This text appears also in Sifrei Bemidbar §39, with some variation that includes stripping out the specifics of the word comparison that is nonetheless at the heart of the first teaching. The second verse interpreted as an alternative, Exodus 20:21 is presented here in the NJPS version. Alter translates somewhat awkwardly here, and numbers the verse 20:24, which is not in accordance with the Masoretic text. Rashi connects this to the discussion of all the holy spaces from the time of the desert until the Temple which we noted before, commenting, s.v. m’suras hu: “Reversed—‘in every place where I will come to you’—at the Tabernacle in the desert and at Shiloh and at the permanent Temple.” The Sifrei version of the second teaching is more stark. Instead of speaking in the language of the Torah in reordering the verse, “in every place where I will come to you,” the text of Sifrei uses rabbinic language: “In every place where I appear to you (she-ani niglah alekha)”—a difference that Tosafot, there, mines (see below).
This second verse is explicated in situ in Mekhilta D’rabbi Ishmael, Ba-odesh (Yitro) §11, and Mekhilta D’rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai (Yitro), to prove both that the explicit divine name is reserved for the Tabernacle, and that the Priestly Blessing is nonetheless to be performed throughout the country. Both texts, once dealing with terrain outside the Temple and no longer dealing with the real phenomenon of divine contact, continue to conclude that another read of this verse is that God even rests on a single person, a teaching that appears in Pirkei Avot 3:6 and in B. Berakhot 6a.
23 This mishnah also notes a difference in the how the kohanim held their hands in the Temple and outside it—above their heads at the Temple, but only to their shoulders outside the Temple—probably also because the priests at the Temple were understood to be channeling the Divine Presence, whereas those outside were not. That distinction arises as well from the dictum of Rabbi Judah bar Naḥmani on B. Ḥagigah 16a; see below, note 26.
24 The story is of tannaitic provenance, but does not appear in any authentic tannaitic collection. A similar baraita appears in Y. Yoma 5:2, 42c, but the detail about the Priestly Blessing appears only here. This is brought as part of a series of tannaitic texts about the weakening of the Temple service upon the death of Simeon the Righteous. One of those appears in T. Sotah 13:7. The impression is left that this is an authentic collection of tannaitic texts.
25 See Uriel Rappaport’s article on “Simeon the Just” in Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), vol. 18, p. 602.
26 Yeḥiel Epstein felt this. In his Arukh Ha-shulan, Ora ayyim 128:8, he explains that the Priestly Blessing requires a minyan (i.e., a prayer quorum of ten) despite not technically being a davar she-bi-k’dushah (a liturgical matter of holiness), “because it says, ‘I shall bless them,’ whereupon it demands the descent of God’s spirit, and the descent of God’s spirit only takes place among ten.” It is the subtext of the dictum of Rabbi Judah bar Naḥmani on B. Ḥagigah 16a that one who peers at the kohanim in the Temple during the Priestly Blessing will be blinded (by God’s unassimilable glory), which Rashi explains (s.v. u-m’var’khin et ha-am) is because “God’s Presence rests on the tips of their fingers.” This thesis was presented briefly by Jacob Spiegel in two recensions of an article: the first, entitled “Birkat Kohanim V’gillui Shekhinah,” which appeared in a weekly sheet published at Kibbutz Sdei Eliyahu on May 15, 1999, around parashat Naso; and the second published in his book, Pitei T’fillah U-mo·eid (Elkanah, Israel: Mikhlelet Orot, 2010), pp. 38–40, under the title “Gillui Shekhinah B’eit Birkat Kohanim.” I am disappointed by a discussion about the Priestly Blessing by Yochanan Muffs in chapter 17 of his The Personhood of God (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights 2005), pp. 151–156, which utilizes exclusively later midrashim from the Tanuma and discusses Birkat Kohanim focusing only on the relationship between the priests and the people during that rite.
27 Gabriel Barkay et al., “The Challenges of Ketef Hinnom,” in Near Eastern Archaeology 66:4 (2003), pp. 162–171, and cf. Gabriel Barkay et al., “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom,” in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (2004), pp. 41–71.
28 The Hebrew text can be viewed at http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/community, for comparison to the biblical text. The translation is my own, seeking to bear the closest resemblance possible word for word with Alter’s translation of the Masoretic text.
29 Baruch A. Levine, The Anchor Bible: Numbers 1–20 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), pp. 227–228.
30 Ibid, p. 240. Menaḥem Haran also takes the position that the blessings are duplicative in his article, “Birkat Kohanim Mi-ketef Hinnom,” included as chapter 31 in his collection Mikra V’olamo (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2009), pp. 421–432, as do Chaim Cohen, in his “The Biblical Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:24-26) in Light of Akkadian Parallels,” in Tel Aviv 20:2 (1993), pp. 228–238, and others, though in differing ways. Haran’s essay originally appeared in Cathedra 52 (1989), pp. 77–89.
31 This is a literal reading of yissa panav. As does Levine, Haran and Cohen each take this as an idiom meaning “to favor,” essentially the same as that which is found in the previous strophe. Cohen finds two parallels to this usage in the Bible from which to extrapolate, and several Akkadian sources. All the Akkadian sources refer to turning the face or lifting the head without the word el, indicating changed attitude but not movement through space, as is indicated by the biblical phrase. And one of the two biblical references—Psalm 4:7 (n’sa aleinu or panekha, “cast upon us the light of Your countenance”), translated by Cohen as “pay special attention to us in a joyful way”—uses al and not el and speaks not of carrying God’s face but only of the radiance thereof. Only Deuteronomy 28:50 is apposite, reading asher lo yissa panim l’zakein v’na·ar lo yaon (“who does not show honor to an elder or favor to a youth”). But the Priestly Blessing is much older than this passage in Deuteronomy, as noted by Freedman (above, note 14), and the later idiom is not an indication of what might have been a very literal use in the earlier material.
32 This prayer, standard in prayerbooks, has its origin as a prayer to be said at the time of the Priestly Blessing that is mentioned by a 5–6th c. amora on B. Berakhot 55b.
33 This version of the story is the one popularized by Elie Wiesel as the epilogue to his early novel The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966). In Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; rpt. New York: Schocken, 1961), pp. 349–350, Gershom Scholem reports that this story was told to him by S. Y. Agnon, in different words; perhaps that was the proximate source of Elie Wiesel’s retelling of the story. The story appears in a collection of folktales by Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 355, #90 (though Schwartz reports that the popular story has significantly different details than the original from which it stems). The original Hebrew text is found in K’nesset Yisrael by Reuben Zak (ed. Warsaw, 1906), p. 12a. It is noteworthy that in that Hebrew original the prayer is not a prayer, but the more mystical yiudim v’kavvanot (not easily translated, these are mystical meditations on the mysteries of God), and it is they, not the forest and the flame, that are lost over time. The loss of the mystical component makes this story all the more relevant to the case being made here.
34 In an article in Tarbiz 62:2 (1992–93), pp. 179–223 (“T’fillat Sh’moneh Esreih”), Ezra Fleischer speculates on the presence of Birkat Kohanim in the Amidah. The sages normally looked to downplay the role of the kohanim, so it seems unusual that the prayer was given such prominence, even more so its reenactment. Without taking the speculation further, he posits that there must have been pressure from the kohanim or from the people to include it. What we have written here may be seen as support for just such extraordinary import associated with the Priestly Blessing.