The Wonderfully Enigmatic Priestly Blessing: A Conduit to Ahavat Yisrael
Reuven P. Bulka
The injunction obligating the kohanim (priests; singular, kohen) to generate blessing on all Israel is found in the Book of Numbers (6:22–27). I use the word “generate” deliberately, since it is not the kohen or the kohanim who bless Israel; it is God who blesses Israel. But the blessing is generated by the kohen or kohanim, as is stated clearly: “They [the kohanim] shall place My [God’s] name on the Children of Israel, and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:27).
It is as if the kohanim press God’s button, so to say, whereupon God then commences to bless Israel. The difficulty in this exercise is beyond obvious. It screams out for explanation. Why does God need to have the divine button pushed? If God wants to bless Israel, if Israel needs and/or deserves God’s blessing, why does not God simply go and do just that—bless Israel?
Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona (1235–c.1290), in his classic work, Sefer Ha-ḥinnukh, addresses this very question. After introducing the obligation incumbent on the kohanim to bless the Israelites every day, he states:
Do not say that if God desires for the Israelites to be blessed, then let God command the divine blessing to be with them, and there would thus be no need for the blessing of the kohanim at all. For I have already told you many times that it is by the power of the worthiness of our acts that blessing is bestowed upon us. For God’s hand, blessed is God, is open to every person who asks, when that person is worthy and ready for receiving the good. Therefore, because God chose us from among the nations and desires that we merit God’s goodness, God forewarned and commanded us to arrange our actions and establish our worthiness through God’s commands, to be deserving of that good. God also commanded us, in God’s great goodness, that we should ask God for the blessing, and that we ask for it via the pure ministering servants—as all this will be a merit to our spirits, and because of that, we will merit attaining God’s goodness.1
This explains, to some extent, why the blessing must be requested. I say “to some extent,” because making ourselves worthy should be sufficient for attaining blessing, but according to the explanation in Sefer Ha-ḥinnukh, it is not sufficient. We still must entreat. And it certainly leaves unresolved the question of why it is the kohanim who must do the entreating for us. Why can we not do this directly? The idea that we need third-party intervention does not seem logical, and even seems to get in the way of our direct relationship with God.
This is not the only glaring difficulty related to the Priestly Blessing. Another complexity, this one textual, concerns the famous real estate matter: location. Quite a bit earlier in the Torah, in the Book of Leviticus, we are told, for the very first time, about Aaron pronouncing blessing on the people: “Aaron raised his hands toward the nation and blessed them…” (9:22). It would seem that right there, precisely at the juncture of Aaron pronouncing blessing, we should be introduced to the eternal obligation of the kohanim to bless Israel. Another, even more logical spot would be a bit later on in the narrative,
where an entire array of obligations resting on the kohanim is introduced (Leviticus 21:1–22:25). Instead, the obligation of blessing
is introduced much later, in the Book of Numbers—following two less-than-exhilarating rituals, one involving the sotah2 and the other involving the nazirite.3 Naḥmanides (1194–1270), in his comment on Numbers 6:23, suggests that the earlier blessing by the priests (in Leviticus) was specific to the consecration of the Tabernacle, for that day only. Here, in Numbers, the obligation is for future generations of kohanim, instructing that they must forever bless the Israelites. The distinction is duly noted, but the question concerning the textual location of Birkat Kohanim within the Torah still remains.
An Odd Preamble
The Priestly Blessing is itself preceded by a somewhat odd preamble:
The Eternal spoke unto Moses, saying: “Speak unto Aaron and his sons, saying: ‘Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel, saying unto them…’” (Numbers 6:22–23).
These last words, “saying unto them,” seem redundant, as it is in the very nature of bestowing a blessing on anyone or on any group that there is a verbal address to them, either directly or indirectly. Rashi, in his comment to Numbers 6:23, cites Midrash Tanḥuma and suggests that these words, which are not only redundant but also written using an unusual infinitive form (amor, instead of the more usual leimor), mean that the blessing must not be pronounced hurriedly or hastily, but instead must be pronounced devoutly and with a full heart.4 Earlier in his commentary to this verse, Rashi explains that the unusual form of the verb is used to specifically teach that the entirety of the people Israel must hear the blessing.5 If we put the two explanations together, we are introduced to an interesting notion: namely, that the entire community of Israel must hear the heartfelt, genuine, sincere blessing pronounced by the kohanim.
It seems as if the community needs to hear the words of blessing, and that it needs to hear them from its religious functionaries, its leaders. All need to hear the blessing, and all need to hear the genuineness—dare we say, the love—in the blessing. To which we ask: why? Why is this so important that it is one of the 613 commandments? What exactly is gained by fulfilling this mitzvah?
What Do the Words Mean?
To further explore these issues, we will try to work through the threefold blessing itself (Numbers 6:24–26). It reads as follows:
(24)May the Eternal bless you and safeguard you.
(25)May the Eternal shine the divine countenance upon you and be gracious to you.
(26)May the Eternal bestow favor upon you and grant you tranquility.
At first glance, this is quite a nice blessing. At second glance, it remains a nice blessing, but a bit puzzling. The words are nice but appear somewhat repetitive, and their meanings are not clear. Many commentators have addressed these concerns, and have come up with interesting explanations.
The first of the three blessings within the blessing is: May the Eternal bless you and safeguard you. Simple enough. But if God “blesses,” is not “safeguard” implied? Consider being blessed with a brand-new car, only to have that car totaled the next day in a crash that you manage to survive. You were blessed with a car, but you barely had it for a day. Is this a blessing, or a tease, or worse? Or consider a case of a person who purchases a winning lottery ticket, but the next day is told by a doctor that a fatal illness has crept into his or her body. The person has money, but no time to enjoy it. Is that a blessing?
A blessing without a safeguard to preserve the blessing hardly qualifies as a blessing. We understand that a true blessing, certainly
a divine blessing, is a lasting blessing. What, then, is added by the “safeguard” that is not contained in the notion of “bless” itself?
The second of the blessings is: May the Eternal shine the divine countenance upon you and be gracious to you. What exactly happens when God “shines” upon us? Is it something like getting a tan, a godly tan? Is something tangible transmitted via God’s “rays”? Is it transformational? And is not the fact that God shines upon us a distinct manifestation of grace? Yet here the grace seems to be an added feature, above and beyond the shining of the divine countenance.
The third of the blessings is: May the Eternal bestow favor upon you and grant you tranquility. As if the first two of the blessings are not sufficient bestowal of favor! And if we are already the beneficiaries of God’s favor, does not “tranquility” already inhere in that favor?
There are, of course, other questions that can and should be asked about the meaning of these blessings, but we will stop the asking at this point, and address the questions already posed.
Rashi-nale: The First Blessing
We will attempt to more fully understand the words of blessing mainly through the lens of the great commentator, Rashi.
On the first blessing, May the Eternal bless you and safeguard you, Rashi addresses our concern head-on, even though he does not specifically mention our question (namely: “if God ‘blesses,’ is not ‘safeguard’ implied?”). He states that the blessing referred to is a material one—that one’s possessions increase, and that they be safeguarded from thieves:
And safeguard you—that thieves not attack you to take away your property. For a mortal who gives a present to an employee cannot protect the employee from everyone, and if a band of robbers attack and grab it from the employee, what benefit is gained from this gift? But the blessed Holy One is at once the Giver and the One who safeguards.
It would seem as if Rashi is not at all concerned with our question. He clearly agrees that a gift without a safeguard is wanting, and that God’s gifts are by definition safeguarded. We come back to our question. Why is Rashi not bothered by the apparent redundancy, including “safeguard” even though it would seem to be implied in “bless”? Rashi’s explanation seems to simply enunciate a self-evident theological principle concerning God’s largesse. There is no redundancy because a basic principle is being established, that God’s gifts are safeguarded. But that principle is too self-evident to warrant a spelling out. We must be missing something.
I propose a subtext that may adequately explain this quandary. If God bestows blessing, why would God allow thieves to steal that very blessing? Perhaps because the person receiving the blessing is not worthy of it, does not appreciate it, and may misuse the newfound wealth only for narcissistic endeavors, refusing to share it with others. Such a person has transformed the blessing into a curse. The blessing, thus understood, could then be read as follows: May the Eternal bless you with bounty, and may you be worthy of that bounty being preserved for you through your using the bounty to share the blessing.
That is the subtext that is suggested by Rashi’s explanation. It is not a statement of obvious theological principle. Instead, it is a twofold blessing: that one be worthy of receiving the blessing, and also worthy of maintaining that very blessing.
Rashi-nale: The Second Blessing
We move now to the second blessing: May the Eternal shine the divine countenance upon you and be gracious to you. Here again, we call on Rashi. To explain what is meant by shining the divine countenance, Rashi states: “May God show you a smiling countenance, a beaming countenance.” If the person materially blessed indeed becomes worthy of having that blessing maintained, this makes God happy. God is delighted with the blessing “investment”; the returns are just what God desires.
What happens when God “shines” on the blessed person? What, if anything, changes? The person receives God’s grace, says the verse.
But the person already has the blessing, and God’s smile. Again, Rashi seems to simply state the obvious: “May God grant you favor.” What is the value added here? Perhaps it is that the person, who has used the blessing wisely and responsibly, is now given the blessing of permanence, the gift of grace—or more literally, the gift of becoming a kind person, beyond just having done kind things.
Thus understood, the blessing is for a progression from doing to being. It is a blessing that the good that you do becomes you, defines you, and guarantees that this is the way you will remain your entire life: as a receiver of blessing who uses the blessing kindly, and who then receives the ultimate transformational blessing of becoming a kind, gracious person.
Rashi-nale: The Third Blessing
We move now to the third blessing: May the Eternal bestow favor upon you and grant you tranquility. In the light of our explanation so far, this blessing makes no sense at all. The person has already been blessed with bounty, as well as with the even greater blessing of being transformed into an everlastingly kind person. Is this not more than enough? Is there more “favor” that needs to be bestowed? Listen here to the astounding words of Rashi, explaining what bestowing favor means: “May God conquer (or: suppress) God’s anger.” Where does this idea come from? Why would God be angry at a person who has so nicely translated the material blessing extended by God?
These words of Rashi suggest a somewhat unconventional understanding of the blessing. We recognize from the outset that blessings are tricky: they can bring out the best in us, or they can bring out the beast in us. We can take the blessing and grow with it, or we can take the blessing and become possessed by it, becoming mean, self-absorbed, and overly protective of the newfound wealth—in which case, the blessing then becomes an imprecation. The first verse expresses the hope that we use the blessing in a blessed manner. If we do, then the consequence will hopefully be that we become blessed persons, as per the second verse of the threefold blessing.
But if we fail, then the third blessing kicks in. Should we use the blessing in a mean-spirited way, God will definitely be angry. If that is how things unfold, then the blessing expressed is that God conquer, or suppress, the anger that we would deserve; the blessing is that rather than dealing harshly with those ingrates, God instead grant them tranquility or calm, so that the wealth does not destroy them. In other words, it is a blessing to those undeserving of God’s blessing of bounty—a blessing of quantity and quality—that they should have at least a life of quality. The material blessing may backfire, but hopefully there is something left in reserve.
The Textual Location Issue
Admittedly, this is not the standard understanding of this Priestly Blessing. But it offers an insight that expands the blessing’s profundity, and simultaneously helps address some of the remaining issues we raised. We mentioned earlier that the blessing was to be bestowed upon all Israel. All Israel had to hear the blessing—both those who deserve it and those who do not. They are, all together, part of the community.
The idea that the undeserving are also part of the blessing derives from the textual location issue. Where in the biblical text is the Priestly Blessing introduced? Right after the laws concerning the sotah and the nazirite.6
The sotah text (Numbers 5:11–31) deals with the ugliness of a marriage invaded by jealousy instead of appreciation, by accusations of infidelity instead of faithfulness, by suspicion instead of trust. The kohen sees this unfolding before his very eyes. He sees what the absence of true love can engender and he sees an unfolding crisis of value distortion in the community as he administers the ritual that will, hopefully, establish the truth and restore the marriage.
This is followed by the nazirite regulations (Numbers 6:1–21). Why would a person resolve to abstain from wine (among other abstentions)? One view in the Talmud considers it sinful to vow to
abstain from what is permitted.7 No one doubts the sincerity of the nazirite, but making a vow to abstain quite likely manifests a struggle with control, perhaps a wrestling with addiction, an addiction resulting from alcohol abuse. Someone who takes substance abuse challenges seriously is to be lauded, but the fact that abuse has become an issue is itself lamentable. The intervention of the kohen comes at the conclusion of the period of abstinence—and sometimes earlier, if the period of abstention is compromised because the nazirite breached a condition of the regulations incumbent on himself or herself.
The kohen thus sees people who, in different ways, are out of control: the sotah and the nazirite. He sees the warts; he knows the failings of the people. And the people know that the kohanim know this about them. So, how do the kohanim really feel about their flock, about their people? Are they disappointed? Are they fed up? Are they repulsed? Or are they compassionate, understanding, forgiving? By obligating the kohanim to bless the people, God is telling them that they must be compassionate. They cannot simply rush the blessing; it must be heartfelt. The people need to hear the blessing—and they need to hear the sincerity, the genuineness, the true emotive wish that emanates from the kohanim.
When they are able to hear this, the people can then actually hear the voice of God saying that, in spite of everything, all is not lost. The people are still worthy of blessing. They are still loved, below and above.
The Blessing of Love
This analysis paves the way for a wonderful observation concerning the blessing (b’rakhah) that the kohanim recite prior to fulfilling their obligation to bless all Israel. The blessing reads as follows: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us
with the holiness of Aaron and has commanded us to bless God’s people with love.” The b’rakhah closely follows the standard formula recited immediately prior to fulfilling a precept, a mitzvah. The text is almost what one would expect, but with the notable exception of the last word: b’ahavah (“with love”). For no other commandment does the blessing conclude in this way. Why here?
From what we have presented above, the “job” of the kohanim in fulfilling their benedictional duty is to convey to the entire community that they are loved by God. It is a love blessing. The word b’ahavah added to the blessing is not an add-on feature, but rather speaks to the very core of the mitzvah itself: to bless the people with love, to convey the reality that they are loved. Perhaps the last word of the Priestly Blessing, that the people be blessed with “tranquility,” is more accurately a blessing for love, love being the most profound generator of tranquility.
One more point. The discerning reader will notice a significant divergence in the body of the blessing, from the wording of the standard blessing recited before performing a mitzvah. Normally, when reciting such a blessing, we say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with the divine commandments, and….” But here, prior to the Priestly Blessing, the words are: “…who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron, and….” That is quite a change, unprecedented in the litany of blessings. What is the significance of this change in wording?
There is clearly a message in this. What exactly is meant by “the holiness of Aaron?” To answer this question, we turn to the most eloquent description of Aaron, offered by the sage Hillel: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humankind and bringing them near to the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). In other words, the core characteristic of Aaron is that he is a person
full of love for everyone, who spreads peace (tranquility) throughout the community. The holiness of Aaron inheres in his embracing love of everyone.
These words “who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron” are uttered by the kohanim as they prepare for generating blessing for the people. They are reminded in advance that this benedictory expression is all about love, Aaronic love, with which they—as kohanim—have been bequeathed, and which they must share with the community. Through the legacy of Aaron, they must bless the community with love: with the express hope and prayer that the community will become suffused with love.
If the most holy of the community, the kohanim, can find it in their hearts to bless the entirety of the Israelite community that they be filled with love, even though they know so many whose behavior is less than scintillating, even unholy…then that leaves God with no choice but to endorse that blessing. This must therefore be seen as the heavenly plea to all of Israel to be concerned for each other, to bless each other despite all their imperfections, to express and live their love of everyone. Once we do that, we are indeed blessed!
The Bottom Line
In a word, the mitzvah fulfillment of Birkat Kohanim is a concretization, on the loftiest level, of ahavat yisrael, loving all Israel, completely and unconditionally. That we have to work hard to get beyond the superficial to uncover the true essence, the great truth of the Priestly Blessing, is itself a reminder that we should do the same with every member of the community: get behind the superficial to see the good in everyone.
1 Sefer Ha-ḥinnukh, ed. Ḥayyim Dov Chavel (New York: Shulsinger Bros., 1952), mitzvah #367, p. 468. The traditional attribution of Sefer Ha-ḥinnukh to Rabbi Aaron of Barcelona has been questioned in recent years. See further Israel Ta-Shma, “Meḥabb’ro Ha-amitti shel Sefer Ha-ḥinnukh,” in Kiryat Sefer 55 (1980), pp. 787–790.
2 See Numbers 5:11–31. A sotah is a married woman suspected of adultery who undergoes a harrowing ritual intended to establish the truth regarding the suspicion, and which is overseen by a kohen. The ritual was abolished by Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai in the first century C.E.
3 See Numbers 6:1–21. A nazirite is a person, male or female, who vows to abstain from wine and grape products for a period of time (usually but not always for thirty days) and who afterwards, with the guidance of a kohen, engages in various penitential rituals to facilitate return to non-nazirite status.
4 See Rashi’s first comment to Numbers 6:23, s.v. amor; and Midrash Tanḥuma to Numbers, parashat Naso §10. This work is a collection of midrashic homilies on the Pentateuch named for Rabbi Tanḥuma, its presumed author and editor.
5 See Rashi’s second comment to Numbers 6:23, s.v. amor lahem. Rashi, as Rabbi Shlomo Yitzaki (1040–1105) is universally known, is by common consent the greatest and most authoritative of all Jewish medieval biblical commentators.
6 Regarding the sotah, see note 2 above. Regarding the nazirite, see note 3 above.
7 B. Nedarim 10a, commenting on Numbers 6:11.