From Paternal Prerogative to Priestly Obligation:
The Genealogy of Birkat Kohanim
I will address two questions, both of them fundamental for an understanding of the Priestly Blessing. First: what is a blessing? And then: what is the role of the priestly line of Aaron in conveying God’s blessing? These questions are deserving of our attention, not only for an accurate understanding of the biblical record but also for its contemporary appropriation.
Blessing Like Prayer
The Hebrew word b’rakhah, “blessing,” is familiar, but its meaning is mysterious. Religious Jews bless God hundreds of times a day. Every one of the standard prayers prescribed by the Talmud—be it praise, petition, or thanksgiving—begins with the words barukh atah ha-Shem, as does every appropriation of nourishment and many performances of divine commandments. The common English translation, “Blessed are You, O God” (which conforms to the views of such mystical writers as Rabbi Ḥayyim of Volozhin, in early nineteenth-century “Jewish Lithuania,”) implies that human beings are conferring a blessing on the deity, as it were—whatever that might mean, just as blessing another human being would be an attempt to bestow a blessing on the recipient.1
Rationalists like the fifteenth-century Spanish philosopher Rabbi Joseph Albo take pains to avoid suggesting that God is in any way enhanced by human blessing.2 They parse the word barukh as an adjective describing God rather than a performance in which God is blessed. Thus, we humans do not confer blessing on God: God is not the object of our blessings, but we rather refer to God as the source of blessing. But in either the rationalist or mystical interpretation, the act of blessing is a ubiquitous feature of the lives of religious individuals, even though both practitioners and outsiders often fail to consider the exact meaning of the practice. In Birkat Kohanim, the subject of this essay, the object of the blessing is human—and so the problem of blessing God need not detain us further.
Of course, we are concerned with serious, meaningful invocations of blessing. The unthinking secular recourse to the phrase “God bless you,” which waxes and wanes with the frequency of upper respiratory infections and allergies and often closes the speeches of politicians, is not helpful here. That usage has become a reflexive rather than reflective routine.
So when we begin to reflect on what it means for one human being to bless another, or to bless God, where do we start? What features of religious language occupy a related semantic field and may thus shed light on the meaning of blessing? The most natural move, for most of us, is to assimilate blessing to petitionary prayer. Both blessing and prayer express a wish for the flourishing of those we bless or those we pray for. Neither prayer nor blessing can be reduced simply to the desire to fulfill our wish. I may wish for something to happen without taking the trouble to petition the One in whose power it is to grant my wish, and without performing the act of calling down a blessing. Wish fulfillment differs from both prayer and blessing, just as wishing—which often means no more than preferring a particular state of affairs but doing nothing to make it happen—differs from action.
Yet despite the significant points of similarity between prayer and blessing, it would be wrong to treat them as interchangeable. Prayer is addressed to God. Petitionary prayer includes reflection on the nature of our legitimate needs, in order to request that God satisfy them.3 Prayer on behalf of others subsumes their needs under our own needs, thus enabling us to stand in their place before God in the act of petition. But in prayer one takes that desire, and presents it to God as a request of the Divine. In blessing, by contrast, although I am calling upon God I do not always address God in the second person. The formula of Birkat Kohanim (“May God bless you and preserve you…”) refers to God in the third person. The act of blessing presupposes that the person uttering the blessing has the capacity to invite divine blessing, but it does not entail speaking to God as “You.”
This becomes evident when one considers the Sim Shalom blessing in the Amidah, which immediately follows the Priestly Benediction when it is recited in the synagogue. The body of Sim Shalom is a prayer: it is the conclusion of the Amidah and it is a request addressed to God, as we ask the Divine to bestow the blessing of peace upon the people Israel. The body of Sim Shalom is not formulated as a blessing but rather as an entreaty for the effectiveness of the Priestly Blessing, recited a moment before in the reader’s public repetition, and implicit in the individual’s private recitation. Only at the end of Sim Shalom, as with the other sections of the Amidah, is the prayer concluded and sealed, so to speak, when we bless God, who is the source of the blessing of peace.
Thus the equation of blessing and prayer, however suggestive, is inadequate.
Blessing Like Prophecy
Another model for blessing is prophecy. Think of the famous blessings in the Torah, such as Isaac and Jacob blessing their children, and Moses blessing the tribes of Israel. They seem to be predicated on the disposition of the patriarch conferring the blessing in that he initiates the blessing as he might initiate a prayerful petition; in that respect these blessings are like prayer. At the same time, they are not petitions addressed to God but are rather destinies assigned to the recipients, as if the giver of the blessing was possessed of a vision of future and his proclamation of that future helps to bring it into being. Thus we think of Isaac, Jacob, and Moses as exercising something like a prophetic capacity in these actions. Their wish is not simply translated into petition, as it would be in prayer, but into prediction.
Isaac’s blessings (Genesis 27) illustrate the prophetic nature of blessing because he is, at first, under the impression that he is blessing Esau. He is unaware, until after the first blessing of Jacob, which of his sons he was blessing. If blessing is interpreted as prayer, then Isaac’s subjective state should be determinative: it should matter that he intended to bless Esau and not Jacob. Instead, when he discovers Jacob’s deception, he affirms the blessings—as if, once uttered, they cannot be retracted. This implies an objective status to the blessing: the efficacy of the blessing is, to some degree, independent of the desire or intention of the person bestowing it.
What is blessing, then, if it is not exactly like prayer and not exactly like prophecy? Like many religious concepts—indeed, like many ubiquitous human concepts and institutions—blessing defies clear-cut, transparent definition. In place of definition, we have pointed to two types of religious act—prayer and prophecy—with which blessing has affinities. Blessing is a distinct religious mode and is therefore not reducible to any other religious category. Nonetheless, keeping prayer and prophecy in mind may be helpful, as these ideas are more readily accessible to us, I think. We understand what petition means, and if we have a religious life we know the experience of petitioning God. We also know what it means for a person to grasp the intentions of another, and thus to “channel” their plan, so to speak—even if the experience of classical prophecy is unavailable to us.
The Biblical Account of Blessing Is Not Static
The two analogies we explored, that I have gleaned from the medieval interpretations, are pertinent to blessing without temporal qualification. Now I want to complicate the picture. Discerning that blessing is similar to prayer or prophecy, in certain respects, does not mean that the relationship between prayer and the other two ideas is always the same or that it is invariant over time. I want to propose that blessing is more like prophecy in some parts of the Bible and is more like prayer in other parts. I hope to explain why this is the case, and to show the relevance of this point to the Priestly Blessing prescribed in the Torah.
In the Book of Genesis, blessings are conferred by human beings and are generally delivered by fathers to their sons. In one case, the priest Melchizedek blesses Abraham on his victorious return from battle (Genesis 14:18). Noah blesses his children, as do Isaac and Jacob. The blessings are quite specific, as the patriarch sets down the destiny of each one of his progeny. As is the case with prophecy, the blessing states God’s intention and, by putting the divine intentions into externally expressed words, makes those intentions irrevocable. Individuation of blessings does not come without discrimination and even criticism. While blessing Shem and Japheth, Noah curses Ham’s line (Genesis 9). Isaac’s blessing gives Jacob preference; his blessing of Esau assigns him a different and inferior role (Genesis 27). Jacob takes Reuben, Simon, and Levi to task (Genesis 49).
This kind of blessing is more like prophecy than it is like prayer. To be sure, insofar as petitionary prayer emerges from our dialogue with God about our genuine needs, there is a sense in which prayer, too, if it is not mere velleity, recognizes the contours of reality, because prayer is more than mere wish fulfillment. When we pray on behalf of a child of limited abilities, we pray, realistically, that she or he have the opportunity to make the most of those abilities, hold a job, enjoy family life, and so forth; we do not ask God to arrange for him or her to receive the Nobel Prize. A person with what medical science regards as a terminal illness may wish for total cure, but when speaking to God honestly he or she prays for a meaningful remission, for the fortitude to tolerate the treatment, to enjoy the next bar mitzvah or the wedding of a child. To that extent, when parents pray for their children and bless them, they may judge their character and attainments accurately and pray accordingly. All the same, Jacob’s judgment of his sons—which are explicitly described as the particular blessings given to each one—have more of the flavor of prophecy about them than of prayer on the sons’ behalf. If we knew only these biblical blessings, our theory of blessing would give it much more in common with prophecy than with prayer.
A very different picture emerges in the other books of the Torah and in the later biblical books. To begin with, the blessings there are not pronounced by fathers but by leaders—and there is none of the criticism and discrimination that we have seen in the Genesis blessing stories. When Moses and Aaron bless the people at the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 9:22–23), they do not discriminate among the people. The formula of Birkat Kohanim recited today is prescribed in Numbers 6:24–26 and it speaks in general terms of divine blessing, preservation, and the disclosure of God’s benign countenance and peace. This normative blessing does not mark Israel’s destiny in detail, let alone single out individuals. The same is true of Solomon’s blessing of the people when he inaugurates the Temple (1 Kings 8). The only exception, that harks back to the patriarchal model of Genesis, is Moses’ valedictory blessing (Deuteronomy 33) which, like Jacob’s (Genesis 49), reviews the nation tribe by tribe. But even here, although each tribe gets an individualized blessing,4 none is subjected to direct condemnation. In a word, blessing outside of Genesis— including the halakhically prescribed text of Birkat Kohanim—is much more like prayer than it is like prophecy.
What explains the change between the ancient particularized blessing of the father and the later routine language mandated by the halakhah and reflected in the blessings of the post-patriarchal period?
Transition in the Hierarchy of the Cult
According to the Talmud, the sacrificial cult was initially conducted by the firstborn.5 Later the firstborn lost their privilege, and the tribe of Levi was chosen for spiritual leadership. When did this change occur? According to one talmudic view, it took place before the revelation at Sinai, and therefore the Aaronide priests officiated at the covenant ceremony conjoined to Moses’ ascent to Mount Sinai, which is described in Exodus 24:5.6 The other talmudic view, adopted by many commentators, holds that the firstborn served at that time.7 A different opinion, held by the Italian Bible commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (c. 1475–1550), extends this position. He held that the change occurred after the sin of the golden calf, when the Levites stood against the transgressors. In his judgment this transition is a cause for regret and repentance: were it not for sin, the firstborn and not the Levites would have collected the tithes and other benefices now given to the Levites.8 Why is this a great misfortune? Presumably because the dominance of the firstborn ensures a priesthood distributed uniformly throughout the population of Israel: each family, in effect, would be graced by a spiritual leader. In the aftermath of the sin, that leadership became the property of one tribe alone.9
Unlike the sacrificial cult and other priestly prerogatives, the movement of normative blessing from patriarch to priest is not mentioned in the Bible or major commentators, as the institution of Birkat Kohanim by the priests did not uproot what came before; it did not prevent non-priests from bestowing their blessings as they saw fit. Nevertheless, Aaron’s initiative in blessing the people as a whole, in which he was joined by Moses, transformed the act of blessing from the function of the pater familias to an act no longer anchored in the spiritual economy of the family. In the Book of Numbers, with the law prescribing Birkat Kohanim, that free act becomes a commandment upon Aaron and his descendants to recite the verses of Birkat Kohanim.
Once the blessing becomes a formula, once the blessing is no longer tailored by the father or the leader of the clan to the particularities of his children and their situation, it becomes more like prayer than like prophecy. Once it becomes an obligation, it becomes a routine. From the perspective of religious spontaneity this is a loss, a consequence of the development that replaced the hierarchy of the family leader, the firstborn, with the chosen clan. In the process, the content of the blessing becomes more stable. The priest must bring an undifferentiated benevolence to the work of blessing. He does not attend to the specific needs of individuals and it is not his business, as the conveyor of the blessing, to meditate on and beseech God about their particular destinies and aspirations.
As noted, Seforno and other early modern writers saw the move from the family priesthood to the priesthood of Aaron’s clan as a tragic consequence of sin, which induced God to assign religious leadership to a separate group. Whatever we may say about the priesthood in general, the import of shifting the blessing from patriarch to priest is complex. It is not self-evident that this particular change is for the worse. The individual retains the prerogative of blessing others, in whatever language he or she prefers. Yet the phrasing of the “official” halakhically sanctioned blessing bestowed by the kohen is now precisely set down. It does not permit individual creativity or the exercise of individual judgment. The priest becomes the vessel for a scripted divine blessing. And this routinized formula molds the experience of blessing outside the framework of Birkat Kohanim. This change, from a more personal and fateful experience of blessing to a less differentiated, more predictable blessing may not be entirely a change for the worse.
I suspect that many average Jews attending a prayer service at which Birkat Kohanim is recited are not well prepared for the ritual, and I hope that the approach set for here will help them. First, many enter the synagogue with little sense of the structure of the service and the distinctive nature of its constituent parts. This is obviously not the place to review the structure of the Jewish prayer service, but suffice it here to note that Birkat Kohanim is recited, as noted above, in the course of the repetition of the Musaf prayer on holidays, between the penultimate blessing (that of thanksgiving) and the last one (that of peace). In the daily Amidah it is reflected, but not performed, in the transition between these two benedictions. In Israel, Birkat Kohanim is recited on a daily basis.10 As noted, the act of blessing is not identical with that of praying or wishing. For that reason, the individual reciting or receiving the blessing, who wishes to comprehend the act in which the congregation is engaged, must appreciate the difference between blessing and petition. The fact that the Priestly Blessing prescribed sounds very much like petitionary prayer makes this point particularly prone to confusion.
The exclusive liturgical recitation of the blessing by the priestly descendants of Aaron is another stumbling-block for many contemporaries. It does not make sense to us that the gift or power of blessing be reserved for one lineage rather than being an option for each and every individual, as it was for the paradigmatic figures of the patriarchs in Genesis or for Moses before his death. Of course, the election of Aaron is rooted in biblical history and presented in Scripture as reflective of divine will. Indeed, one of the Torah’s commandments is specifically that Aaron’s descendants serve as the priests of Israel (cf. Exodus 28:1). The legitimacy of the law, however, is not equivalent to its appropriation as an experience. Here it is necessary to remember that the halakhic ritual, the commandment of Birkat Kohanim, is significantly different in content from the custom-made blessings bestowed by the patriarchs upon their offspring. It is general in content, and administered with an even-tempered joyful benevolence that does not distinguish the individual merits and shortcomings of the recipient or the distinctive attitudes of the conferrer of the blessing. This evolution is part of the transition from the pre-golden-calf era to its aftermath, as Seforno observed. I believe it may also, at the same time, mark the transformation of Israel from a group of families under the leadership of the family elders to a nation bound together at Sinai in the service of God. That experience of national unity is thus integral to our experience of the Birkat Kohanim.
1 Nefesh Ha-ḥayyim 2:2 (ed. Brooklyn, 1972), pp. 47–48. In the Jewish world, “Lita” comprised Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and the northeastern part of Poland.
2 Sefer Ha-ikkarim 2:26. Readers may wish to consult the English translation by Isaac Husik published as Book of Principles (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1946).
3 See my essay “Destiny, Freedom, and the Logic of Petition” in Tradition 24:2 (1989), pp. 17–37, which builds on the work of my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik; see especially his “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” in Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 55–72 and “Without Intelligence, Whence Prayer” in Tradition 37:1 (2003), pp. 1–26. Regarding the phenomenology of prayer for others, I draw on Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Olat Re’iyah I (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1939), p. 26.
4 Simon, in my opinion, is subsumed under Judah for reasons beyond the scope of this essay.
5 Cf. B. Zevaḥim 115b.
7 See, for example, Rashi to Exodus 24:5.
8 See his commentary to Deuteronomy 26:13.
9 Compare the discussion in the Spinoza’s Theological-Political Tractate, ch. 17. I suspect that Spinoza borrowed the insight from Seforno, over a century earlier, or that both thinkers drew on previous writers.
10 See, for the Amidah and the Shema in general, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart ed. Shalom Carmy (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 2003) and my essays in his tradition cited above in note 3.