The “Other” Priestly Blessings Revisited
Michael J. Broyde and Mark Goldfeder
When most people hear the term “Priestly Blessing(s),” they imagine it to be referring to the blessings that God prescribed for Aaron and his descendants to bless Israel with. Those Priestly Blessings are described in Numbers 6:24–26, and read as follows: “The Eternal bless you and keep you; the Eternal make His face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Eternal turn His face toward you and give you peace.” With their distinctive ritual chanting and melodies accompanying the symbolic raising of the hands, they are still performed to this day, only now in the synagogue and not in the Temple.
The Priestly Blessings as a genre, though, represent much more than just a ritual ceremony. They reflect one aspect of how the Divine Presence is meant to be manifest in this world. Unlike the job of the prophets, whose task it was to zero in on particular issues of the day and focus the hearts of the people, or the rabbis, whose legalistic function remains to faithfully apply God’s timeless laws to shifting realities, the job of the priests was to remind the people that God is ever-present, and that all blessings really come from the Eternal One. This is true in times of peace, as reflected in the “regular” Priestly Blessings, but it is also true in times of conflict, and the people needed this reminded to them as well.2
Unlike the “regular” Priestly Blessings, which are only recited in times of joy,3 there is another set of blessings that the priest is commanded to give to the Jewish people, specifically the Jewish army, right before they go to war. Deuteronomy 20 describes the process as follows:
When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: “Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the Eternal your God is the One who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:2–4)
The question this essay addresses is as follows: while the strict requirements for this priest, formally referenced as the Priest Anointed for War,4 are certainly not followed today,5 has the essence of the practice—and, for that matter, the Blessing itself—survived? And, if so, then under what circumstances and in what context has it done so?
It is not far-fetched to assume that such an ancient law as the blessing of the Priest Anointed for War might have some modern-day resonance. The renewal of Jewish sovereignty in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel presented Jewish tradition with both grave historical challenges and unprecedented opportunities. Having wandered in exile since their crushing defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire, it had been literally millennia since the Jewish people had a state to call their own. Amidst the euphoria of a biblical homecoming, however, was the realization by the People of the Book that there was in fact a great lacuna in the text.
While some of the classic works of Jewish law—most notably the Talmud and the legal works of Maimonides (1135–1204)—do include some scattered references and a few brief guidelines about war, it became abundantly clear in the early days of the Zionist victory that Jewish law had never fully developed its own laws of state, with an accompanying code of military ethics.6
Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917–1994), the first Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and later the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, believed that a vision of war through the ethical prism of the rabbinic sages was a realistic possibility, and that such a vision would effectively confer to the State and its armed forces a more valuable ethical code by which to conduct wars.7 He also believed that such an ethical rejuvenation was religiously imperative; if Judaism really had laws of war (a fact which, as a believer in the all-encompassing nature of the system of halakhah, he was sure of), then they were just as binding as all other Jewish laws. And, similar in this respect to other aspects of Jewish law and ethics, they would serve to separate the “us” from the “other,” even in the heat of the battlefield.
So began the legal resurrection. As Goren noted:
It was necessary to gather, select, and organize, like the sheaves of wheat brought to the threshing floor, the shards of laws, customs, and practices that existed in the ancient armies of Israel—to resurrect them from the recesses of distant memory, from beneath the ruins of the kings of Israel, and to collect them from the holy books….We built practices brick by brick, establishing a firm foundation for a system of authoritative Jewish legal rulings based on the Torah of Israel.8
While much of the legal discussion involved answering the technical “theory of just war” questions of jus ad bellum and jus in bellum from a Jewish perspective, there were also some internal Jewish law points that needed to be hammered out. Primarily, this involved attempting to categorize the wars of the State of Israel as either “authorized” and “obligatory” wars, under the rubrics found in the Talmud and Maimonides. In addition though, there were ritual points, similar to the priestly war blessings, that also needed to be addressed.
The Talmud tells us that three primary ritual requirements must be met in order for an “authorized war” to be (rightly) permitted to commence. The first of these is the presence of an accepted king or ruler of Israel.9 The second requirement is the consent of the Great Sanhedrin (the High Court in ancient Israel, composed of seventy-one elders),10 and the third is consultation with the urim and tummim, a mystical and holy ornament that was worn as part of the High Priest’s breastplate and was used to seek prophetic answers.11 A legitimate theory of Jewish war must meet these requirements, even in the modern era.
The first requirement is perhaps the easiest to meet. Naḥmanides12 is very clear that an official “king” is not actually needed. The decision to go to war can be made by “a king, judge, or whoever exercises jurisdiction over the people.” After the destruction of the Temple, the Jews began their exilic existence in Babylonia, where there was no official position of Jewish royalty. Instead, the legal authorities established that “the exilarchs in Babylonia stand in place of the king.”13 To apply this nowadays and find a logical concurrence between the Babylonian exilarch and the modern government of Israel, we can turn to the talmudic authorities who already noted during the Middle Ages that the Jewish legal doctrine stating that “the law of the land is the law” (dina d’malkhuta dina) would not apply to a Jewish government.14 Instead, a Jewish state would be “governed by the king’s law, which applies to all forms of Jewish government as they continue to develop over the course of time.”15 As this pertains specifically to a modern State of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, points to the talmudic passage which states that “the king’s law applies at all times and in every generation to the leaders of the time in their respective countries.”16 Rabbi Kook notes that the “royal prerogative governs the nation, and that ‘king’s law-making prerogatives revert to the nation as a whole…’ The king’s law applies to the government where they have flexibility to maintain order because the government is responsible for ‘the totality of the needs of the people at any time for the general security.’”17
Using these standards, the government of Israel has the authority to rule the Jewish people under king’s law. Thus, in an emergency situation, the Knesset is vested with the exact same powers and authority that King David himself would have been granted.
Regarding the requirement to seek the consent and approval of the Great Sanhedrin, the recently deceased Rabbi Yehudah Gershuni18 advanced the thesis that the approval of the high court is only a requirement if the monarch finds it necessary to compel the populace to go to war against their will, and to conscript soldiers involuntarily. When the nation agrees to go to battle, the approval of the Sanhedrin is not necessary.
The comments of at least one influential early exegete seem to support this view. Rabbi Menaḥem Meiri (1249–c.1310), in his explanation of the relevant talmudic passage, notes that the approval of the Sanhedrin is required in order to compel the populace to go out to battle, but no approval is necessary for popularly supported wars.19 In a similar vein, Rabbi Kook claimed that in a democratic era, the government—which expresses the will of the people—replaces the need for the approval of the high court.20
The last ritual requirement, consultation with the urim and tummim, is undoubtedly the most difficult to deal with. Whether or not the urim and tummim existed during the time of the Second Temple is a matter of scholarly debate,21 but no one questions the fact that by the end of that era they had certainly gone missing. When approaching this problem though, it is important to note that in his legal discussions about the declaration of an “authorized war,” Maimonides does not list the requirement of asking the urim and tummim at all.22 Rabbi Yeḥiel Michel Epstein suggests that although biblically mandated, consultation with the urim and tummim is perhaps not a necessary condition of war;23 although it constitutes a mitzvah and is required by virtue of the biblical command, failure to engage in prior consultation does not actually affect the legitimacy of the war itself.24
What, then, of the Priest Annointed for War? Is his a technical ritual that is biblically mandated but not required or necessary for war, along the lines of the urim and tumim? Or is it perhaps representative of some higher ideal and purpose, which can be legitimately reinterpreted to preserve the spirit if not the letter of the law?
The first thing we should note is that in general, while the idea of a military chaplain—someone to serve the army soldier’s physical and spiritual needs—is a relatively new concept, the Priest Anointed for War is often seen as an early prototype. Indeed, according to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains,
The Chaplaincy of the United States Army has its spiritual roots deep in the pages of the Old Testament, and prototypes for its institutional and organizational structure in the British military forces. The tradition of a specially appointed clergyman accompanying soldiers into battle dates from the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 20:2: “And it shall be when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people.” His message was to contain words of spiritual comfort for those soon to jeopardize their lives in combat, and patriotic sentiments suited to elevate morale.26
The religious chaplaincy of Israel Defense Force’s Military Rabbinate would, then, in itself be a direct spiritual descendant of the Priest Anointed for War. But it is not only a surface comparison. What made the Priest Anointed for War so special was not that he offered sacrifices or conducted rituals; his authority came from the fact that he actually went out to battle with his troops. The Israeli Army, unlike many other modern armies, trains its religious chaplains as soldiers, and many serve in combat units. This idea of priestly solidarity is rooted in the biblical text (“the priest shall approach the people,” v’nigash ha-kohein) and it is not lost on the people of Israel. In 1967, after the Six Day War and the recapturing of Jerusalem, the lead article in Amudim, the newspaper of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, declared:
Everyone who reads the newspapers today, everyone who listens today to the radio…is witness to the powerful eruption of faith in the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer…Rabbi Shlomo Goren [was] the “anointed priest of battle” who went before his armies in the conquest of the city of Gaza, who burst into the Ancient City of Jerusalem with a Torah scroll in his hand, and announced the good news of the redemption of the Land of Israel with a blast of the shofar…And none of the enemy could stand against them [i.e., the Israel Defense Forces]. All of their enemies, God put in their hand…27
Indeed, in their pep talks to the IDF forces right before they go into battle—designed, in the words of retired military Rabbi Lieutenant Shmuel Kaufman to “boost the spirit of the soldiers”28—the military chaplains sometimes even read the speech of Priest Anointed for War, and sound the shofar,29 much as the priests were commanded to in the battle of Jericho30 (as well as at other times).
But it is not only in the military chaplaincy that the “other” Priestly Blessing has survived; in synagogues around the word, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, many Jewish congregations of all denominations gather together for prayer, and add in a special blessing for the Israel Defense Forces. The prayer asks God to bless and protect the members of Israel’s army. It reads, in full:
He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea. May the Almighty cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighters from every trouble and distress, and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavor. May He lead our enemies under our soldiers’ sway and may He grant them salvation and crown them with victory. And may there be fulfilled for them the verse: “For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:4).31
And there it is, the second modern-day incarnation of the “other” Priestly Blessing, reminding Jews around the world that all blessings—both in times of peace and in times of conflict—come from heaven. May God watch over the IDF and bring them peace, and may the Priestly Blessings as we usually think of them be returned to their proper place, joyfully performed in the Temple, speedily in our days.
1 Parts of this essay have been adapted from Mark Goldfeder’s “Defining and Defending Borders; Just and Legal Wars in Jewish Thought,” a paper delivered at the 17th International Conference of the Jewish Law Association at Yale University on July 30, 2012, and subsequently published in Mark Goldfeder, “Defining and Defending Borders: Just and Legal Wars in Jewish Thought and Practice,” in Touro Law Review 30:3, pp. 632–633, 636–637, 641–645.
2 Although the text of Numbers 6:24–26 is universally referenced in Jewish literature as Birkat Kohanim, literally “the blessing of the priests” and commonly referred to as “the Priestly Blessing,” in the singular, we prefer the plural (“Blessings”) since the text actually does consist of discrete blessings and not just one. The text we reference as the Priestly Blessings is the same as the one widely referenced elsewhere in this volume in the singular.
3See commentary of Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520–1572), called the Rema, to the S.A., Oraḥ Ḥayyim 128:44.
4 In Hebrew, kohein mashu·aḥ milḥamah.
5 The Talmud at B. Sotah 42a, for instance, describes how the priest in question needs to be specifically appointed. According to Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (called the Netziv), he must be appointed by the king; and cf. also Tosafot to B. Yoma 12b, s.v. kohein gadol eivah. The Netziv’s comments can be found in his Sefer M’romei Sadeh (ed. Jerusalem, 1957), pp. 71a–b.
6 See, e.g., M.T. Hilkhot Issurei Biah 17:1, Hilkhot K’lei Ha-mikdash V’ha-ovdim Bo 1:7 and 4:19, Hilkhot Rotzei·aḥ 7:9, and Hilkhot Melakhim U-milḥemoteihem 7:3.
7 See Arye Edrei, “Spirit and Power: Rabbi Shlomo Goren and the Military Ethic of the Israel Defense Force,” in Theoretical Inquiries in Law 7 (2005), pp. 255–297, and particularly the author’s comments on p. 271.
8 Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Meishiv Milḥamah: She’eilot U-t’shuvot Be-iny’nei Tzava, Milḥamah U-vittaḥon (Jerusalem: Ha-idra Rabba, 1983–1992), quoted in Edrei, “Spirit and Power,” n. 38. Rabbi Goren’s view is that halakhah has indigenous rules for waging war that, although covered by layers of dust from generations of disuse, are present and need to be fleshed out. See also his “Combat Morality and the Halakhah” in Crossroads 1 (1987), pp. 211–231. Of course, we recognize that the approach of Rabbi Goren to military and war law is not the only one in the Jewish tradition—indeed, it is just one of five views advanced by mainstream Jewish law authorities. In addition to Rabbi Goren’s view, discussed in this essay, one may discern the following additional views on the matter:
(a) Rabbi Elazar Menaḥem Man Shach, leader of the Ponovezh yeshiva for decades, believed that there are no unique rules of how to fight a war and that war law simply consists of the general rules of self-defense writ large; see his Kovetz B’zot Ani Botei·aḥ (1963; rpt. Bnei Brak, 1993), pp. 10–35. In his view, there is no priestly blessing in war time now, as there are no modern-day wars conducted consistent with Jewish law because—at the minimum—there are no urim and tummim but more generally because these rules are limited to messianic times. (The urim and tummim were the mystical and holy ornament worn as part of the High Priest’s breastplate that were used to seek prophetic answers, including on questions of whether or not the nation should go to war; in this regard, see the talmudic material concentrated, e.g., at B. Yoma 73b, Sotah 48b, and Sanhedrin 16a–b.)
(b) Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli believed that halakhah has no unique rules of war, and that it accepts secular law norms as valid. He asserts that like many areas of halakhah, this realm too is governed only by the obligation to obey international law norms (much like the “law of the land” [dina d’malkhuta dina] writ large)—and international law certainly does not require a priestly blessing; See his “Pe’ulot Tz’va·iyyot L’haganat Ha-m’dinah,” first published in Ha-torah V’ha-m’dinah 5/6 (1953–54), pp. 71–113, and now reprinted as chapter 16 in the author’s Ammud Ha-y’mini (rev. ed., Tel Aviv: Moreshet, 1992), pp. 168–205.
(c) Rabbi OvadiaYosef, who acknowledges that there are indigenous rules of war within halakhah but thinks that they are rules for the individual, not the state; as such, they are not related to the State of Israel per se, but govern Jewish soldiers in any army, whether Israel’s or France’s. See, e.g., his Y’ḥavveh Daat 2:11 and 2:14 (Jerusalem: Makhon Y’ḥavveh Daat, 1999), pp. 50–52 and 58–61. More generally, see Shlomo Fischer, “Excursus: Concerning the Rulings of R. Ovadia Yosef Pertaining to the Thanksgiving Prayer, The Settlement of the Land of Israel, and Middle East Peace,” in Cardozo Law Review 28 (October 2006), pp. 229–244. In this model, a priestly blessing is, at the very least, not necessary.
(d) The Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, believes that fighting Jewish wars is prohibited by rabbinic decree after the “three talmudic oaths”; cf. B. Ketubbot 110b–111a, describing how Israel swore that they would not “storm the wall” or “rebel against the nations” until the coming of the Messiah. See his Kuntres Al Ha-Ge’ulah V’al Ha-t’murah (1970; rpt. Jerusalem and Brooklyn, 1985), particularly pp. 80–85. Certainly, in his understanding, a priestly blessing over a sin in not needed.
9 B. Sanhedrin 20a.
10 B. Sanhedrin 29b.
11 B. Sanhedrin 16b and elsewhere; see above, note 8.
12 Addendum to Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive commandment #4.
13 Maimonides, M.T. Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:13.
14 See, e.g., the commentary of R. Nissim of Gerona (1320-1376 and popularly called the Ran) to B. Nedarim 28a, s.v. be-mokheis ha-omeid mei-eilav.
15 Menachem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994), vol. 1 (The History and Elements of Jewish Law), p. 59, n. 28 (quoted in David Rosen, “Does Ariel Sharon Consult His Rabbi? How Israeli Responses to Terrorism Are Justified Under Jewish Law” [March 5, 2003], available online at jlaw.com/Articles/responseTerrorism.pdf). The book cites for their authority on this point the responsum of the Tosafot, published as #12 by Jacob Agus in his edition of the T’shuvot Ba·alei Ha-tosafot (New York: Yeshiva University, 1954), p. 58. The editors note that Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven, called the Ran (1320–1376), and Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, called the Rashba (1235–1310), follow this view that the king’s law applies to the Jewish government.
16 B. Sanhedrin 52b.
17 Elon, p. 59 (cited in Rosen, “Does Ariel Sharon Consult His Rabbi”), citing Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Mishpat Kohen, resp. no. 144 (1937; rpt. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1966), pp. 337–338.
18 Yehudah Gershuni, “Milḥemet R’shut U-milḥemet Mitzvah,” in Torah She-b’al Peh 13 (1971), pp. 150ff. See also the Einayim La-mishpat commentary of Rabbi Yitzḥak Arieli to B. Sanhedrin 16a (Jerusalem: D’fus Ivri, 1971), p. 35, quoted in J. David Bleich, “Preventive War in Jewish Law,” in Tradition 21:1 (Spring 1983), p. 34.
19 Beit Ha-b’ḥirah to tractate Sanhedrin, ed. Yitzḥak Ralbag (ed. Jerusalem, 1974), p. 45. The talmudic reference itself is found at B. Sanhedrin 16a.
20 Abraham Isaac Kook Mishpat Kohein, resp. no. 144, pp. 319–348 (quoted in Edrei, “Spirit and Power,” p. 266). See also Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, Ammud Ha-y’mini, no. 14, pp. 103–108, and no. 16, chap. 5, §§6–7, pp. 129–130; and cf. § 24, p. 137 (quoted in Bleich, “Preventive War,” p. 34). See also generally Maimonides, who uses the expressions “according to the majority of Israel” and “according to the high court” throughout his code; e.g. at M.T. Hilkhot Terumot 1:2 or Hilkhot Melakhim U-milḥemoteihem 1:3.
21 See, for instance, Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 3:8:9, in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Josephus, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (1930; rpt. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press and W. Heinemann, 1967), vol. 4 (Jewish Antiquities, Books I–IV), p. 421: “The [urim and tummim] ceased to shine two hundred years before I composed this work.” Josephus completed his Antiquities in 93–94 C.E. after about fifteen years of work, cf. Thackaray’s note, “b,” pp. 420–421.
22 M.T. Hilkhot Sanhedrin 5:1.
23 Yeḥiel Michel Epstein, Arukh Ha-shulḥan He-atid, Hilkhot Melakhim 74:7 (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1973), p. 75.
24 Bleich, “Preventive War,” n. 7, citing Shlomo Yosef Zevin, L’or Ha-halakhah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1957), p. 12; and cf. also the Einayim La-mishpat commentary of Rabbi Yitzḥak Arieli to B. Sanhedrin 16a, p. 35.
25 See “Chaplains” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. Adele Berlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 164–165.
26 Parker C. Thompson, et al., The United States Army Chaplaincy: From Its European Antecedents to 1791 (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains of the Department of the Army, 1977), vol. 1, p. xi, available online at the Internet Archive website at www.archive.org.
27 Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 253.
28 See video narrated by Katya Adler, “The Rise of Israel’s Military Rabbis” (September 8, 2009), available online at the website of the British Broadcasting Company, www.bbc.com/news.
29 Cf. Numbers 10:9, where we read: “When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the Eternal your God and rescued from your enemies.”
30 See Joshua 6:4–9: “And seven priests shall carry before the Ark seven shofarot of rams’ horns; and the seventh day you shall go around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the shofarot. And it shall come to pass that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when you hear the sound of the shofar, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him. And Joshua the son of Nun called the priests, and said to them, ‘Take the Ark of the covenant, and let seven priests carry seven shofarot of rams’ horns before the Ark of the Eternal.’ And he said to the people, ‘Pass on and surround the city, and let those who are armed pass on before the Ark of the Eternal One.’ And it came to pass, when Joshua had spoken to the people, that the seven priests carrying the seven shofarot of rams’ horns passed before the Eternal, and blew with the shofarot; and the Ark of the covenant of the Eternal followed them. And the armed men went before the priests who blew with the shofarot, and the rear guard came after the Ark, the priests going on, and blowing with the shofarot.”
31 This text is reproduced here courtesy of the Orthodox Union. Aside from its prominent placement in many prayer books, the Orthodox Union had sold, as of the time of the writing, over 70,000 individual prayer cards with this blessing.