Universalism and Particularism in Birkat Kohanim

Yeshaya Dalsace

Translated from the French by Martin S. Cohen


From Text to Spoken Word

When we look at a Torah scroll that has been unrolled before us, we find ourselves facing an endless sea of letters. Here and there, some brief bits of empty space provide a bit of a respite. And in the scroll we also find many longer spaces as well—most (but not all) of them places at which the scribe has stopped to begin a new section on a new line. These white spaces, as much a part of the ensemble as the black letters, are something like the foam that aerates the surface of the sea without destroying the endless monotony of the seascape. But what does catch the eye as we peruse the scroll are some few passages that are written out on the parchment in a distinctive way which sets them apart from the immense sea of text that surrounds them. There are very few of these anomalous passages, and they generally feature a particularly poetic text. For example, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 is presented to the reader as interlocking bricks of text, to suggest the water-walls that the Eternal created to fashion a path to safety for the Israelites “on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22 and 29); and at the end of the Torah, Moses’ closing hymn to future salvation (Deuteronomy 32) is also written in a very distinctive style, a two-column layout.1 There are other examples as well. And the very short text presenting the blessing of the kohanim (Numbers 6:24–26), the priests of ancient Israel, is one of them: each of the three short verses that constitute this text is set off by a gap in the text, the equivalent of nine letters’ length.

This should not be passed lightly by: it is both anomalous and unique, this feature of the written scroll in which the monotony of the textual surface is suddenly broken by a series of small text-waves that appear one after the next, waves that—if one really were at sea—would indicate to the eye of the practiced sailor the presence of a hidden reef just beneath the otherwise placid surface. This benedictory passage has clearly been set out by the Masoretic tradition that governs the writing of sacred scrolls in a way that wordlessly (but also unmistakably) invites us to dive beneath the calm surface to see what lies below.

This sense that there is something worth exploring beneath the textual surface is reinforced by two unexpected features of the text: the three verses appear to be formulated in a kind of arithmetic progression so that they consist—we can suppose not accidentally—of lines consisting of exactly three, five, and seven words respectively, in which the most sacred of God’s names appears as the second word of each line.

It is also worth noting that the text of the Priestly Blessing is the oldest biblical text that has been found; an amazing archeological discovery of two silver amulets has reliably been dated back to First Temple times and they are currently on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This text effectively proves the antiquity of the benedictory formulary and points almost as conclusively at its ancient ceremonial usage.2

The descendants of Aaron, the kohanim, were to recite this specific benedictory formulary in the Temple as a way of conveying God’s blessing to the people assembled there. No doubt constituting one of the peak experiences of Temple worship, the liturgical formula itself is presented cursorily in the biblical Book of Numbers, and the ceremony in which it is pronounced is developed in much greater detail in a long talmudic passage.3 This was, therefore, originally a Temple rite, but early on it was introduced into the synagogue, where it has remained a feature of Jewish liturgical practice ever since. Indeed, even today hundreds of kohanim gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem three times annually—during Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot—to pronounce the blessing before thousands of pilgrims.

Although textually rooted, the blessing lives on in the context of spoken language: it appears in the written Torah but escapes from its scriptural frame the moment it is pronounced aloud. In its ritual enactment, the words of the blessing must be pronounced aloud (and specifically not read from a printed text): they are repeated by the kohanim, word for word, as prompted by the prayer leader, and are then heard by a congregation of individuals, who may not gaze upon the kohanim—who, in any event, are hidden beneath the folds of their own prayer shawls. The effect, especially for the uninitiated, is startling—somewhat suggestive of a snowy field, or perhaps even the sea covered in white foam. In other words, the written version of Birkat Kohanim is there in the scroll, obviously, where it has been copied and recopied with the greatest precision by generations of scribes; but in the context of worship, it exists solely as spoken language. And the transition of the text from the realm of the written word to the one of spoken language is not a mere detail; in fact, it has the effect of liberating the blessing from its narrative frame, and thus also from the context in which the biblical text embeds its words. Indeed, in the mouths of the kohanim offering the blessing to the public, the text is simply devoid of any context or referential frame, which ephemeral feature lends to the larger enterprise a suggestion of eternity, of existence outside of literary history, perhaps even outside of time itself. At the same time, however, the creative power of the spoken blessing reinforces a sense of communal solidarity among all those present who hear the blessing pronounced. And that too suggests that this specific text exists in its own liturgical category: it is independent of the scriptural passage in which it is embedded and its oral recitation makes it unlike the rest of the Torah—which specifically may not be recited from memory, but which must instead be read verbatim from the scroll. The Torah read aloud exists in its own sphere of orality, of course. But it is an orality that is anchored in the written word that is read aloud from a written text.

What is the origin of this unusual blessing? And what meaning can it have for moderns contemplating it in our own day? It is to these questions that I wish now to turn.


The Blessing of Abraham

The first promise made by God to Abraham was that he, Abraham, would become “a blessing for all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:2–3). This essential promise underscores the positive and universal character of Judaism in just a few words by defining the faith of Abraham’s descendants not as the particularistic religion of a small group of individual members of the human family but rather as a message for “all the families of the earth” that, by its nature, can transcend the cultural differences and spiritual particularities of those families. This notion of Israel as the bearer of divine benediction to the world recurs in several different scriptural contexts and eventually became the foundational idea upon which rests the ritual blessing of the people by the kohanim in the Jerusalem Temple.

But the kohanim were not Abraham-like at all: Abraham by his very nature embodied a kind of divine blessing, but the kohanim in ancient times were nothing more than ritual functionaries obliged by custom and law to recite the benedictory formula precisely and with ritual exactitude. And, indeed, their specific task was to bless the house of Israel—and specifically not all the families of the earth. Abraham, on the other hand, “is” a blessing, as Scripture states at Genesis 12:2 (“…and you shall be a blessing”). Thus, even though he is depicted as the father of several nations within the human family, he is also described as a figure that transcends all ages and peoples. The kohanim, in this way unlike Abraham, neither embody blessing personally nor are deemed capable of transmitting it as part of their genetic heritage to their descendants; instead, they must pronounce the blessing aloud. They must speak the blessing plainly, and they transmit to their descendants not the blessing itself (which is offered freely to all), but the right to offer the blessing to future generations. Unlike Abraham, Scripture depicts the kohanim as faceless, mostly unnamed, functionaries—but not necessarily as role models.5 The public attends the ritual and hears the blessing that only the kohanim may execute, and the community identifies not with the priests personally but rather with the words solemnly pronounced by the priests as God’s blessing for the house of Israel.

It also bears saying that there is something paradoxical in the way Abraham is presented in Scripture. It is true that he embodies a universal blessing, but he only transmits—at least as far as the biblical narrative relates—membership in the b’rit, the covenant with God, to one single descendant among his eventually innumerable progeny: Isaac, who then transmits it to Jacob/Israel.6 Abraham thus personifies a kind of paradox relating to the realization of the divine promise: the blessing of all the families of the earth boils down to the blessing of one single family, the family of Abraham. This contradiction would eventually come to be considered scandalous, at least in some quarters, as both Christians and Mulslims would come to reject the notion of the election of Israel and use it as the basis of anti-Jewish theologizing. From the vantage point of history, the consequences of this tension—which feels so innocuous in the context of the scriptural narrative—become enormous, and it remains problematic in terms of interfaith relations to this very day.

For their part, the kohanim bless solely Israel: “…and thus shall you bless the Israelites” (Numbers 6:23) is meant to be taken simply. Yet the wording of the blessing is specifically non-particularistic and entirely universal, suggesting that it could in fact be offered to anyone at all. The text itself (Numbers 6:24–26) reads as follows:

May the Eternal bless you and guard you.
May the Eternal illumine the divine face in your direction and be gracious unto you.
May the Eternal lift up the divine face in your regard and grant you peace.

There is nothing here at all that concerns Israel specifically. And precisely the opposite seems to be the case: it would be more than reasonable to construe the blessing as truly Abrahamic—that is, as a benedictory formula redolent of the universalism attributed by Scripture to Abraham. One could even posit that the real point of the ritual is for the kohanim to use the benediction to integrate Israel into the universal Abrahamic blessing, thus repeatedly and insistently calling Israel to its universalist mission to bring blessing to the world. What, after all, could be more universal than the specific blessings included in the scriptural formulary: light, graciousness, protection, and peace? These ideas will eventually echoed by the prophets of Israel, who will call their people to become a “light unto the nations” and to promote universal peace among the nations of the world.7


The Love of Israel

It is also worth noting that the current practice is for the kohanim to pronounce a blessing before they recite the Priestly Blessing itself. At first blush, this “blessing of a blessing” looks like the standard benediction often recited before the performance of a commandment. That resemblance is, however, only superficial; indeed, there are anomalous features that suggest that this is a special blessing with its own ideational foundation.

The blessing itself, cited already in the Talmud, reads as follows: “Blessed are You, O Eternal God and Sovereign of the universe, who, having sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron, has commanded us to bless God’s people Israel in love.”8 Once this blessing is pronounced, the kohanim then, as the prayer-leader prompts them word by word, solemnly declaim the actual formula of the biblical blessing. As a result, there is a kind of double blessing to consider: the actual biblical blessing for the people, and the “pre-benedictory” blessing fixed by rabbinic tradition, which introduces the ritual pronunciation of the ancient biblical text. This latter blessing is constructed, for the most part, like the blessings pronounced before fulfilling a commandment: “Blessed are You, Eternal God and sovereign of the universe, who, having sanctified us with divine commandments, has commanded us to….” However, this latter blessing differs from the blessing that precedes Birkat Kohanim in two important ways: firstly, in the latter the source of sanctification is not said to be the commandments themselves but rather the holiness of Aaron personally; and secondly, the latter blessing concludes with the bald statement that the commandment is not merely to bless the people, but to bless them b’ahavah, “in love.”

The traditional formula for the blessing that precedes the performance of “regular” commandments (as given above) reflects the fundamental Jewish notion that sanctity in this world derives from action—and specifically from acting according to the path of observance ordained by Scripture and developed over centuries by rabbinic tradition. This path is open to all, provided that an individual is prepared to submit to the rigorous discipline of the commandments. Thus, the holiness of Israel does not derive from its heritable nature and neither does it have any specific ontological basis; instead, it derives solely from the fact that Israel has self-constituted itself as a nation that generates holiness through fidelity to the Torah’s sacred commandments. This is why Judaism remains open to all who are prepared to live under the yoke of the commandments. Indeed, it is the acceptance of that complex set of ritual, ethical, and spiritual obligations that serves even today as the litmus test of the willing convert to Judaism. The holiness of Israel is thus available to all who are prepared to join in the performance of the mitzvot. In that sense, this holiness can reasonably be qualified as universal—and thus as the natural extension of the covenant established millennia ago between God and Abraham.

The introductory blessing pronounced by the kohanim specifies that it is not the mitzvah, not the commandment per se, that creates holiness in the world (which idea is suggested by the classical formula mentioned above that references God as sanctifying Israel “with divine commandments”), but rather the “holiness of Aaron” that does so. Nor does the kohen maintain his status by virtue either of his actions or his exemplary behavior, but rather by virtue of his ancestry, by the circumstances of his birth. This is unexpected, but appears to be how things are: the holiness of the kohen is intrinsic sanctity that can only be obtained by being born to it; the holiness of the kohen is completely unrelated to his deeds or to his personal worthiness. One cannot acquire the status of kohen through any conversion ritual. But this heritable sanctity, which may be traceable back to Aaron, has no intrinsic value; rather, it exists solely for the sake of Israel, the transcendent people—or, as the introductory blessing references them, “God’s people Israel” (which is to say: the people of the universal God, rather than the people of the kohen—which is, at best, a nationalist concept). The sanctity of Aaron and his descendants is only meaningful in terms of the function of the kohen with respect to the collective—that is to say, with respect to its ability to offer God’s blessing to Israel, which itself will only acquire its eventual sanctity through such acts. Finally, the last word of this introductory blessing bears a precise meaning: the blessing can only be offered with love, in love, in the context of love. This final word, signaling one final requirement, is totally unique among the many blessings that are to be recited before performing commandments.

We can thus see that the ceremonial surrounding the Priestly Blessing is anomalous, both with respect to the specific language of the blessing that introduces it and also with respect to the notion of ahavat yisrael (“the love of Israel”) that is the requisite context for the blessing’s pronouncement. It is, in fact, precisely because they are called upon to summon up feelings of love with respect to the Jewish people that the kohanim are entitled to declaim the blessing, which only truly makes sense in the context of that love.

After centuries of development, the notion of ahavat yisrael has become an important Jewish value. A Jew must love other Jews. Our halakhic decisors saw in the commandment to love one’s neighbor one of the fundamental principles of the Torah (just as Rabbi Akiva taught in his day), but others sought to limit the application of the scriptural injunction to people with whom one has values and a Torah in common.9 When viewed in this context, the love of Israel is the love of one’s neighbor, of one’s other.10 Nonetheless, it is important to me to distinguish between these two concepts. It seems to me that the love of one’s neighbor cannot reasonably be restricted—with all due respect to the medieval sources that teach to the contrary—to apply solely to the observant Jew; the concept must be broadened to include all of humankind, each and every individual being created in the divine image.11 To be meaningful as a religious concept, the love in question cannot be restricted to only some part of God’s creation. Nevertheless, Israel—the nation bound in covenant to the Creator—merits a specific version of this commanded love of the other: not the convenient love of the local Jew qua neighbor, but the love of Israel—taken here as an abstract notion inspiring a spiritual project that, for all sorts of reasons obvious and obscure, has manifested itself in a particular nation. The midrash is speaking in precisely this vein when it declares, not fancifully but profoundly, that ideational Israel existed even before the world was created.12

The love of Israel derives directly from this ideational construct relating to the pre-existence of Israel (in this regard, not unlike the Torah) before God even began to create the world.13 Similarly, the pre-existent Torah also needed to become manifest in a particular text, the work known to us as “the” Torah but which is only the carrying-case, so to speak, of a celestial Torah far more profound than its earthly counterpart, a Torah of such infinite majesty that we can only hope to find some sparks of its other-worldly existence through the study of its literary projection into the world. Similarly, Israel—taken here as a spiritual concept—needed to find a terrestrial framework in which to exist in created reality and so self-manifested as a specific people…but it is this earlier, celestial Israel that we are called upon to love. It is for this reason that the midrash imagines that Abraham and Isaac too were called “Israel,” and no less meaningfully than was Jacob.14 Seen from this point of view, the love of Israel is not the mere love of one’s neighbor, but rather the love of the concept of Israel that the Jewish people has borne throughout the generations in a way unrelated to the behavior of individual Jews or the moral flaws of any specific generation of Jewish people.

Taken as a corollary of the unconditional election of Israel to bear God’s covenant into the world, the love of Israel must be as unconditional as it anomalous. And, indeed, this notion of unconditional obligation finds its expression in the words of many biblical prophets who, despite their endless willingness to berate specific individuals or communities for their moral failings, invariably insisted on the irreducible nature of the covenant—which exists eternally and unconditionally outside the framework of specific individuals and their ethical or ritual shortcomings. We find this idea as well, and in terms similar to the text of the introductory blessing of the kohanim, in the second blessing that precedes the recitation of the Shema in the morning service. This blessing proposes that the remarkable relationship of God and Israel derives from the fact that it was upon Israel that the Torah was bestowed, and this should be taken both as a sign of the infinite love of the Creator for the people Israel and also as tangible proof of their election. The Talmud reinforces this idea when it affirms that the Jewish people were only called by the name “Israel” after receiving the Torah at Sinai—that is to say, after having taken a solemn oath to adhere both to the covenant of the patriarchs and to the laws of the Torah.15 The love of Israel thus implies the love of that which Israel bears into the world: the love of a promise, and the love of a Jewish people that exists independent of how one may or may not feel about individual Jews.

This unconditional love cannot be explained with reference to the moral qualities possessed by the nation in question, but rather solely by its role as conveyor of God’s blessing into the world, as implied by the verse in the Torah that reads baldly, “You are the least of peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7).16 And the rabbis, too, said on many occasions that nothing really explains the election of the Jewish people other than a certain inexplicable (and unearned) capacity to receive the Torah, a capacity that is not to be equated with any particular willingness on the people’s part to play that role in the history of humankind.17 The love of Israel is therefore neither subjective nor dependent on any particular thing. It cannot be explained as anything other than a promise.

The choice made by God of this specific people to bear the divine word to the world is in this category of idea as well: a people was needed and this specific one was chosen. The rabbis of ancient times insisted on the fundamental universalism of the Torah insofar as they understood it to embody God’s message to all humanity. Nor was it problematic in this regard to agree that the revelation itself—the actual text of the Torah—is particularistic insofar as it is framed as a Jewish text addressed to the Jewish people because, for those same rabbis, the Torah’s text is only the visible part, so to speak, of a celestial Torah revealed through Israel to all the world. Indeed, this is the specific reason that the rabbis allowed themselves to go so far as to claim that the Torah was revealed at Sinai not solely in Hebrew but in seventy languages: so that all nations, imagined in antiquity to number seventy, could understand it—even if they ended up choosing not to accept the revelation as their national spiritual path.18 The prophetic gift of the Torah to Israel can therefore not in and of itself be taken to exclude the possibility of a parallel revelation to other nations.

Similarly, the choice of Aaron’s line to constitute a heritable priesthood unrelated to the personal merit of any specific kohen should also be seen as an arbitrary disposition of sacerdotal responsibility on a particular group of individuals—not because they particularly merited it, but because a priesthood was requisite and someone needed to serve in its ranks. This arbitrariness resonates with God’s original choice of Abraham: he was commanded to leave his homeland against a promise of what he might yet become, but nothing in Abraham’s previous life story presaged his election in any meaningful way.19 And it is precisely this arbitrariness that lends rich meaning to the blessing offered by the kohanim by situating it precisely on the narrow boundary between particularism and universalism: the particularism of Jewish destiny and the universalism of God’s promise to humankind. This arbitrariness may seem to be the determinative factor, both in the election of Israel to receive the Torah and in the election of the line of Aaron to bless Israel. But it is also so that these two elections are mere functions of love that, for all that it may be unconditional, is nevertheless justified by the universalist notion that the Torah is, at least in the ultimate sense, God’s revelation to all human beings, each the equal of the other by virtue of the divine image they all bear.

If Israel merits this love, then, it is neither because of what Israel is nor because of the exceptional moral qualities the people Israel could or should have, but, exactly as in the case of Abraham, because of what Israel becomes through the agency of Torah, because of the promise Israel bears to the world. And if Israel merits the love of God, then that too is a function of what it possesses: a Torah that has the capacity to transform, to inspire becoming instead of mere being. Indeed, Israel is not—and could never be—what Israel merely is, but rather what it is in the continual process of becoming. And, at least ideally, Israel is meant to exist in a constant state of becoming, in permanent lekh-l’kha mode,20 in a permanent march forward through the millennia toward its best self. And, indeed, the blessing of the kohanim is focused solely on the future; each of its verbs, usually translated in jussive mode (“may the Eternal bless you and guard you”), are actually simple imperfect verbs in Hebrew, a construction regularly used also to denote the simple future (“the Eternal will bless you and guard you”). Birkat Kohanim is thus rooted in the idea of the love of Israel precisely because the blessing is intimately linked to the idea of the Torah not as a text written once and for all time but rather as a work in progress, as a text in the process itself of becoming, as a projection of sublime divine orality that Israel is charged to bear in the world. It was not by accident that the priests of Temple times pronounced their blessing before the building that housed the Holy of Holies, in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant, itself built to be transported endlessly into the future. And it is for this reason that in today’s synagogue service the kohanim stand before the Ark of the synagogue, which contains the Torah scrolls, when they bestow the blessing on the congregation.21

The concept of the love of God is thus not really separable from the concept of the love of the Torah, which in turn cannot really be thought of as meaningfully distinct from the concept of the love of God.22 And indeed, we human beings love that which is nowhere as ardently or intently as we love that which inspires to be, which leads to becoming, which suggests by its nature the dynamic nature of human existence at its finest. For Jews, it all develops around this notion of the holiness borne into the world by Aaron and his descendants for the specific purpose of serving the people Israel in carrying out its mission to bear the word of God to the world—a national mission that itself only makes sense in universalist terms, in terms of the ability of that word to bring life to the living. Far from being a particularistic benediction suggestive solely of the self-absorbed nationalist aspirations of its pronouncers, the Priestly Blessing begs to be explained as a kind of universalistic vehicle, intended to remind the people Israel of their mission to the nations of the world. God’s love of Israel only makes real sense in this universalistic context, for the specific elements in the blessing—light, grace, protection, and peace—are by their very definition gifts that would naturally be bestowed by the Creator not only to the servants commanded to bear the divine word, but also to those for whom it was meant and to whom it was sent.

For all these reasons, it seems logical to see in the Priestly Blessing the extension, or possibly even the realization, of the promise made to Abraham that he would be a blessing for all the families of the world. Birkat Kohanim thus brings us to the very center of the paradox that churns and roils at the core of the Jewish experience: the specificity of Israel that leads not to chauvinism but to a universalistic worldview, one which rests on a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all of God’s creatures.


The Word Articulated

The Priestly Blessing must be pronounced aloud, with the priests’ hands stretched out toward the congregation in a gesture that suggests both protectiveness and the desire of the kohanim to fill the sanctuary with the positive energy generated by their benedictory ritual. For Judaism, great potential creativity inheres not solely in the voice of God but also in the voices of human beings created in God’s image. There is great power in the spoken word. God’s spoken word brought into existence the world and all of humanity, of course. But human language also has the capacity to alter how things are in the world…both for those who hear the words spoken and also for those who speak them aloud.23

The creative power of human speech, and particularly that of the kohen, was highlighted in ancient times by the prophet Malachi, who wrote: “The lips of the kohen embody knowledge, and [for this reason] do people seek [to hear God’s] torah from his lips. He is [sent to you as] a messenger of the Eternal One [who rules over the celestial] hosts” (2:7). This verse references an era during which kohanim were widely revered as sages. But even in our own time, when kohanim are mere conveyors of God’s blessings to the world, they continue—by virtue of the liturgy they pronounce aloud—to bear knowledge into the world. This knowledge is unrelated to the learning of any specific member of the priestly caste but, as I have tried to demonstrate, by its very nature has the capacity to project the love of God, which is the knowledge of God, into the world.

The prophet’s remark that it is possible to find the knowledge of God preserved on the lips of the kohen is suggestive of a different verse, one from Psalms, that says as much regarding the unadulterated word of God: “The words of the Eternal are purified speech, the spoken equivalent of silver refined seven times in a furnace [sunk] in the earth” (12:7). This word is offered to all: it flows to the world through the desert crucible in which it was first forged, through the agency of those who ever since bear it to the world, through the agency of the “voice of thin silence” referenced in the narrative of the prophet Elijah.24 Given the wilderness setting in which the Torah was first revealed, it is hardly accidental that the Hebrew words for “wilderness” (midbar) and for “he speaks” (m’dabbeir) are homographs.25 An ancient midrash teaches that the Torah was given “through” three agents: fire, water, and wilderness—for insofar as these three things are available to all for the taking or experiencing, so shall be the fate of a Torah sent to earth beneath the sign of the universal. (And this is precisely what the prophet meant to suggest when he proclaimed that all who thirst [for the knowledge of God] are welcome to drink of its waters.26) But the Torah is also a fourth thing that cannot be bought, which is free for all who wish to acquire and own: neither fire nor water, but love itself.

The kohanim do not take their audience into account, nor do they choose the blessings they offer. Instead, they speak the word of God to all who gather to hear. The blessing is not theirs to offer at will, or to withhold; it does not belong to them in any meaningful way. It is by its nature universal, in fact, precisely because it is not offered by its conveyors to their families or to their friends, or to others who have gained their trust or their affection, but rather to “God’s people Israel.” But for all that it is offered to Israel, it is not about them either: the Priestly Blessing is “about” humankind taken as a whole (as explained above).

It is not, however, sufficient for a blessing—or any word—merely to be spoken; it must also be heard. And the liturgy provides for this formally by requiring that the congregation respond to the pronouncement of each of the three verses that constitute the Priestly Blessing. And, in that context as well, the response of the blessed is rooted in love—not love for the kohen standing before the congregation, but rather for that which the kohen brings to the world. But how exactly does one hear the blessing, does one go about hearing the blessing? To this question the midrash too has an answer: one must become a human wilderness. The ancient text is explicit in this mysterious regard: “Any individual who fails to make of him or herself a wilderness open to all will never be able to receive the wisdom of the Torah, and it was to stress this point exactly that the Torah was offered [to Israel] in the wilderness [of Sinai].”27 In other words, in order to hear the voice of God one must first allow oneself to become audible to one’s “inner Israel.” And that is why the great declaration of faith begins with the words, “Hear, O Israel…” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

The blessing (b’rakhah) serves as the connective link (berekh, literally “knee”) between the spoken word and the heard word, and this connection can only work well in the context of love. I mean to reference the love of human speech in this regard, obviously, but also the love of oneself, for no one can love another without first loving oneself. (I prefer to read the famous injunction to love another “as oneself” at Leviticus 19:18 as though it ordained loving another “as one loves oneself.”) The love of self of which I speak, however, is not the egocentric, narcissistic version of self-love so prevalent in modern society, but something quite different: it is the love of the potential one senses in oneself, of one’s “inner Israel”—which is attained not through self-aggrandizement but through the subjugation of the overweening sense of self that interferes with, rather than enhances, the attainment of one’s fullest potential. In Hebrew, this is best expressed with a kind of a word game: by re-arranging the letters that spell out the word for “I” (ani), one can write out the word for “nothingness” (ayin). And, indeed, the Talmud teaches as much when it declares, “The words of the Torah can only be maintained by those who see themselves as barely existent, as the verse in Job reads, ‘Wisdom comes from nothingness.’”28

While it is the kohanim who recite the blessing, the custom is for all those present who are wearing tallitot to hide beneath them in a gesture intended to suggest the nullification of the self, as they receive the blessing of God—as articulated in their presence and for their benefit by kohanim, who are themselves also hidden beneath their tallitot. The use of the tallit here is key: it appears here in its various midrashic guises as the garment of light, the garment of the Torah, and the garment of humility, but also as the garment suggestive the most clearly of the pride Israel takes, or should take, in its unearned potential to acquire God’s choicest blessings of light, grace, protection, and peace through the agency of a priesthood chosen expressly for that purpose.

This articulation of those blessings touches, too, on a core concept of Judaism: at the moment it is pronounced, the blessing suggests that the presence of the Divine in the world is rooted in nothing more physically real than orality itself—and the listener is thus set outside of time and personally challenged to find his or her own personal destiny in the cadences of the Priestly Blessing. By ordaining that it be written in a Torah scroll according to their rules, the Masoretes can be imagined to be suggesting that the foundational ideas of Judaism may be discerned in this short text, in its sequential rhythm of words endlessly rotating around the ineffable axis of God’s most sacred name, repeated over and over. And by adding a preliminary blessing in which the blessers bless the Source of blessing, even before they offer the Blesser’s blessing to the blessed in a context suggestive of the triply entwined concepts of love, Israel, and sanctity, the rabbis of old continued the biblical tradition wisely, by creating a liturgical setting for Birkat Kohanim that itself is suggestive of the great project called Israel…whereby God seeks to bring redemption rooted in love to the world.










1 The law regarding the layout of this passage in a Torah scroll, along with the laws governing all other anomalous passages, can be found in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah at Hilkhot Sefer Torah, chapter 8.
2 Regarding the so-called Ketef Hinnom amulets, see Gabriel Barkay, Marilyn J. Lunberg, Andrew G. Vaughn, and Bruce Zuckerman, “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation,” in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (May 2004), pp. 41–71. The amulets were discovered by Gabriel Barkay in 1979.
3 The biblical passage is Numbers 6:22–27. The talmudic passage is B. Sotah 37b–40b.
4 Cf. Numbers 6:23, where the text specifically depicts God commanding Aaron and his sons to bless the Israelites. See below regarding this verse in more detail.
5 Aaron’s sons and one of his grandsons are, of course, named in Scripture. But I am thinking more specifically of the kohanim that would eventually take their place as the priestly caste.
6 Abraham’s uncountable progeny is referenced twice in the biblical narrative: at Genesis 13:16 and 15:5, cf. 32:13 and even 16:10, both of which passages reference Abraham’s descendants as well.
7 See, e.g., Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6.
8 See B. Sotah 39a, where the blessing is attributed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Shamua (a disciple of Rabbi Akiva), in a lesson taught by Rabbi Zeira in the name of Rabbi Ḥisda. Cf. also M.T. Hilkhot Tefillah U-nesiat Kapayim 14:12 and S.A. Oraḥ Ḥayyim 128:11. Note, however, the comment in the Talmud that precedes the one just cited, in which Rabbi Eliezer ben Shamua attributes his exceptionally long life, at least in part, to the fact that he, a kohen, never in the course of all his years pronounced the Priestly Blessing without first reciting the preparatory blessing—a comment that only makes sense if this were not the universal practice it is today.
9 Rabbi Akiva’s comment may be found in the Yerushalmi at Y. Nedarim 9:4, 41c. For an example of a text that limits the injunction to those with whom one shares common values and a common Torah, see the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol of Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy (thirteenth century), positive commandment 9 (ed. Venice, 1547; p. 97b).
10 See in this regard the material gathered in the Entziklopedia Talmudit, ed. Meir Berlin and Shlomo Yosef Zevin (Jerusalem: Hotzaat Entziklopedia Talmudit, 1947), vol. 1, col. 211, s.v. ahavat yisrael.
11 Humankind created in the divine image: Genesis 9:6. The broad approach is already taken in the Mishnah, cf. Pirkei Avot 3:14.
12 Cf. Bereishit Rabbah 1:4, ed. Theodor-Albeck (1903–1929; rpt. Jerusalem: Wahrman, 1967), p. 6.
13 The opening passage of Bereishit Rabbah (1:1) teaches exactly that: that the Torah existed before the world was created.
14 Bereishit Rabbah, 63:3. In the actual scriptural narrative, of course, it is Jacob alone whose name is changed to Israel; see Genesis 32:29 and 35:10.
15 B. Ḥullin 101b.
16 This is my own midrash. In context, the verse references the smallness of the Israelite population when compared to its multitudinous neighbors.
17 Cf. B. Shabbat 88a and Avodah Zarah 2b, where Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa teaches that Sinai was suspended over the people’s heads and allowed to dangle like a barrel of whiskey…until the people “willingly” decided to accept their role in history as the covenanted people. The precise translation of the word k’gigit, here translated as “like a barrel of whiskey,” derives directly from Rashi’s comment to B. Avodah Zarah 2b, s.v. v’al da tivart’hun.
18 Cf. B. Shabbat 88b and Shemot Rabbah 5:9 and 28:6, where the multilingual nature of the revelation at Sinai is affirmed. And cf. also the material preserved at Sifrei Devarim §343, where the text imagines God traveling the world to offer the Torah to various other nations, each one of which declines the offer for one reason or another. If, at the end of the day, Judaism never became a missionary faith, it is important to note that it also never abandoned its mission to serve as an example to other nations and a source of spiritual inspiration for all humanity.
19 I am obviously basing myself solely on the scriptural narrative. There are countless midrashim that attempt to speak to this issue by providing all sorts of stories about Abraham’s childhood, each demonstrating some quality God’s choice of Abraham specifically. But none of those midrashic tales justifies the heritable nature of the election of Abraham’s seed after him as the bearers of God’s covenanted presence in the world.
20 The Hebrew words lekh l’kha mean “go forth” and together constitute the first of God’s commands to Abraham at Genesis 12:1.
21 Cf. the talmudic tradition preserved at B. Yoma 72a to the effect that the wooden poles, by means of which the Ark was carried forward in the wilderness, were never removed—not even when the Ark was finally brought to its permanent resting place in the Temple of Solomon. The poles thus served as the permanent reminder that both the scroll and the divine message it bears were constructed to be in constant motion forward.
22 This progression of ideas flows from Deuteronomy 6:5–9, which verses constitute the Shema and V’ahavta paragraph, one of the Torah’s best-known liturgical passages.
23 The rabbis never tired of finding parallels between the voice of God, which created the world with ten fiats and which spoke aloud the Ten Commandments at Sinai, and the voice of humankind, as manifested in the ten “Hallelujah” psalms (Psalms 106, 111, 112, 113, 135, 146, 147, 148, 149, and 150); the voice of ten students gathered to study Torah in the beit midrash; the ten blessings offered by Isaac to Jacob; and even the ten blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (cf. B. Rosh Hashanah 32a and Megillah 21b, and Pirkei D’rabbi Eliezer, chap. 31). And in this regard, cf. also Pirkei Avot 5:1, where we read that the survival of the world created with ten divine statements depends on the deeds of humankind—which to me specifically references their speech, for the words of the righteous sustain the world while the words of the wicket destroy it.
24 Cf. 1 Kings 19:12.
25 Both are written in Hebrew with the same four letters: mem, dalet, bet, resh.
26 Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7, citing Isaiah 55:1.
27 Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7.
28 B. Sotah 21b, quoting Job 28:12. The opening of the original, taught in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan, reads: ein divrei torah mitkayy’mim ella b’mi she-meisim atzmo k’mi she-eino.