Why Pray?

Alon C. Ferency


So I’m with my father, my grandfather, and my brother, sitting in the bench seats—women were upstairs. Five or six guys get up on the bimah, the stage, facing the congregation. They get their tallits over their heads, and they start this chanting….And my father said to me, “Don’t look.” So everyone’s got their eyes covered with their hands or their tallit down over their faces….And I hear this strange sound coming from them. They’re not singers, they were shouters. And dissonant….It was all discordant…it was chilling. I thought, “Something major is happening here.” So I peeked. And I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit like this….Wow. Something really got hold of me. I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.
—Leonard Nimoy1


Generally, people pray (or don’t) with one of two assumptions: (1) prayer is magic, or (2) prayer is meaningless. Advocates of the former believe that speaking to God will change the speaker’s fate, whereas advocates of the latter believe that speaking to God has no effect, and that it would be better to save one’s breath and not speak at all. This is a false dichotomy. Prayer is meaningful, but not magical. Prayer may appear to be a request for material change, but its true spiritual effect is much more subtle and profound. It is neither prescriptive nor descriptive, but aspirational. We seek divine energy to help us transform our own lives. We imagine that we are changing God, when in fact we are changing ourselves, if we are so lucky. We bless ourselves to become our best selves.

I might further offer that the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim), appearing out of an early strand of Jewish experience in the Torah, is a signal prayer—one that may serve as a paradigm for other prayers. Through better understanding the text and context of its words—the Eternal bless you and keep you; the Eternal light up the divine face for you in grace; the Eternal lift up the divine face to you and bestow peace unto you—we may learn why we pray at all.2

First, let us address a false premise, that some believe lies at the heart of prayer: that our actions, above all our prayers, affect the inner life of God. Roughly, one might call this “theurgy,” a belief that the goal of ritual is to evoke a response from the divine realm. Such a theurgic supposition is the principle behind saying Kaddish for a parent in the months after his or her death. By offering praise to God, our sages imagined that recitation of Kaddish might force God’s hand, as it were, and make God judge the deceased more mercifully. In so doing, we might ensure the ascent of their spirit to heaven. To be sure, it’s a premise that many assume to be behind all prayer: somehow, our words will change God’s mind, as it were, and thereby change our fate. In prayer, we are seeking God’s intercession to change the future.

Admittedly, this was a piece of our sages’ thinking about prayer. For example, Rabbi Eleazar said: “Why are the prayers of the righteous compared to a pitchfork? To teach you that just as the pitchfork turns the grains from place to place in the barn, so the prayers of the righteous turn the mind of the blessed Holy One, from the side of sternness to that of mercy.”4 Even though we may be far removed from the agricultural times of Rabbi Eleazar, we can still grasp this marvelous image. A pitchfork is useful, powerful, even dangerous; so too are our prayers. Rabbi Eleazar is not saying that the pitchfork politely asks the grain to move itself; rather, it picks it up and hurls it across the granary. In that case, prayer is not a gentle request that God change God’s mind; it is electroshock therapy. It is inspiring to imagine that our prayers are powerful enough to change God’s mind—turn it over, even—from a cruel fate to a more appealing outcome. It makes me want to pray more, which I suspect to be Rabbi Eleazar’s true intention. It is a fine image, but a dangerous idea. Theologically, if God listens to and “obeys” some requests, why does God say no to equally valid demands? For example, why should God respond to a prayer for a good grade, but not for remission from leukemia? Furthermore, how much should my words matter to God? Who could have that kind of power? It’s a Pandora’s box of theological problems.

Why, then, ought we to pray?

Let me begin my answer by way of a story. In our community of Knoxville, Tennessee, services on the first night of Rosh Hashanah are sparsely attended, and then generally by persons who do not set foot in the synagogue at any other time. These are people dipping a toe in the waters of Jewish life. So I have taken it upon myself to lead these services alone, in a simple, improvisational fashion. Weather permitting, we move a few dozen chairs into our modest, pleasant courtyard. Early on in the one-hour service, I like to pair up the attendees with someone they have not met before, and ask them to interview each other briefly, with the intention of offering each other a blessing for the coming year; then, they exchange simple blessings. I think it is a wonderful moment of strangers attending to one another. “I really liked that,” someone invariably tells me afterward, “but it felt too Christian.”

Allow me to address that perception, as it is a passion of mine to reclaim for Judaism theology and practice that has been deemed “too Christian.” Indeed, there is precedent within Jewish tradition for exchanging blessings. For example, consider the following verse from the Book of Psalms: “May the one who enters be blessed in the name of the Eternal; we bless you from the house of the Eternal” (118:26). Or the following exchange found in the Book of Ruth, one of our foundational stories that intertwines conversion, social justice, and messianism: “Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers, ‘May the Eternal be with you.’ And they answered him, ‘May the Eternal bless you’” (2:4).5 These blessings were reciprocal, not unlike the aesthetic and theological context of the Priestly Blessing.

Therefore, through the Priestly Blessing, we may discover anew why we pray. What do we hope to achieve with the words the Eternal bless you and keep you; the Eternal light up the divine face for you in grace; the Eternal lift up the divine face to you and bestow peace unto you? What might be the priests’ intent when they recite this blessing, now or in ancient times? Is it either meaningless, simply a trite greeting; or magical, a way of forcing God to grant the blessings that the priests recite? Let’s assume that it is not a bland nostrum, offered in the way that you might say “How are you?” to which I reply, “Fine, thanks.” Prayer must have some meaning, else why would people do it? Then, is it magic? Might the priests force God’s hand, and make God treat us well? Is their prayer a sort of decree, couched in a request–a public pitchfork, as it were?

In a different teaching, Rabbi Ukba explains that the priests conclude their ritual by saying “Ruler of the Universe, we have performed what You decreed upon us; now You fulfill for us what You promised.”6 This too appears to a compelling instruction, yet one rooted in the worst kind of hubris. First of all, it suggests a wholly transactional understanding of prayer: we do what God wants (i.e., we obey the mitzvot) and so must God do what we ask (in prayer). That is certainly not a healthy understanding of prayer; at the very least, it makes our relationship with God less intimate. Hopefully, our relationship with the Divine is not so mercenary. Moreover, if we have this power over God, to invoke a blessing and compel a response, then it is not really “prayer” at all, but an order for shoes. If prayer is not a metaphysical zappos.com—neither theurgy nor magic—then how is it meaningful?

With this essay, I hope to shift the inquiry from causes to effects: what is the effect of prayer? Join me in re-framing prayer not as a matter of humans soliciting clemency from God’s decrees. This outmoded framework places the pray-er7 either in the position of sycophant or petulant child. If the intellectually honest and mature goal of prayer is not—at least, not mainly—to change God’s mind or to reform God’s plan, then what is its goal? Why pray, and why pray in a community? How might it move us or motivate us? In this, it seems that the Priestly Blessing is an excellent test case, which may in turn elucidate prayer generally.

Foremost, the Priestly Blessing can have transformative, even radical, effects on a community. Namely, it is by nature a blessing by the community, to the community, of the community—which is a fancy way to say that via Birkat Kohanim, we ourselves bless ourselves from ourselves. Primarily, the Priestly Blessing is a sacred moment to foster unity within community, which effect may ideally spread beyond the time of its recitation. In fact, the grammar of the blessing should be understood in this way. It is the Eternal bless you and keep you, with “you” in the singular, not the plural. Shlomo Leib of Łęczna (d. 1843) notes that the blessing is writ singular to indicate that “the essential truth of the blessing is unity…[so that the recipients may feel like] one person with one heart.”8 We recite or hear the blessing only when in community, and we only receive it as one, literally. Maybe the threefold Priestly Blessing is a reminder of our capacity when we are together, and our incapacity when apart. As Kohelet says, in a poetic parallel, “The three-ply cord is not easily broken” (4:12). Just as Kohelet notes that persons and things are greater than the sum of their parts, so too the parts of the Priestly Blesssing, as well as the community that receives blessing, are greater in sum than apart. Another salutary effect of the Priestly Blessing is to instill in us a sense of awe. The priests remove their shoes before offering the blessing, in a distant echo of Moses’ commission: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).9 It is a call for all communities and community members to recognize their sanctity.

Since it is a blessing by the community, to the community, of the community, a major effect of the Priestly Blessing is fellowship. In this way, it is not so far removed from certain practices of early Christianity. Like blessing, another religious precept that we ceded too hastily to our Christian neighbors (although, in truth, it is “ours” as much as it is “theirs”) is commensality, the practice of eating in a social group. A common anthropological observation of Jesus’ early ministry is that he practiced radical commensality. Commensality, or table-fellowship, indicates that Jesus broke bread with persons of high and low status alike. His cohort included dissolute women, lepers, and other ritually unclean members of society without distinction, a radical break from the social hierarchy of his era. Allow me to suggest that the Priestly Blessing is an invitation to commensality. (“How is it any sort of commensality,” you must quickly retort, “if it is a blessing offered by one class—socially elevated priests—to everyone else?!”) Perhaps the commensality of the Priestly Blessing is not as radical as Jesus’ version, yet it is a moment of equality, when everyone receives blessing together.

It is more egalitarian than it appears at first blush.10 Consider a tension in the enactment of the practice itself: recipients of the blessing are instructed to lower their eyes yet be face to face with the priests.11 (Well, which is it?) The posture of giver and receiver is already indeterminate; which figure is dominant, and which submissive? This poses a tension between received notions of priestly spiritual superiority, on the one hand, and a growing sense that the priests are themselves simply representations of God amid the community, on the other hand. Moreover, in order for the Priestly Blessing to shape harmonious community, it is effective only insofar as the priests are representatives of that community which they bless. They are proxies of the community, just as their vestments are made or paid for by the community.12 In other words, they are only special because a community deems them so. Their election to the priestly caste appears almost incidental, or even accidental. They are neither gods nor kings, but selected arbitrarily by birth.

Next, the Priestly Blessing continues to challenge our notions about the effects of prayer. As I suggested above, there is a problematic assumption at the heart of prayer: that our words will affect God, which may in turn transform the physical world. Instead, it appears that the priests’ work is actually threefold: to invite God’s favor, to channel divine blessing, and to serve as a vessel for prayer. At no point, however, need this effect a change in the physical world. God does not grant wishes, which would be a travesty to a religious worldview. (Why does God grant your wishes but not mine? For that matter, why does it appear that God favorably answers the prayers of scoundrels, while many prayers of the righteous appear to go unheeded?) Prayer is not magic. This is underlined by the fact that the nature of the blessing is intentionally vague. We may call down, and perhaps orient God’s blessing potential, but the blessing is God’s to choose. The exact form of the blessing must depend on the needs, says Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin,13 indicating that an individual may ask for a blessing, but only God determines the ultimate result of the blessing bestowed. This is another way of saying, as the K’tav Sofeir remarks, that “God knows what is good for you.”14

In the same way, the ritual of blessing and curse in Deuteronomy 27 does not expect that God will come down to reward or punish, but it is invoked to demand a fair world—something to which God and humans aspire together. The Priestly Blessing works the same way: it entails neither demands nor expectations, but rather hope and faith. In their work, the priests seek to draw down God’s favor. Prayer is not a bland endorsement of the status quo, nor an irascible demand for divine intervention. Prayer gives us agency and latitude to become better. We ask more of God, and in effect, we ask more from ourselves.

To better understand this sensibility, consider the relation between the Shekhinah and creation. The Shekhinah is the immanent presence of God, considered to be the most accessible aspect of the Godhead, which is conceptualized in feminine terms in mystical contexts. How does “She” act in the world? A typical verb used in conjunction with the Shekhinah is l’hashrot, which means approximately “to suffuse.” The Shekhinah suffuses creation like fresh-bought guavas left out in a basket will suffuse the air in a kitchen, just as God’s presence inhabits the world “like a cloud that brings spring rain.”15 Accordingly, the verb l’hashrot suggests that we may observe God’s presence as it suffuses our lives, yet we cannot force it to do so. This might be akin to becoming more alert to the scent of a loved one’s cologne as it lingers in a room once that person steps away. What we seek are traces of the Divine Presence, and training in attending to those. Perhaps, what is really accomplished in prayer is making oneself more aware of the coming of spring rain.16 Or perhaps it means becoming attuned to the better angels of our nature, which are all about us; in the language of the psalmist, “for [God] shall give the angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11).

Conversely, one might describe the Priestly Blessing as directing God’s presence outward among ourselves. This ritual calls on God to help us be our best selves for each other by channeling a perceived blessing from person to person. Priests conduct blessing throughout the body politic, as the circulatory system conducts antibodies throughout a child’s body after he or she receives the measles vaccine. This is best illustrated in the Talmud,17 where the question arises of how to conduct the Priestly Blessing if all congregants present are priests. We read there: “Adda said in the name of Rabbi Simlai: ‘They all ascend to the platform.’” If all the priests in the community are up on the dais, whom are they blessing? Are they blessing each other? Do priests need a Priestly Blessing? “Rabbi Zera answered: ‘[They pronounce the blessing for the benefit of] their brethren [working] in the fields.’” It is as though God’s energies are flowing into the priests, and becoming redirected outward to the fields, outside the synagogue. (To help visualize the scene, picture the climactic ritual of Raiders of the Lost Ark, before faces melt.) In this, the priests are, at best, conduits. I know of several congregants who follow this image to a logical conclusion: they offer their children the Sabbath Priestly Blessing in absentia. One congregant turns and raises his hands toward his married children in the Midwest, and another uses Skype and voicemail to channel blessing to his son in Israel, including “tailored wishes for the upcoming week.”18

Furthermore, it is possible that the metaphor of a priest as a conduit for blessing is not the most accurate one. It may be more precise to call the priest a vessel, or better yet, a capacitor: he receives, stores, and discharges God’s energies. Our tradition is very clear on the priests’ lack of agency: “There should be no saying: ‘My strength and the force of my hands,’”19 the Torah and the sages caution. Our tradition dictates clearly that the priests are specifically not to think of themselves as the originators of the blessing. The priests’ work is to impress the divine stamp on the people–although in many ways, the priest is superfluous to the equation. God can relate to us in any way God sees fit, and God does.

In God’s goodness, God wishes to bless God’s people through [pure] servants….Were God to desire it, God might decree the blessing and [there would be] no need for the Priestly Blessing…[likewise,] God’s blessed hand is open to any who ask, being fit and ready to receive goodness.20

Why, then, have human intercessors at all? Perhaps God is glorified through the priests; the majesty of the ceremony is awe-inspiring. “Through those near to me I show Myself holy; and gain glory before all people.”21

The most amusing reason offered for why God asks humans to serve as intermediaries is this: we are more charitable than God. “Why should the priests bless if God will surely assent?” asks the hasidic rebbe Asher of Karlin. “Rather, God who sees secrets might not have such charity as a human who is not omniscient.”22 Perhaps the human component of the ritual tempers God’s judgment. Frankly, I find this comment amusing. In my experience, human judgments are usually much more severe and caustic than God’s. Simply on the basis of my own self-evaluation, I imagine that God’s is much more charitable. Nevertheless, Karlin’s perception may foster human relations, as we will see. At the end of the day, I believe that the most likely reason for human intermediaries at all is effectively to call the meeting to order. They get the ball rolling, so to speak, by suggesting that God bless humankind. The rules-of-procedure are these: someone offers a motion, and God accepts the motion. “The priests bless Israel,” says the Talmud, “and the blessed Holy One approves their effort and blesses the people accordingly.”23

If such is the form of the blessing, what then is its content? That is: what are we offering each other through the blessings? Aware that prayer is not wish-fulfillment, that priests are first-among-equals selected in an arbitrary fashion to be the capacitors of God’s grace, I may suggest that the Priestly Blessing is designed to inculcate certain personal and communal values. This ritual has the germ of transformation within it. Nonetheless, the Priestly Blessing seems very materialistic. Superficially at least, the first of the blessings, the Eternal bless you and keep you, appears to offer prosperity on tap. Citing the midrash, Rashi notes that the blessing is an offering “that your possessions shall be blessed.”24 Other commentators likewise understand this as a blessing for increased wealth and assets, as well as protection from thieves. Material prosperity is a fine thing, and within a certain cosmology, not beyond God’s power to provide, but it is also a bit tawdry to ask of God. Is “gimme!” the most important thing we want to ask of God? It also seems an absurd conclusion: are we really hoping that our goods will increase? Although it would be nice—marvelous, even—if our chattel could reproduce like cattle,26 we don’t live in such a world. I am reminded of the scene after the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George says, “A toast to Papa Dollar and to Mama Dollar, and if you want the old Building and Loan to stay in business, you better have a family real quick.”27

Rashi’s second comment on the verse, however, gives an honest indication of what we might actually expect from a Priestly Blessing. Regarding the latter phrase, and keep you, Rashi explains: “that no thieves shall attack you and steal your money. For when one gives one’s servant a gift, one cannot protect it from all other people, so if robbers come and take it, what benefit has [the servant] from this gift? As for the blessed Holy One, however, God is the One who [both] gives and protects.”28 What a wonderful analogy that teaches that God, unlike humankind, can both offer a gift and protect that gift. But it does not have to be a material gift. The gift may be a surety, in the financial and psychological senses. What God offers through the vessel of the priests is not a loan guarantee, but rather confidence, trust, and faith. Such a blessing might be aptly summarized by Leviticus 26:9: “I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you, and I will maintain My covenant with you.” This is an essential part of God’s nature: the ability to offer, give, and protect with no expectation of return. Some sages call this a matnat ḥinam, a free gift,29 the essence of God’s heritage (naḥalah) for us.

It would even seem that God’s blessing must transcend the material. Already in the time of the prophet Malachi (c. fifth century B.C.E.), the sense of physical sacrifice was diminished, and the prophet cast doubt upon the efficacy of ritual.30 It is not, he might have said, to bring about God’s favor, but rather to open our hearts to a generous spirit. Perhaps the oral and aural experience of the Priestly Blessing might inspire us to become more giving and forgiving. This is the prosperity offered through the Priestly Blessing: it inspires us to offer each other gifts through a wellspring of our own generosity. Again, I am not referring to possessions, nor glibly suggesting that the Priestly Blessing become an occasion for gift-giving. Prosperity is nothing without presence; we are to offer each other joyful spirits. Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoaḥ, the thirteenth-century French commentator, suggests as much in his commentary to the Priestly Blessing.31 Perhaps the sole outcome of the blessing, he suggests, is that God be nice to you, make you successful, and cheer you up. The priest or recipient might infer that this is a pretty ideal formulation for human interactions, too: be kind, help each other out, and try to make others happy.

Another tantalizing potential is that the blessing might begin to re-orient our priorities. To me, this seems to be the impetus of most religious experience: giving voice to an alternate source and set of values. (For example, Western culture prizes the individual, and individual rights; Judaism valorizes the community, and communal responsibilities.) In the case of the Priestly Blessing, perhaps the first phrase draws our awareness to the principle that the best things in life are free—or, that the best things in life are not even things. Maybe the point is not to ask for endlessly more remuneration, wealth, assets, or even protection and providence over what we already possess, but rather to strive for awareness of our own great good fortune. Furthermore, by offering blessings of prosperity amid community, we may become less possessive of our own goods and welfare. As we wish prosperity for others, might we be more willing to give from what we have? If God can be so generous, why can we not be as generous to ourselves? And, by noting our own charitable impulses at a given moment, we may become more tolerant of who we are. Moshe Alshekh concurs, by suggesting that the first blessing is, in fact, a reminder for each person to be samei·aḥ b’ḥelko, satisfied with one’s portion in life.32

Recently, I had the great honor to bury a woman of 101 years of age, Yetta Burnett. She was truly s’meiḥah b’ḥelkah, content and happy with her portion in life. In preparation for her funeral, her son worried that there would not be enough to say about his mother: she lived a quiet life, and many of the people who knew her best were long since departed. But his fears were unfounded. It is not that her life was too simple to celebrate; it is that the lesson of her life, to all of us, is this: a simple life and a quiet death are among the best of lives one can hope for, perhaps the best. Yetta was an uncomplaining, unassuming, and kind lady, deeply devoted to her husband, her children, and her extended family. Her life was neither big nor flashy, but it taught an important lesson to us: what really matters is neither your resume nor your achievements, but being a decent person, a mensch, without making a big fuss about it. Like Yetta’s example, the Priestly Blessing invites us to grow in this generosity of spirit.

What, then, is the meaning of the second sentence of the blessing, the prayer that the Eternal light up the divine face for you in grace? Should the recipient understand it—as has been normative practice—as a reference to of God’s luminous and numinous face, and thus as an expression intended to denote God’s favor?33 Some authors in this volume posit that in ancient Israel, there was indeed a mystic, ecstatic experience of seeing God’s radiance.34 It is stirring to conceive of our ancestors having a sensory interaction with the Divine, but I doubt that most Jews could reach that today, and I fear that failure to achieve such ecstasies might dishearten some. I humbly offer that the essence of this verse is instead suggested by the psalmist: “There are many who say, ‘Who will show us good?’ God, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us” (Psalm 4:7). The light of God’s countenance is the essence of God’s goodness. In the centerpiece of the Priestly Blessing, we are reminded to emulate God—in effect, to become mirrors of God’s gentle light. Blessing each other with reference to God’s face is a way of inculcating mercy and kindness toward our fellow. To do so, it behooves us to ask what the aforementioned grace might entail as a personality trait. Among other things, interpersonal grace is a “quality of being liked by others”35—that is, being pleasant. Being liked by others is often contingent upon making them feel liked, loved, or at least appreciated. In my experience, nothing garners friendship more than giving someone your attention. That is the crux of this blessing: to extend God’s grace toward another by extending ourselves.

I might suggest that it is for this reason that the Priestly Blessing is offered b’ahavah, with love. Moving backwards in order to move forward, let us consider the blessing that the priests say before pronouncing the Priestly Blessing: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with Aaron’s holiness, and commanded us to bless the people Israel with love (b’ahavah). Joy is a crucial component of that love.36 In fact, the mystical tradition emphasizes the element of joyous fellowship (ahavat yisrael). The Zohar suggests that “any priest who does not have love for the congregation or for whom the congregation has no love, may not raise his hands to bless the congregation.”37 You may smile at this injunction, thinking, “Who might dare to accuse a co-religionist of being unloving or unlovable?!” Yet, it happens…and I doubt that my congregation is the only one that has had this experience. When I arrived at my pulpit, I noticed that the Priestly Blessing was not recited on major holidays.38 I was excited to reinstate the tradition of festival dukhenen. As the community rabbi, and as a kohen no less, I felt it well within my purview to lead this wonderful practice. At first, the community was enchanted, or so it appeared to me. (“Wow! They must really like the Priestly Blessing, and find it quite moving,” I thought. “They’ll really appreciate me.”) Some time later, I learned the rest of the story. Years before my arrival, it had been the synagogue’s practice to offer the Priestly Blessing. A problem presented itself, however, when there was enmity between a priest (not the rabbi, that time!) and another congregant. Since it is impossible to bless others without being moved by a feeling of love, and certainly not when the priest is an “enemy,”39 the practice of having the priests recite Birkat Kohanim was quietly allowed to fall into disuse.

Perhaps this is only as it should be. The Priestly Blessing ought to make us more godlike, or at least more aware of God. Consequently, it is not entirely unfair to suspend the Priestly Blessing when there is enmity, and persons are incapable of reaching out to others. On the other hand, one might imagine that the act of blessing another may thaw the chill in one’s heart. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin notes that “according to the person’s virtues, the expression of the face changes.”40 By saying the blessing or by receiving it, and by ruminating on God’s grace, might we not become more kindly disposed toward others? A hoped-for effect of the Priestly Blessing might be the development of comity within community. This echoes the same logic of Asher Karlin (above), who believed human judgment to be more generous than divine judgment. Consider also the following source:

The priests bless Israel so that they themselves be suffused with love and great affection and be vessels [that] retain blessing. Hence, “the One who chooses the people Israel with love” [a reference to the morning liturgy]—if there is love among them, then the choice is faithful [and] upheld, for they are a vessel [capable] of retaining blessing.41

In the foregoing, it appears that the success of the blessing is contingent upon love, both by the blessers and by the blessed. Levi Yitzḥak of Berditchev underscores this sentiment, suggesting that this contains the sense of great dearness, even glory.42 The word he uses to gloss ahavah (“love”) is ḥibbah (rendered here by “affection”), which has connotations of fondness, and also of debt.43 Ḥibbah suggests a tenderness we owe to our fellow creatures. Thus, it might be understandable that one who has alienated oneself from another person is in default of such ḥibbah, and therefore incapable of either bestowing or receiving blessing until the debt is repaid.

So, is the point of the Priestly Blessing to teach us how to be friends to our fellows? Partly, yes. A chain of teachers, claiming authority from Rashi, suggest that b’ahavah, the condition in which the Priestly Blessing is offered (and apparently also received), is the opposite of b’ḥippazon, the condition in which we left Egypt—namely, in a rush. Instead of hurriedly, we do it with intention and whole heart.44 This is the selfsame reason for which outside of the Land of Israel, the Priestly Blessing is only offered on holidays: we await seasons of joy and contentment.

A personal aside: in my youth, I was a child of Greater Boston, always doing and achieving—a classic “Type A” personality. For the first years of my tenure in Tennessee, a frequent complaint was that I always “rushed off.” I had to learn to linger, a venerable Southern tradition. As I groped toward this technique, I learned that it really does enhance relationships. Having one’s feet firmly planted where you are is a great foundation for a warm conversation. That is what this blessing intends: give your time to another person, and your heart will follow. Compassion, surely, is a cornerstone of love. Through the Priestly Blessing we learn to express God’s grace, and send it out in generosity, compassion, and gratitude.

Whence gratitude? The Talmud says that avodah v’hoda·ah ḥadda milta hi, it is reasonable to regard service and thanksgiving as one.45 Serving someone else can make us more grateful for our own accomplishments. This seems to be the message behind the final step of Alcoholics Anonymous: to help others. By reaching out to help others, addicts are reminded of their own sobriety. Similarly, as we serve others by standing to bless them, or even allowing them to bless us, might we not be made aware of our own gifts, challenges, and blessings? As in the Erev Rosh Hashanah experience I described above, blessing others can engender joy. Such gratitude can also make us both humble and grateful, to recognize, like Jacob, that “I am too small for all the kindnesses You did for me” (Genesis 32:11). In the moment of the Priestly Blessing, one may not feel worthy to bless another Jew, nor worthy of blessing. In fact, even rabbis and priests do not truly merit their task. At some level, we are all frauds!

Fortunately, that is all right. We are each, all of us, too small for the kindnesses God bestows, and that is as it should be. Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860–1941), a great Lithuanian rabbi, felt the same ambivalence, albeit in a different circumstance. When called upon to preach, this saintly rabbi said: “I know of myself that I am not worthy…but even though I am not worthy, if my friends ask me to rise and teach, I rise.”46 The Priestly Blessing is there to demonstrate that at some point, any of us (even by dint of birth) may be called upon to rise, lead, and bless others. So: stand up with trust in others’ faith in you, and you may be pleasantly surprised by the way in which their faith transforms you. So much of the Priestly Blessing is about recognizing God’s face, light, and glory, and bathing in the reflected light. God’s grace is piqued, as it were, when God sees us. Wouldn’t that be a great thing for us to acknowledge as we bless and are blessed?

The conclusion of the tripartite Priestly Blessing is this: May the Eternal lift up the divine face to you and bestow peace (shalom) unto you. This blessing is echoed by the psalmist: “May the Eternal grant strength to God’s people; may the Eternal bless God’s people with shalom.” (Psalm 29:11). What, then, is shalom, and why might we wish to receive it or bestow it upon others? Shalom is most commonly translated as “peace,”47 but that is not exactly what it means. For instance, after a recent suicide of a troubled teen, many of the young man’s acquaintances in our community said, “He’s at peace now; at least he’s not suffering anymore.” To which, I rebuked the community at the boy’s memorial: “Death is not the same as peace!” Although we may say colloquially and liturgically that one “rests in peace” in the grave,48 I assert that death is not shalom—one cannot possess shalom without measures of health, friendship, and welfare.49 Like peace, shalom is ineffable and intangible, but it implies, at the very least, fullness. As such, I would call it “wholeness,” “welfare,” or best yet, “harmony.” On the other hand, shalom is what civil libertarians might call a negative freedom—that is, “freedom from.” Shalom is freedom from disasters, freedom from ills, and freedom from want. We bless each other through shalom as a manner of expressing our desire to be free from fury and rage, whether God’s or our own.50

Aware that peace/shalom may only come in when we are free from fear and loneliness, and can only arise in a community where the ill and the traumatized are tended to, we see that the conclusion of the Priestly Blessing may serve as an admonition to build more loving and just communities. This is a blessing to fill each other with mutual love and admiration, tolerance and appreciation. Envision a community that takes the mandate of shalom seriously, in all of its aspects! It would be a place of home and healing. For shalom is, truly, the greatest of God’s gifts. It is not merely “peace,” but the pinnacle and completion of God’s creation:

Rabbi Simeon son of Ḥalafta said: The blessed Holy One found no vessel that could contain blessing for Israel save that of peace, as it is written, “The Eternal grants strength unto God’s people; the Eternal blesses God’s people with peace” (Psalm 29:11).51

In conclusion, let us return to the question of why this blessing is offered at all. Obviously, if God wished to bless anyone, God could do so directly. That might be common sense. All of us who give or receive the Priestly Blessing know this in some way. Have no fear; our sages understood the same problem, as the following midrash makes clear:

Master of Worlds, You tell priests to bless us, yet we only need Your blessings, to be blessed by Your mouth…[Hence] the blessed Holy One said to them, “Although I have told the priests to bless you, I stand amid them and bless you.” That is why the priests spread their fingers, to show that the blessed Holy One is behind them.52

It is as though the priests are a stained-glass window through which we perceive God’s holy emanation. They may color the light through their words and timbres, but the light is ours to use as we desire.
The Priestly Blessing is neither about human intervention nor about affecting God. It is about humbly trying to realize our greatest selves through an ordained system of blessing. Moreover, there is a virtuous cycle in place: blessing begets blessing. As we bless, we too are blessed, and we become God’s proxies. Rabbi Joshua son of Levi is reported to have said, “Every priest who pronounces the benediction is himself blessed, but if he does not pronounce it he is not blessed; as it is said: ‘I will bless those who bless you.’”53 We call upon God to bless us, but in fact we are the ones who bring blessing. By aspiring to God’s protection, grace, and completion, we give our best selves to each other, and thus manifest God’s love in this world. That is the meaning of prayer.






1 Quoted by Elissa Goldstein in “Leonard Nimoy on the Jewish Story Behind the Vulcan Salute” (February 25, 2014), available online at www.jewcy.com.
2 This is my own translation of the Priestly Blessing, as found in Numbers 6:24–26. All translations of ancient sources (both biblical and rabbinic) in this essay are my own.
3 B. Shabbat 119b.
4 B. Sukkah 14a.
5 I am told that many Sephardic communities use these same words to exchange greetings with those called forward for aliyot to the Torah.
6 B. Sotah 39a–b.
7 There has never been a satisfactory nominal form in English for the one-who-prays.
8 Rabbi Shlomo Leib of Łęczna, as cited in Itturei Torah, ed. Aaron Jacob Greenberg (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1996), vol. 5, p. 44. The Jewish pronunciation of Łęczna was Lantshina.
9 Cf. also Joshua 5:15.
10 For more on the question of Birkat Kohanim and an egalitarian worldview, see the essay of Daniel Greyber elsewhere in this volume.
11 See Rambam, M.T. Hilkhot Tefillah U-nesiat Kapayim 14:13.
12 See Exodus 35:19.
13 See his Ha∙ameik Davar commentary to Numbers 6:26 (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Volozhin, 1999), vol. 6, p. 64.
14 Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer (1815–1871), K’tav Sofeir al Ha-torah to Numbers 6:23 (ed. Bratislava, 1873), p. 198b.
15 Proverbs 16:15.
16 Jeremiah 17:5–8: “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Cursed be the one who trusts in humans, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from the Eternal. For such a person shall be like the juniper tree in the desert, and shall not see when good comes; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the one who trusts in the Eternal, and whose hope is the Eternal. For such a person shall be like a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit.”
17 B. Sotah 38b.
18 Barry P. Allen, private correspondence, February 23, 2014.
19 Itturei Torah, vol. 5, p. 40 (citing Deuteronomy 8:17), referencing the Akeidah and citing a passage also cited in the Sefer V’dibbarta Bam of Nisim Ohayon (B’nei Brak: N. Ohayon, 5763[2002/2003], p. 33.
20 Sefer Ha-ḥinnukh (attributed to Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona), mitzvah 378 (Jerusalem: Shai Lamorah Publishing, 2002), vol. 2, p. 505.
21 Leviticus 10:3.
22 Itturei Torah, vol. 5, p. 45, citing Rabbi Asher of Karlin (1802–1872).
23 B. Ḥullin 49a.
24 Rashi to Numbers 6:24, based on Tanḥuma Naso §10 and Sifrei Bemidbar §40.
25 Ibn Ezra to Numbers 6:24; Seforno to Numbers 6:25.
26 And perhaps that is what Rashi intended, speaking to an agrarian society.
27 Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling, It’s a Wonderful Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 81.
28 Rashi to Numbers 6:24, s.v. v’yishm’rekha.
29 Itturei Torah, Numbers 6:25.
30 Malachi 1:8–10, but see too in this regard also all the earlier sources cited by Jacob Chinitz in his essay, “Were the Prophets Opposed to Sacrifice?” in Jewish Bible Quarterly 36:2 (April 2008), pp. 73–80, available online at http://jbq.jewishbible.org.
31 Ḥizkuni to Numbers 6:26.
32 Itturei Torah, pp. 43–44, citing the Torat Moshe of Rabbi Moshe Alshekh (1508–1593).
33 Here, I understand the normative understanding to be that put forth by Rashi (Numbers 6:25): “May [God] show you a pleasant, radiant countenance…May [God] grant you favor.” See Tanḥuma Naso §10; Sifrei Bemidbar §41.
34 For more extended discussion on this notion, see the essays by Martin S. Cohen and Admiel Kosman elsewhere in this volume.
35 Avie Gold, Bircas Kohanim (Brooklyn: Mesorah Productions, 1981), p. 76.
36 Ibid., p. 37.
37 Zohar III 147b, as cited in ibid., p. 62.
38 This is the most common practice in traditional diaspora communities.
39 Gold, Bircas Kohanim, p. 63.
40 Ha∙ameik Davar to Numbers 6:26, vol. 6, p. 65.
41 Ta·ammei Ha-manhig to Numbers 6:23, citing the Torah Ḥayyim, in the Itturei Torah, vol. 5, p. 43, my emphasis.
42 Cf. his Kedushat Levi: “This is the sense of great dearness, and glory (ḥibbah g’dolah v’tiferet),” in Nitzutzei Zohar, cited in the Itturei Torah to Numbers 6:23, vol. 5, pp. 42–43.
43 Alternately, I might choose to gloss ḥibbah with the Spanish word cariño, a common greeting at the end of letters that suggests both fondness and longing—unless the Internet and email have changed epistolary mores.
44 As cited in Nitzutzei Zohar, in Itturei Torah to Numbers 6:23, vol. 5, pp. 42–43; likewise, Rashi to Numbers 6:23, wherein b’ahavah is set in opposition to b’ḥippazon, indicating intent and whole-heartedness.
45 B. Megillah 18a.
46 Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein to Numbers 6:23, cited in Itturei Torah, vol. 5, p. 41; a similar discourse is found in his Torah Temimah to Numbers (Israel: “Torah” Institute, 2005) , vol. 4, p. 108.
47 No, it means neither “hello” nor “goodbye”—it is simply used as a greeting in these contexts! Instead of the wan “hi” and “bye” of American culture, traditional Jews bless each other with peace, both upon encountering one other and departing the company of another.
48 Cf., for example, the line v’yanu·aḥ/v’tanu·aḥ b’shalom al mishkavo/mishakavah (“may the deceased rest in peace in his or her resting place”), found in the El Malei prayer recited in memory of loved ones at funerals and on yahrzeits.
49 Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), p. 52.
50 Rashi to Numbers 6:26.
51 M. Uktzin 3:12.
52 Bemidbar Rabbah 11:2.
53 B. Sotah 38b.