Why the Priestly Blessing Is Not Redundant: Three Relationships with God, Three Distinct Blessings
Elliot N. Dorff
It is presented by the Torah as a blessing created by God: “The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘Thus shall you bless the people of Israel’” (Numbers 6:22–23). Known as the Priestly Blessing, it is the most widely used blessing among Jews to this day. It is part of the regular daily morning service. In some congregations, on some occasions, it is still the descendants of Aaron, the kohanim, who stand in front of the congregation, raise their hands, and recite the Priestly Blessing before the congregation (a practice known in Jewish-American English as dukhening); in others, the person leading services recites it throughout the year. It is with this blessing that parents regularly bless their children on Friday night before reciting Kiddush, the blessing over wine to sanctify the Sabbath. In many congregations, it is also said at weddings and bar- and bat-mitzvah services.
What, though, do the words mean? Unfortunately, this is not clear. What does come through seems repetitious, and the order of the phrases seems to lack all rhyme or reason. Some of the ambiguities are reflected in the variety of ways it is translated in Jewish translations of the Bible and in Jewish prayerbooks, as delineated below. Furthermore, especially at life-cycle events, rabbis and others tend to expand on the words to make the blessing say much more than its words denote. What they add may be beautiful, and maybe even implied in the words themselves, but these expansions add to the confusion of what the blessing actually says.
Here are the three verses, as variously rendered in some translations of the Torah (listed in chronological order):
Original JPS translation (1917):1
The LORD bless thee, and keep thee;
The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;
The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
New JPS translation (1962):2
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!3
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!4
Everett Fox (1995):6
May YHWH bless you and keep you!
May YHWH shine his face upon you and favor you!
May YHWH lift up his face toward you and grant you shalom!
Richard Elliott Friedman (2001):7
May YHWH bless you and watch over you.
May YHWH make His face shine to you and be gracious to you.
May YHWH raise His face to you and give you peace.
Because the Priestly Blessing is used in the morning service, Jewish prayerbooks translate it as well. In prayer one would expect clarity, even if that comes at the expense of accuracy of translation, but one does not get as much poetic license—and as much intelligibility—as one might expect. The following prayerbook translations are arranged in chronological order of publication:
Morris Silverman, Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook (1945):8
May the Lord bless thee and keep thee;
May the Lord make His countenance to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee;
May the Lord turn His countenance unto thee and give thee peace.
Joseph Hertz, Daily Prayer Book (1948, rpt. 1963):9
May the Lord bless thee and keep thee;
May the Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee;
May the Lord turn His face unto thee and give thee peace.
Philip Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book (1949):10
May the Lord bless you and protect you;
May the Lord countenance you and be gracious to you;
May the Lord favor you and grant you peace.
Ben Zion Bokser, The Prayer Book (1957):11
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord cause His Presence to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May the Lord turn with favor unto you and give you peace.
Chaim Stern, Gates of Prayer (1975):12
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord look kindly upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord bestow His favor upon you and give you peace.
Nosson Scherman and Meri Zlotowitz, The Complete Artscroll Siddur (1984):13
May HASHEM bless you and safeguard you.
May HASHEM illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you.
May HASHEM turn His countenance to you and establish peace for you.
Jules Harlow, Siddur Sim Shalom (1985):14
May the Lord bless you and guard you.
May the Lord show you favor and be gracious to you.
May the Lord show you kindness and grant you peace.
Richard N. Levy, On Wings of Awe (1985):15
May God bless you and protect you.
May the light of God’s countenance favor you with enlightenment and grace.
May God’s countenance be raised up to you that you may find peace.
In summary, the variations in all these translations are as follows:
May the Eternal [or: God, the Lord, Adonai, YHWH, or HASHEM] bless you and keep [or protect or guard or safeguard] you.
May the Eternal [or: God, the Lord, Adonai, YHWH, or HASHEM] make His face [or: cause the divine Presence] to shine upon [or: lift up His countenance upon, or deal kindly with, or look kindly upon] you [or: show you favor] and be gracious unto you [or: show you favor, or favor you with enlightenment and grace].
May the Eternal [or: God, the Lord, Adonai, YHWH, or HASHEM] favor [or: turn His countenance, or turn His face upon, or turn with favor unto] you [or: show you kindness] and grant you shalom, peace [or: establish peace for you].
When used in the repetition of the Amidah prayer during Shaḥarit (the morning service) and Musaf (the additional Amidah that is recited on Sabbaths and other special days), after each of the three
sentences of blessing the congregation responds with, “So, indeed, may it be God’s will” (or, in some versions of the liturgy, with “Amen” before or in place of that response). In the Torah, however, there is no record of a response on the part of the people being blessed.
The blessing consists of three Hebrew sentences—presumably three separate blessings. The use of similar words or phrases in several places, though, makes it sound as if it is only one blessing that is being reiterated. If, on the other hand, they are indeed three separate blessings, how are they related to each other?
I do not believe that the three lines are repetitive at all, and I think that there is a very clear order among them. I want to suggest that each addresses a different situation and is appropriate to its particular context.
The first line speaks of general circumstances. It says: in the normal times of the relationship between you and God, may God bless you (that is, may God give you all the good things in life—whether material, intellectual, emotional, communal, or spiritual) and keep you from the bad.
When relations between you and God are especially good, the second blessing then ensues: May God smile on you—which is the meaning, I believe, behind the concept of the light of God’s face shining upon the blessed individual. And that, in turn, may be the emotional preparation for the second part of this clause, and be gracious to you—meaning that when God smiles on you, God is prepared to give you beyond what you deserve.16 The first clause of this second blessing may also, though, carry another emotional meaning: that when the relationship between you and God is good, then may God smile on you—that is, may God be willing to express good feelings toward you so that both you and God can share them. The second blessing, in any case, asks God to be unjustifiably generous to you, both materially and emotionally, when you and God are on good terms.
The third blessing, on the other hand, speaks to a time when you have offended God: in such a case, may God not turn the back of the divine neck (or the divine back itself) to you or otherwise hide God’s face from you and punish you by cutting you off from all communication—much as parents do when they send naughty children to their rooms. Instead, may God turn the divine face toward you—or, more simply, may God face you, taking you back in an act of forgiveness and favor, and may God make peace with you, despite your transgressions. In biblical Hebrew, when God is angry with us, God “hides the divine face” from us17 and thereby cuts off communication with us as an act of punishment.18 At Jeremiah 23:39, the prophet quotes God as saying, as an expression of divine anger, that “I will cast you away from My face.” Conversely, “to lift up one’s face” means to face someone in compassion and to grant a favor or show partiality beyond what justice demands or even allows.19 What the third blessing is really saying is that when you offend God in some way, may God nevertheless show favor to you by not cutting you off but rather turning toward you (i.e., facing you) and making peace with you.
To capture the original intent of this biblical prayer and simultaneously to see its significance, I would translate it this way:
May the Eternal give you all the good things in life and keep you from the bad.
[When your relationship with God is especially good,] may the Eternal smile on you and give you beyond what you deserve.
[On the other hand, when you are estranged from God,] may the Eternal face you and make peace with you.
When understood this way, the Priestly Blessing articulates important aspects of the Jewish conception of the relationship between God and us. It also has much to teach us about our own human relationships.
First of all, God is in an abiding and caring relationship with us.
The Jewish conception of God is not only as a creative force in nature (such a belief is called “deism”); God is personal, interacting with us on an ongoing basis. (This belief is labelled “theism.”) Most of the Founding Fathers of the United States—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and others—were deists, not theists. And, indeed, deism was very popular in the eighteenth century, when it was seen as being more consistent with science—or, at least, easier to justify while maintaining a scientific point of view. After all, if God has a personality and will, then God could presumably interfere with the order of nature at will, undermining the laws of science by creating breaches in those laws (or “miracles”). On the other hand, if God is the force that created nature in the first place and continues to operate in creating new plants, animals, and people, then science and religion are devoted to understanding the same thing, albeit in different ways and with different purposes.20 Hence, in writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson specifically says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator [rather than “by God”] with certain unalienable rights…” Jefferson’s language suggests clearly that he did not want anyone to think that he or any of the other enlightened signatories of the Declaration were simpletons.
On the other hand, the authors of the biblical texts, the ancient and medieval rabbis, and virtually all Jewish thinkers through the twentieth century (with the exception of Spinoza in the seventeenth century and Mordecai Kaplan in the twentieth) affirmed a form of theism. They did so because they experienced God in personal ways: as caring for us, interacting with us, loving us, commanding us, getting angry with us on occasion, forgiving us, and (in this passage) ordering the descendants of Aaron to bless us in God’s name. (A deistic God, as a force, could presumably bless us by creating the world in a particular way that supports us, but such a God could not love us, care for us, or command anyone to do anything, such as commanding Aaron’s descendants to bless us.) A theistic God can also be a much more potent model for us, and indeed imitatio Dei,
emulating God, is what we are supposed to do: “And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the whole Israelite community, and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I the Eternal, your God, am holy”’” (Leviticus 19:1–2).
This ancient text speaks directly to this point:
Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said: What is the meaning of the verse, “Follow the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 13:5)? Is it possible for a mortal to follow God’s Presence? After all, the Torah says, “For the Eternal your God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Rather, the verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the blessed Holy One. As God clothes the naked…you should clothe the naked; as the blessed Holy One visited the sick…so too you should visit the sick. The blessed Holy One comforted those who mourned…you too should comfort those who mourn. The blessed Holy One buried the dead…you should also bury the dead.21
The perspective articulated in this passage reflects a theistic conception of God, and Jewish tradition did not have trouble justifying this kind of spiritual worldview with science because the rabbis maintained that even though God has the power to interfere with the laws of nature, by and large God chooses not to do so, and thus olam k’minhago noheig, “the world goes according to its custom.”22
Second: God, as understood in the Priestly Blessing, has a sense of justice. God can therefore be angered by our transgressions and can—and will—punish us for them. At the same time, God’s justice is not blind or automatic; it is tempered with compassion, born out of the love the Eternal has for us. In this way, God is much like a parent—a metaphor for God used often in the Bible and in Jewish liturgy.23 Conversely, God’s balancing of justice with compassion is a model for human parents—and to know when to punish and when to forgive is indeed a godly trait.
Third: God’s relationships with us range the spectrum from unusually close and warm to angry and judgmental. Most of the time God and we are on an even keel, where God assures us of the good things in life and keeps us from the bad. Sometimes, though, things are wonderful between us, and then we get and give beyond what either party normally deserves. And sometimes we hurt each other, and then the important thing is to remember that the relationship is too important to let it founder because of this offense, that both God and we must take the initiative to find ways to face each other and to forgive. The third line of the Priestly Blessing speaks only of God’s willingness to repair the relationship in that way, because the priests are offering a blessing to the people that God be willing to reconcile with us, presuming that we always want to reconcile with God; but after the Holocaust, at least some Jews think that we need to face God and make peace with God just as much as we hope that God will do the same for us.
The divine–human relationship, as portrayed in this prayer, is thus an important model for our own relationships with each other. The mark of a good relationship is not that everything is always fine, much less that everything is always ideal. It is rather the ability to live through the highs and lows of life, as well as the even planes that make up most of it—knowing all the while how to support each other in the everyday (the first blessing); how to be especially and undeservedly generous to each other, emotionally and materially, during the hopefully many moments of good feeling (the second blessing); and how to take the responsibility of seeking reconciliation when the relationship falters (the third blessing). That is the substance of good human relations, and it is equally the essence of a close and good relationship with God. On the human level and in the divine–human encounter, “So, indeed, may it be God’s will!”
1 Alexander Harkavy, Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1917), p. 227; also Joseph Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London: Soncino Press, 1936, 1960), pp. 595–596.
2 The Torah (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1962), p. 256; also used in Gunther Plaut, The Torah (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1974), p. 1064, and Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), pp. 51–52.
3 JPS includes the following footnote here: “Others: ‘make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious to thee.’”
4 JPS includes the following footnote here: “Others: ‘lift up His countenance.’”
5 JPS includes the following footnote here: “Or ‘friendship.’”
6Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken, 1995), p. 687.
7 Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 445–446.
8 New York: Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of America, p. 100.
9 New York: Bloch Publishing Company, New York: Bloch Publishing Company, p.155. Note that this follows the translation in the 1917 JPS translation and in Hertz Penateuch and Haftorahs, quoted above.
10 New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, p. 96.
11 New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, p. 522.
12 New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, p. 522.
13 Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Productions, p. 117.
14 New York: Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of America, p. 121. Note that in the subsequent edition of Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (1998), “the Lord” was changed to “Adonai.”
15 Washington, DC: B’nai Brith Hillel Foundation, p. 227.
16See Genesis 6:8 and B. Sanhedrin 108a for this usage of ḥein.
17 Deuteronomy 31:17–18; 32:20; Isaiah 8:17, 54:8, 64:6; Jeremiah 33:5; Psalms 13:2; 27:9; 30:8.
18 Amos 8:11–12; Micah 3:4, 6–7; Jeremiah 18:18, 23:29–40; Ezekiel 7:26.
19 With regard to human beings this usage occurs in, among other places, Genesis 32:20 (21 in some versions), Leviticus 19:15, 1 Samuel 25:35, 2 Kings 3:14, Proverbs 18:5, and Job 32:21. With regard to God, Deuteronomy 10:17 specifically asserts that God “will not show favor [literally, “will not lift His face”] or take a bribe,” and that tenet is repeated using the same phrase in Job 34:19 and in Malachi 1:8–9; but in Genesis 19:21 God grants such an unearned favor (again, using the same phrase) to Lot, who, after fleeing Sodom, begs not to be forced to run to the hills but rather to be allowed to settle in another town on the plain. The partiality that God ultimately shows to Job is expressed by this phrase as well (Job 42:8).
20 David Hume’s sarcastic analysis of religious claims to miracles in his “Of Miracles,” the tenth section of his 1748 work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, is one articulate expression of this eighteenth-century view.
21 B. Sotah 14a.
22 B. Avodah Zarah 54b.
23 E.g., Deuteronomy 32:19–20; Isaiah 1:2; Job 31:18. The prayer Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King,” in the High Holy Day maḥzor is an example of the use of this theme in the liturgy, and the same phrase is used in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer just before the Shema in the daily morning liturgy.