Thus You Shall Bless

Author: Dwight A. Pryor

THE MAJESTIC CADENCE of the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) has endeared itself to the hearts of believers for millennia and played a central role in Jewish and Christian liturgy. 

Though simplicity is one of its hallmarks—the blessing consists of only fifteen words in Hebrew—the cadenced repetition of the sacred name, Adonai (Y/H/W/H), and the increasing crescendo of three, five and seven words respectively, compound its regal impact. After all, the words were dictated verbatim by the King of the universe!  

The LORD spoke… “Thus shall you bless the Israelites:The LORD bless you and keep you;the LORD make his face to shine upon you,and be gracious to you;the LORD lift up his countenance upon you,and give you peace.” (Num 6:22-26)

Aaron and his descendants were authorized to pronounce the blessing over the children of Israel, but Adonai emphasizes that He alone is the source and guarantor of the blessing:  

“So they shall put my name on the Israelites,and I myself will bless them!” (6:27).  

IN BIBLICAL TIMES the Birkat Kohanim was recited daily in the First and Second Temples. A worshipper “with clean hands and a pure heart” who ascended the Holy Place bearing gifts—sacrifices and offerings of praise—would “carry away a blessing from the LORD” (Ps 24:5).

The liturgical centrality of the Priestly Blessing continues today in synagogues. In some, such as in Israel, the blessing is recited daily; in others it is reserved for special occasions like festivals. 

Descendants of Aaron are still required to recite the blessing, which they do in the manner of old, standing with hands extended upward and outward, the fingers separated like the Hebrew letter shin (a posture popularized as the Vulcan salute by Mr. Spock in Star Trek). Their hands form a lattice as it were through which the Shekhinah blessing of HaShem shines through from Heaven.  

WHAT DOES THIS ANCIENT blessing mean? The essential transaction revolves around placing the LORD’s name upon covenant people. Thus the Name is invoked three times for emphasis and focus. According to the Talmud the original name of Y/H/W/H was spoken by the priests at the Temple until the third century B.C.; thereafter Adonai (LORD) was substituted for the Tetragrammaton to protect its sanctity from those unworthy to hear it.

The God who creates is the God who covenants, and the covenant-keeping God takes for himself a treasured people who bear His name and for whom He cares and comforts, provides and protects. The Priestly Blessing therefore implores the LORD to be present to His people with a disposition of good will and favor.

Specifically the blessing addresses “you” in the singular, indicating that each person is important to God. Also, when Israel is “one” in unity, there God commands the blessing (Ps 133).

To “bless and keep” means to guard and protect, and is understood to apply especially to material needs: to grant you prosperity and success, and yet to protect you from becoming greedy and covetous. The Sages suggest that the best protection of wealth is to use it for charity and good deeds.

“To make His face to shine upon” is the opposite of “hiding His face” which implies anger or displeasure (cf. Dt 31:17). “Face” or panim is used idiomatically in Scripture to suggest affection and favor—i.e., to “show you a smiling face” (Rashi).

“To be gracious” is to extend mercy and to deal graciously with, including illuminating the Torah for our understanding.

“To lift up His face” again is an idiom meaning to look upon with favor. Queen Esther “found favor before his face” (8:5) when she approached the King on behalf of her people. 

“To give you peace” is to grant freedom from strife and disorder and to bring harmony, wholeness and abundant well-being. Little wonder that shalom seals the Priestly Blessing.

This magnificent blessing tells us much about the character of the God of Israel. It also should say much about how then we shall live—as blessed people who in turn are disposed to bless others. When we extend the favor of the LORD toward one another we responsibly carry the Name this blessing places upon us.

© 2014 The Center for Judaic-Christian Studies.
All rights reserved.

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Hebrew Spirituality

Hebrew Spirituality

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