“The sacred is not to be found in the appearance of the act of spirituality but in the spirit we bring to the act,” argues Elliott Kleinman (see Naso Prayer Links). His plea for bringing individual “offerings” to traditional rites, Torah study and acts of kindness in the world — rather than seeking new forms of spirituality — seems an important one. Sometimes, however, the appearance of an act of worship does say a great deal about “the spirit we bring” to it.
Variations in the Priestly Blessing [birkat kohanim] — as presented in prayerbooks across the Jewish spectrum — indicate a real struggle in Jews’ understanding of who brings what to our prayer services. If you’re already familiar with the basic history of this blessing and how contemporary prayerbooks present it, you might prefer to cut to the chase: “the spirit we bring” or jump to a teaching from Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and the Baal Shem Tov.
“The Act” in History
The basis of the priestly blessing is Numbers/Bamidbar 6:24-26:
Yevarechecha YHVH veyishmerecha
Ya’er YHVH panav elecha vichuneka
Yisa YHVA panav elecha veyashem lecha shalom
May THE ETERNAL bless you and protect you.
May THE ETERNAL’s face give light to you, and show you favor.
May THE ETERNAL’s face be lifted toward you, and bestow upon you peace.
— translation from Kol Haneshamah*
The recitation is traditionally accompanied by some of the most elaborate (surviving) choreography in the Jewish liturgy (Temple services were quite elaborate). This is spelled out in the Talmud (Sotah 37b ff) for recitations to follow the daily sacrifice at the Temple and for recitation “in the province”:
Levites [descendants of the Temple aides] help Kohanim [descendants of the priests] to wash; Kohanim remove their shoes and cover their faces with their tallitot [prayer shawls]; Kohanim form the letter “shin” with their hands (the “live long and prosper” hand-shape used by Vulcans in Star Trek), thus creating five spaces between their fingers, and raise their arms. (A different tradition was prescribed for in- and outside the Temple precinct.)
Levites call out the blessings, and Kohanim repeat word-by-word. The Talmud also mentions a translation that must be complete before moving forward to the next phase of the blessing. The congregation responds at the close of each of three blessings. There are even directions for where Kohanim and congregants should look during the recitation and how long they must avert their eyes.
Introductory words for the blessing — “who has commanded us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless Your people in love” — are also cited in Sotah (39a).
The Priestly Blessing and its introductory words were incorporated as part of the final blessing of the Amidah [“Standing Prayer”] prior to the destruction of the Second Temple (cf. A.Z. Idelsohn Jewish Liturgy and Its Development*).
“The Act” Today
Even today, the words and choreography remain largely intact in some congregations, while others have altered the outward practice extensively.
Most prayerbooks* I own — Bokser (Independent/Conservative), Eit Ratzon (Independent/Havurah), Kol Haneshamah (Reconstructionist), Koren (Independent/Orthodox), Mishkan T’filah (Reform), and Sim Shalom (Conservative), e.g. — incorporate the “three-fold” blessing into the Amidah text at least once. Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings creates an alternative text (as she does throughout the liturgy); the latest Siddur Birkat Shalom does not yet include the Amidah.
There is great variety in how much — ranging from zero to every word — of the “commanded us with the sanctity of Aaron” introductory phrase (from Sotah 39a, mentioned above) is used. There is variation in whether the Kohanim’s blessing of mitzvah, prior to reciting the Three-Fold Blessing, is included. And some prayerbooks include commentary advising contemporary, egalitarian congregations on alternative choreography:
—Orthodox prayerbooks include the Talmudic formulation.
—Sim Shalom includes a separate recitation for the Kohanim, including a blessing of mitzvah, and uses the following text for the Shaliach Tzibur [prayer leader]’s recitation: “…three-fold blessing written in the Torah by Moses, Your servant, pronounced by Aaron and his descendants, kohanim, Your holy people.”
—Bokser includes no separate recitation for the Kohanim; the text to be used by the Shaliach Tzibur is: “…three-fold blessing written in the Torah and spoken by Aaron and his sons, Thy consecrated priests.”
—Kol Haneshamah includes no separate recitation for the Kohanim and uses the text: “…three-fold blessing, spoken from the mouth of Aaron and his sons. ” Foot-commentary offers five alternatives — all egalitarian in every respect — to the traditional choreography.
—Siddur Eit Ratzon (Independent) uses the same wording as Sim Shalom but no text for Kohanim. Side-column commentary describes egalitarian options for directing “that flow of energy, that stream of blessings,” including a discussion of responding “amen” instead of “ken yehi ratzon” [“may it be your will] (see below).
—Mishkan T’filah contains no text for Kohanim. In the Shabbat Afternoon Amidah, the three-fold blessing is introduced with “…bless us with the three-fold blessing.” In the weekday prayers, no introduction is presented, and the text is accompanied by an alternative blessing found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“The Spirit We Bring”
The Real Thing?
As noted above, Kol Haneshamah offers five egalitarian and far less formal alternatives to the traditional priestly blessing practice. Siddur Eit Ratzon also presents alternatives. And this siddur, alone among those at my disposal, includes commentary suggesting the option of responding “amen” — as is done after the kohanim’s recitation — instead of “ken yehi ratzon” [“may it be your will”], ordinarily used when the prayer leader recites the blessings.
…Thus shall they put My name on the people Israel, and I will bless them. [Numbers/Bamidbar 6:27]
Note that it is God who blesses the people; the role of Aharon and his sons is just to “put God’s name on the people” so that God can bless them.
Although God blesses us continuously, we often need someone to help us become more aware of those blessings. In ancient times, the kohanim (priestly class) helped channel blessings to us, and in traditional congregations, descendants of the priests still recite this blessing. Each of us, however, has the ability to play that role.
–Rosenstein’s commentary, Siddur Eit Ratzon, p.70
Joe Rosenstein also notes, in his commentary, that the blessing “Sim Shalom” [“You provide peace…”] — which follows immediately in the Amidah — is “written in the form of a midrash on the Priestly Blessing. It takes the idea that “God’s face will shine on you” and elaborates it into a multitude of blessings, including shalom, that are streaming to us constantly. A meditation on receiving the blessing of Shalom follows in Siddur Eit Ratzon.
Joe may have learned the practice of using “amen” instead of “ken yehi ratzon” from Max Ticktin or other members of Fabrangen Havurah with whom he studied over the years at the National Havurah Committee‘s Summer Institute. Max, a long-time member of Fabrangen, has advocated for “amen,” insisting that in an egalitarian congregation (without divisions into kohanim, levites and yisrael) everyone who recites the Three-Fold Blessing is channeling God’s blessing; the response should be correspondingly direct… not “ken yehi ratzon,” which implies a difference between the prayer leader’s recitation and the kohanim’s “real thing.”
These commentaries make explicit some of the questions occasioned by the Priestly Blessing:
When, if ever, can one person “channel” a blessing for another?
What are the qualifications for “putting God’s name on the people”?
Should a practice based in a male-centered, hereditary understanding of holiness be retained? Should it be adapted for egalitarian worship? How?
Orthodox and a few other siddurim include the Priestly Blessing in every amidah and the separate kohanim’s blessing (without commentary, except possibly a few stage directions) in morning and musaf prayers. Mishkan T’filah puts the Priestly Blessing, without comment, into the Shabbat Afternoon and Weekday Morning prayers but not in the Shabbat/Festival morning prayers.
Given how rare Shabbat minchah and weekday services are in Reform congregations, it seems likely that few users of Mishkan T’filah will encounter the blessing in the context of the Amidah and have an opportunity to consider the kinds of questions raised above.
On the other hand, the Three-Fold Blessing is often recited by Reform rabbis during a bar/bat mitzvah celebration or at a baby naming….What does this say about who is qualified to channel God’s blessing?
God, Our Shadow
However it is approached in practice, all formulations of the Priestly Blessing return, finally, to the words of this week’s portion. Kedushat Levi* (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) offers this comment on Bamidbar/Numbers 6:23 — “thus shall you bless the Children of Israel saying to them” — directly precedes the Three-Fold blessing in the Torah:
When someone wishes to receive something he extends his hand heavenwards and the back of his hand earthward. When he prays intending to provide his Creator with satisfaction, instead of being a petitioner he turns himself into a “donor.”
The major symbol of the priestly blessings consists of their raising their hands with the backs of their hands facing their faces like someone about to dispense gifts, heavenwards, and the palms of their hands open, pointed earthwards, suggesting that they are about to dispense largesse.
The real interpretation of the verse: [koh tivarchu et bnei yisrael (“thus shall you bless the Children of Israel saying to them”] is “thus you shall bless the Children of Israel in order that the Creator shall have pleasure from them and in order that thereby you will become dispenser of pleasure instead of remaining petitioners waiting for a Divine handout.” As a consequence of this, the Creator will feel encouraged to dispense all manner of blessings on Israel. This is the meaning of the attribute described here as [koh], i.e., just as Israel does something for the pleasure of G’d, so He, in turn, will reciprocate by doing things for Israel, His people. — Kedushat Levi,* p. 613
Kedushat Levi also shares a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov relating Numbers 6:23 to Psalm 121:5, which he translated as “Hashem your shadow [tzal’cha] on your right side”:
A shadow always follows precisely what the owner of the shadow is doing. Similarly, what G’d does reflects exactly what man has done before. Seeing that this is so, it is imperative that man donates to charity, displays compassion…G’d seeing this will reciprocate in kind with people who do this. The attribute of G’d that we described as “shadow,” and which David called [tzal], is known as [koh], usually translated as “thus.” — ibid, p. 612
The concept that God can be “encouraged” to do anything, such as “dispense all manner of blessing on Israel” is problematic for some of us. But these images of the individual human as “dispenser of pleasure” and God as the individual’s shadow are powerful ones.
What Kedushat Levi doesn’t say directly is that holding one’s hands as though “about to dispense largesse” casts a shadow.
…And our shadow, according to the Baal Shem Tov, is God.
As noted in Eit Ratzon commentary and many other places, the Priestly Blessing was never meant as the “priests blessing the people” but as the priests somehow helping God to bless the people or making explicit God’s on-going blessing. Regardless of who, if anyone, takes the “priestly” role, one “spirit we bring to the act” in reciting the Three-Fold Blessing can be an awareness of God as our shadow.
An Alternative Blessing
found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and reprinted from p. 99 in Mishkan T’filah:
May God bless you with all good
and keep you from all evil.
May God enlighten your heart with immortal wisdom
and grace you with eternal knowledge
May God lift up merciful countenance upon you for eternal peace.
* Please see Source Materials for full citations and more details.