Parshas Naso (5771)
One of the lesser-known commandments in the Torah – mentioned in this week’s Torah portion – is the mitzvah for Kohanim (sing. Kohein; Jewish males who descend from the biblical Aaron the Kohein Gadol, or High Priest) to bless the Jewish people.
As G-d commands Moses, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: So shall you bless the Children of Israel, saying to them: ‘May G-d bless you and safeguard you. May G-d illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you. May G-d lift His countenance to you and establish peace for you.’ Let them place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them” (see Numbers 6:22-27).
This commandment of Birkas Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing) – also referred to as Nesi’as Kapayim (“Raising of the Hands”), or in Yiddish, duchanen (a reference to the duchan, or platform, from which the Priests blessed the people in the Temple) – was first performed by Aaron, the Kohein Gadol, in the desert over 3320 years ago, and is still performed till this very day by his descendants, the Kohanim, in synagogues all around the world. [In Israel, Birkas Kohanim is performed daily, while in many communities outside Israel, it is only performed during the Mussaf Service on Passover, Shavuos and Sukkos, as well as during the High Holidays.]
[According to Jewish tradition, the line of the Kohanim descending from Aaron, the original Kohein, is patrilineal; it has been passed from father to son without interruption from Aaron, for 3,300 years, or more than 100 generations. If the claim the Torah makes is true that all Kohanim share a common ancestor, then they should have common genetic markers at a higher frequency than the general Jewish population. Indeed a study by leading scientists in Israel detected a particular genetic marker on the Y chromosome in 98.5 percent (!) of the Kohanim tested, and in a significantly lower percentage of non-Kohanim. You can read all about this fascinating study confirming the existence of a “Kohein gene” at: http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/cohanim-dna-connection/]
The mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim is performed as follows: At the required time during the Services, the Levites (male descendants of the Biblical tribe of Levi) in the congregation wash the hands of the Kohanim and then the Kohanim remove their shoes, and walk up to the platform in front of the ark, at the front of the synagogue. They cover their heads with their talleisim (prayer shawls), recite the blessing over the performance of the mitzvah, turn to face the congregation, and then the chazzan (leader of the service) slowly and melodiously recites the aforementioned three-verse blessing “May G-d bless you …”, with the Kohanim repeating it word by word after him. After each verse, the congregation responds Amen.
During the course of the blessing, the hands of the Kohanim are stretched out shoulder level over the congregation, and held together palms-down, touching at the thumbs, with the first two fingers of each hand separated from the other two, like this:
Each Kohein's tallis is draped over his head and hands so that neither he nor the congregation can see his hands while the blessing is said. One reason for this is because the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is said to “pass through” the fingers of the Kohanim as they bless the people, and improperly viewing the Shechinah can bring damage to one’s eyes. Another reason why we don’t look at the priests’ hands as they bless us is so that we should never forget, even for a moment, that only G-d is the true source of all blessing, and that the Kohanim are merely the intermediary through which G-d’s blessings are passed on to the people.
The hand gesture traditionally used by Kohanim throughout the centuries and millennia when they blessed the Jewish people – and which can often be found engraved on the tombstones of Kohanim - has become popularized in modern times through the Star Trek TV series, which used it as a Vulcan ritual.
Interestingly, the use of this gesture on the show was originally suggested by Jewish actor Leonard Nemoy (Mr. Spock), who, in his early childhood, had seen the Kohanim in the synagogue covering their heads and their hands with their prayer shawls as they began to recite the Priestly Blessing. Like most Jewish children, young Leonard could not contain his curiosity about what the Kohanim were really doing up there. He writes:
"The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality... I had heard that this indwelling Spirit of God was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, and so I obediently covered my face with my hands. But of course, I had to peek." (From his autobiography, I am Spock.)
Nemoy and the Star Trek producers modified the priestly hand gesture into one hand held upright, making it more like a salute, added the words “Live long and prosper”, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As explained by most of the Bible commentators, the first blessing of the three-fold Birkat Kohanim refers to longevity and material prosperity (“live long and prosper”), the second to the spiritual blessings of Torah knowledge and the wisdom and understanding to utilize it fully, and the last blessing to G-d’s compassion, and bestowing peace upon us.
However, the great 19th-century rabbi and leader of European Jewry, Rabbi Moses Sofer (known as the Chasam Sofer), in his commentary Toras Moshe, explains the Birkas Kohanim differently.
He writes that the three-part Priestly Blessing includes all the material blessings one can possibly achieve in this world. The first verse, “May G-d bless you …”, is a blessing that we should have great wealth and prosperity, as well as protection from harm to us and our money. Yet sometimes, due to our enhanced wealth, we might arouse envy and hatred from our family, friends and neighbors. Therefore, the second verse, which speaks of G-d’s granting us grace, is a blessing that we should find favor and grace in the eyes of all those around us. Yet sometimes, even when we are not hounded by others, we are not inwardly happy and content, as we always seem to want more and more money and possessions. So along comes the third and final verse, which is a blessing that G-d should grant us inner peace and contentment.
Yet even that, writes the Chasam Sofer, is not enough. For even if a person were to live long and prosper – and be blessed with all the blessings contained in the Birkas Kohanim – his life could still end up being more of a curse than a blessing. After all, without an ultimate goal and purpose, how much pleasure can a person derive from all those material blessings before it all gets boring and meaningless. Only if the material blessings of a long and prosperous life are used as a means to help us achieve our end goal – spiritual greatness and closeness with our Father in Heaven – can they truly be considered blessings.
The Torah thus follows the Priestly Blessing with the words, “Let them place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them”. These words serve to remind the Kohanim, as well as all of us who are the recipients of these blessings, that only when “G-d’s Name is placed upon the Jewish people” – i.e. they are utilizing all those blessings to help them grow spiritually and come closer to Him – will they truly be blessed.