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Parshas Nasso (5774)

That's Amore!

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Naso, we find the commandment of Birkas Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing), 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– 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.]

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.

Now we know that the Sages who instituted Birkos HaMitzvos, i.e. the blessings to be recited before the performance of the commandments, were very exact in their wording of those blessings - which raises the following question:

The blessing that the Kohanim recite before performing the mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim is as follows: “Blessed are You L-ord, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron, and has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love”.

The problem is that nowhere in the Torah do we find that the Kohanim were commanded to bless the people “with love”! There are many answers suggested by the commentators over the centuries and millennia. I will share a few of them with you:

1) The R”i B”rav Yakar answers that the words with love refer to G-d’s love for the Jewish people and were added by the Sages to express the reason for the mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim. It was because of G-d’s great love for His people – as expressed in the Torah in Deuteronomy 7:8 – that He commanded the Kohanim to bless them.

2) The Magen Avraham in Orach Chayim (128:18) explains that the addition of the phrase with love is based on a teaching of the Zohar (Naso 147b) that any Kohein who does not have love for the congregation or for whom the congregation has no love, may not raise his hand to bless the congregation. According to this interpretation, the words with love refer to the mutual love that the Kohanim and the people must have for each other.

3) The Yismach Yisrael in Parshas Naso explains that the words with love are expressing the essence of the blessing which the Kohanim are blessing the people. They are blessing the people that they should have always love and unity between them. This is reflected in the words of the actual Priestly Blessing which are made in the singular, i.e. “May G-d bless you (Hebrew singular) and safeguard you (Hebrew singular) …”, alluding to the unity and love that the Jewish people are being blessed to have for each other as one single unit.

4) The most fascinating answer of all is given by Rabbi Moshe Dovid Valli, an 18th-century Italian Torah scholar and Bible commentator and a foremost student of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his commentary Shivtei Kah on this week’s Torah portion. He asks another question on the verse mentioned above in which the Kohanim are commanded to bless the people of Israel. It says, “So shall you bless the Children of Israel, saying to them”. The words ‘saying to them” (amor lahem in Hebrew) are seemingly extra. He explains that the word amor in the Hebrew phrase amor lahem means “love” … in Latin! So that the Torah is commanding the Kohanim to bless the Jewish people and amor lahem – to do it with love.

Now this last answer might sound strange to you, as it seems highly unlikely that the Torah would incorporate a Latin word into the text. Yet it is not as strange as you might think. After all, there are other instances in the Torah where we find words from other languages mixed in to the Hebrew.

See, for example, the verse in Genesis 31:47 describing the mound of stones that Jacob and Laban set up between them as a witness to their mutual covenant of peace: “Laban called it Yegar-sahadusa [an Aramaic word], but Jacob called it Gal-eid [the same word translated into Hebrew]”.

See also the verse in Deuteronomy 6:8 in which the Torah commands us to wear Totafos (Tefillin, or phylacteries) on our heads. Rash”i in his commentary to Exodus 13:16 cites the Talmud in Sanhedrin 4b which explains that because the Tefillin worn on the head are made of four housings for the four individual passages they contain, they are called totafos – for tat in the Kaspi language means two, and fas in the Afriki language means two.

The truth is that it is really no surprise at all to find words from other languages mixed in to the text of the Torah. This is because Jewish Mysticism (as taught by Rabbi Moshe Dovid Valli and others) tells us that Biblical Hebrew (otherwise known as Lashon HaKodesh, lit. the “Holy Tongue”) is the “mother of all languages”, and that any word of any other language will ultimately find its source in the Torah. It therefore makes perfect sense for a Latin or Aramaic or Kaspi or Afriki language word to be found in the Torah, as these (and all) words ultimately have a Hebrew connection etymologically.

It’s interesting to note that in recent times, a new movement called “Edenics”, founded by Isaac E. Mozeson, makes this exact claim with regard to the English language, i.e. that modern day English is simply a derivative of biblical Hebrew. In fact, the proponents of this theory say that all human languages are simply offshoots of Hebrew – just as we are taught by the Mystics - and claim to have thousands of examples to back them up.

Mozeson even published a fascinating book on the subject titled The Word: The Dictionary That Reveals the Hebrew Roots of English (1989), a 300-page book with some 20,000 English-Hebrew linked words. Some examples he gives in his book are: Eye: Ayin; Twin: Towem; Tour: Toor; Fruit: Feyrot; Evil: Avel; Cry: Kria; Lick: Likek; Piece: Pasis; Scale: Shakel; Earth: Aretz; Wine: Yayin; Direction: Derech; Child: Yeled; Idea: Yediah. [To read more about this fascinating theory of Edenics, click here: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/150768/examining-edenics?all=1 ]

So it turns out that the source for the commandment for the Kohanim to bless the Jewish people with love might very well be from a Latin word that crept its way into the Bible. That’s Amore!

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