Parashat Naso: The Priestly Blessing's many layers

Published date25 May 2023
Publication titleJerusalem Post, The: Web Edition Articles (Israel)
So Rabbi Joseph Hertz quotes biblical scholar Emil Kautzsch in describing the sublime words of Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:23-26), from this week's parasha, Naso

The simple three-line blessing in Hebrew expands in an ever-embracing structure from three to five to seven words:

"May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord's face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn to you and give you peace."

"May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord's face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn to you and give you peace."

Birkat Kohanim

One of the oldest prayers in Judaism

Its words are the oldest of the Torah ever found, Aharon Varady points out; also the earliest artifact of Jewish liturgy we have in physical form, some 500 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls. Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay discovered two silver amulets, with parts of the blessing on them, in a burial cave in Jerusalem just below St. Andrew's Church and behind the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. There is an extensive explanation of the discovery and its significance at that site. The amulets can be viewed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They date from the late seventh or early sixth century BCE, around the time of King Josiah.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer comments on the historical liturgical significance of Birkat Kohanim:

"The practice of having Kohanim recite the blessing in the synagogue is an ancient one. Originally the blessing was a part of the Temple service, but nothing in the Torah restricts it to the Temple site. The Mishna records that it was recited outside of the Temple as well, and tells of certain differences in such cases. In the Temple it was pronounced as one blessing; elsewhere, as three. In the Temple, the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter Name of God) was pronounced; elsewhere, the word 'Adonai' was substituted. In the Temple, the priests raised their hands above their heads; elsewhere, only as high as their shoulders. (See Sota 7:6)" (Hammer, Or Hadash, p. 177).

Significantly, this blessing is written in the second person singular – you – while most Jewish liturgy is framed in the first person plural – us. There is the communal concern when we pray as Jews for the larger community we live within, but in the case of blessings there is a shift to our individual needs and hopes. The individual blessings listed in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 are also in the second person singular.

Traditionally, only a male Kohen can offer...

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