From the Acting Head of Jewish Life
Birkat Kohanim – a blessing for the Whole Person; the Whole People
Parashat Nasso is the longest in the Torah, being 176 verses long (try learning that for your Bar/Bat Mitzvah parashah!) and yet its most famous three verses take up only 14 words!
These words have found a way into the hearts and minds of Jews for more than 2,600 years.
We know this for a fact as, in 1979, Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay – who was actually one of my Israel Studies Professors at Bar Ilan University – made the incredible discovery of the small silver amulets you see below in a burial chamber while excavating in Ketef Hinnom, a section of the Hinnom Valley south of Jerusalem’s Old City. These small pieces of inscribed silver that contain the wording to this Birkat Kohanim date back to around 600BCE and are the oldest known record of biblical text, hundreds of years earlier than any biblical manuscript found to date. (Learn more in this brief video – and meet Prof. Gabi Barkay! – Ketef Hinnom and the Priestly Blessings)
The Birket Kohanim, or the Priestly Blessing, has been uttered by Kohanim as a climax to the High Holy Day and Festival Prayer services for centuries, is recited weekly in Israel and has travelled down through generations of families who bless their children with the same gracious words each week.
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ-הֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ׃
יָאֵר יְ-הֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ׃
יִשָּׂא יְ-הֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם׃
(May) God bless you and protect you.
(May) God deal kindly and graciously with you
or “make God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.”
(May) God lift His Countenance towards you and grant you Shalom.
Thus, they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
Sefer Bamidbar, Parashat Naso 6:24-27 נשא ספר במדבר, פרשת
What meaning can we find in the Torah’s own version of a Haiku; 3, 5 then 7 words; in this moving ascending blessing that the Torah states God commanded Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons, and their descendants ever after, with which to bless the People?
Through many interpretations of this text, the Sages wrap us in the Divine embrace, concentric circles of blessing increasing. Here is one idea I’d like to share with you: First, we are blessed with material possessions – the traditional understanding of this “brachah” – followed closely with the hope that these will be protected and successful. This enables us to live without material concern and thus focus on the middle layer, namely the privilege of spiritual and intellectual fortitude. These are reflected in the radiance of God’s face, “יָאֵר” ya’er being connected to the word אור “Ohr” – light, and God’s graciousness, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ, “viychunekah” that could be related to the word “Chanun” – mercy or kindness, and to the blessing in the Amidah prayer, “חָנֵּֽנוּ מֵאִתְּ֒ךָ דֵּעָה בִּינָה וְהַשְׂכֵּל” “Grant us (graciously) knowledge, understanding and intellect from You”. And finally, the outer (or inner) blessing – deep, genuine Shalom – inner peace and outer harmony or wholeness. A prayer both for the People and for each Person…
May you all be blessed with material security, intellectual and spiritual strength, inner peace, and outer harmony.