Hebrew In Israel | Priestly Blessing By A Stranger – Learn Torah

Aaronic blessing, birkat kohanim, priestly blessing

Hebrew In Israel | Priestly Blessing By A Stranger – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

On occasion when I meet a group not from Jewish descent, I get asked to give the Priestly Blessing after I talk.  The first time this happened I asked why, and the answer was that this was a common practice, and that teachers do this all the time.  I will admit I was surprised because this is unheard of in the Jewish world.  When I declined, I was asked why.  My answer is based on wording in the text.

The Text

The opening verse to the blessing states:

דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אָמוֹר לָהֶם

“Speak to Aharon and his sons, and tell them that this is how you are to bless the people of Israel: you are to say to them”

The command of speaking these words is directed to Aharon and his children, and is part of the duties of the priestly family.  The blessing can be transmitted only if the appropriate people, i.e. Aharon and his descendants, do it.[1]  If someone who is not of this line uses the blessing, it has no effect because they are the wrong person.  Though YHWH is the one who bestows the blessing on people,[2] He is also the one who has chosen a specific person or persons to do His will.

The blessing is also part of the temple service, and the text is placed at the end of a long collection of temple duties starting in Exodus 25, and ending in Numbers 10.  This point is demonstrated in Leviticus 9:22:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת יָדָו אֶל-הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכֵם; וַיֵּרֶד מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה וְהַשְּׁלָמִים

“Aharon raised his hands toward the people, blessed them and came down from offering the sin offering, the burnt offering and the peace offerings”.

The raising of hands is indicative of a blessing act, and is preserved to this very day in blessing as practiced in the Jewish world.  This, combined with the text actually stating that Aharon blessed the people after doing his duties on the altar, make the point of what the blessing is part of–Temple duties reserved only for the line of Aharon.  This rule is enforced by the warning in chapter 3:10

וְאֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-בָּנָיו תִּפְקֹד, וְשָׁמְרוּ אֶת-כְּהֻנָּתָם; וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת

You are to appoint Aharon and his sons to carry out the duties of Kohanim; anyone else who involves himself is to be put to death”.

Hence, it is difficult in my opinion to isolate the blessing from the overall priestly duties which are in the hands of the priestly families.  The only case in which we find someone who is not a Kohen saying a blessing which might be the Priestly Blessing is when Moshe blesses the people with Aharon during the dedication of the Mishkan in verse 23.  However, we do not find in this any reference to hand lifting, or even a connection to the service.  This in my opinion is only an act where leaders are blessing the people at the end of a service. 

 

Written Form

The only legitimate act which can be found in regards to the blessing being used outside the temple is in writing.  Though amulets raise questions about spells and other forbidden acts, writing was considered an inferior act to speaking, and hence had less value in ancient Israel.  The spoken word was considered to be the way languages are to be used, and most ancient cultures valued speech over written communication.[3]  The finding of the two silver amulets at Ketef Hinom in Jerusalem containing fragments of the blessing, demonstrate that in ancient Judea wearing a written amulet with parts of the priestly blessing existed,[4] but finding only two does not prove it was common.  However, writing blessings was common in letters which shows the act of writing blessings was a common act.[5]

Plate One:

May YHWH bles[s]

you and

[may he] keep you.

[May] YHWH make

[his face] shine] to you

and g [ive you

]peac[e

יבר                 

יהוה ו

[י [שמרכ

יאר |\ יה

[וה [ \\ פניו

[אל [יכ וי

שמ לכ ש

לו]מ]-

Plate Two:

May bless you,

YHWH,

k] eep you].

Make shine, YH-

WH, [His face]

upon [you and g]

rant you [pea]ce.

יברכ

יהוה ו

[י [שמרכ

יאר |\ יה

[וה [ \\ פניו

[אל [יכ וי

שמ לכ ש

לו]מ]-

As can be seen, the writer only paraphrases the blessing, and the full blessing is never actually used.  This might indicate the will to avoid the entire blessing, but can also be a testimony to a much shorter form which was common.

Together with this we find that Ancient Near Eastern cultures believed writing was a side matter for privileged people who could read, but it was also seen as having power.  This in my opinion probably stems from writing being uncommon and special, and was something only skilled people could do.  Skills were seen in some primitive cultures as something which can be related to magic, especially if someone creates something new.  Written items were seen as objects whose content as a written text was not important, but rather more the effect it had.  Objects were considered having magical powers, especially if they were part of a ritual or an incantation.[6]  In our culture of written texts this would seem odd, but in cultures where writing was incomprehensible to most, this would have not been the case.

A modern example of believing in the power of creating can be found in the treatment of the Ethiopian Jews who were specialists in creating metal works.  This group has been seen throughout the centuries as magic workers due to this skill.[7]

 

Could This Be Magic?

Though there is a novelty in using a blessing found in the Torah, it is clear that this blessing is reserved to a specific group which are the Kohanim sons of Aharon.  Using the blessing with the belief that no matter who is saying it can borderline with magic due to the belief that anyone can use it.  Because YHWH is the one who gives the blessing, He is also the one who chose who would be His messenger.  Believing in an override of the rules seems to belong to magic practices, and should be stopped.  An example of this can be found in the case of Bil’am who was hired by Balaq king of Moav to curse Israel (Numbers 22:2-24:23).  Because the power of blessing and cursing is in the hands of God, Bil’am could not override God’s will.  In this story, we find attempts of manipulation of God by imposing rituals and different positioning of Bil’am to bring on the curse.  However, because it was not the will of YHWH to allow the act, it was rejected.  Though this is a harsh and difficult comparison to say, it is important to take this point into consideration.  It is clear that the intent of the teachers who do this is to do good and bring blessing to their people, but this might carry the risk of doing the opposite.  The temple is highly detailed and full of rules, and any infringement of the rules can bring bad things.

Another point to consider is the case of Qorach who claimed all of the congregation is holy, and the repeat of the command that only Aharon and his seed can be priests of YHWH’s temple (Numbers 16:1-18:32).  Though his intent was probably for his own glory, we find another example of someone who tried to infringe on the priestly duties, an act which resulted with death. The fact that both Bil’am and Qorach are found in Numbers I find to be indicative of establishing a pattern of authority and the challenges of having it or wanting it.

 

Conclusion

The Priestly blessing is a blessing reserved to the line of Aharon, and is to be used only by them.  If teachers are interested in presenting a blessing to their congregation, it would be better to paraphrase it, or compose a completely different blessing.  Using the blessing outside of the priestly group might result in the opposite of what is intended.


Footnotes

1.  Hayim Kohen and Jacob Milgrom, Olam Hatanakh-Bamidbar, Tel-Aviv 1997, pp.46-47
2.  ibid.
3.  Meir Malul, Knowledge, Control and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought, Culture and Worldview, Tel-Aviv 2002, pp.45-48
4.  Gavriel Barkai, Birkat HaKohanim ‘l Luchiyot Kesph Miketeph Hinom BiYerushalayim, in Qatedra 53 (July 1989), Jerusalem, pp.37-76
5.  See the Lachish and Arad letters which include invocations of God’s name and blessings by that name
6.  Malul, 2002, p.45
7.  Haggai Erlich, Steven Kaplan, Hagar Solomon, Ethiopia- Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Ramat Aviv 2003, pp.315-318

Bibliography:

ארליך חגי, סולומון הגר, סטיבן קפלן, אתיופיה: נצרות, איסלאם, יהדות, רמת אביב 2003

ברקאי גבריאל, ברכת הכהנים על לוחיות כתף מכתף הינום בירושלים, קתדרה 52, יולי 1989, עמ׳ 76-37

כהן חיים, יעקב מילגרום, עולם התנ״ך ספר במדבר, תל-אביב 1997

Malul Meir, Knowledge, Control and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought, Culture and Worldview, Tel-Aviv 2002

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