Talmidav Shel Aharon
24-5767: Mitzvah 58
May 28, 2007
Mitzvah 57 – It is a positive commandment that the Kohanim are to bless the Jewish people.
Hafetz Hayim: As Scripture says: “Thus you shall bless the children if Israel … May G-d bless you and keep you, May G-d make the divine face to shine on you … May G-d lift up the divine face … ” (Num. 6:23-26) If a Kohen adds some other blessing , he transgresses the prohibition “You shall not add …” (Deut. 13:1)If a Kohen did not go up (to give the blessing) when the reader called out, “Kohanim” he would disobey the positive commandment and violate three religious charges (See Num. 6:23,27)but any Kohen who gives the blessing will be blessed, as Scripture says, “I will bless those who bless you” (Gen. 12:3) It is in effect everywhere, in every time.
For the last few weeks we have been tracing the last few laws that apply to the Kohanim, the descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, who were designated as priests for eternity by G-d in the Torah. This is clearly the greatest honor that a Kohan can perform, that of blessing the people. There is no one else in Judaism who is allowed to call G-d’s blessing upon the people. Since many have not seen this ritual blessing of the Kohanim, let me describe the procedure.
During the repetition of the Amidah, the Kohanim are called to give the blessing. They need to remove their shoes, and, if a Levite is present, they are to wash the hands of the Kohen. If no Levite is present, the Kohanim do it themselves. They then stand in front of the Ark on some kind of a raised platform. Sometimes it is a small box. I have seen them stand on a special rug, the height of the rug being enough to have them stand “above” the congregation. They stand with their backs to the congregation. The reader then calls out “Kohanim” the call that is described by the Hafetz Hayyim, they then place their Tallit over their heads so that their face can not be seen. They turn and face the congregation, they extend their arms out at shoulder height, holding their fingers in a position that makes their hand into the shape of the Hebrew letter “Shin” with the Tallit still draped over their heads and arms. They recite the blessing for the privilege of reciting a blessing in G-d’s name. They then wave their hands over the congregation as they recite the words from the Book of Numbers. The Reader (Shaliach Tzibur) calls out the words to the blessing in a soft voice, one word at a time, and the Kohanim repeat that world with a loud voice. They repeat each word until the threefold blessing is finished. They then turn around and face the ark again and stay on the bima until the final blessing of the Amidah is recited by the Reader (the blessing “Sim Shalom”). They then leave the bima and put their shoes on and then return to the congregation. It is customary for the congregation not to look directly at the Kohanim during the blessing, but to look down or away from them.
Any Kohen, who is descended from a Kohen on their father’s side can give the blessing. Conservative Judaism has ruled that a woman who has a father who is a Kohen can recite the blessing but the child of a woman who is a Kohen does not inherit the title. In a place where there are no Kohanim, the ceremony is not performed and the Reader merely reads the words of the priestly benediction. There must be a minyan present for the Kohanim to bless.
In Israel this blessing is done at all Shacharit (morning) services. Outside of Israel it is often not done or only done on the three pilgrimage festivals during Musaf when it does not fall on Shabbat. Like circumcision, when one sees the Kohanim blessing the people, we realize that we are in the presence of a very old and sacred ritual. The three part blessing includes blessings for wealth, wisdom, kindness, forgiveness, that G-d should listen to our prayers and a prayer for peace. Each of the three verses is longer than the ones that come before it to give the impression of a cascading blessing that is overflowing with good things. In this case the Kohanim are not “blessing” the people themselves, but are calling down G-d’s blessing on the people. One does not add to the words of the blessing nor take any away. The Reader leads the Kohanim so as to make sure they do not forget a word or lose their place.