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Parshat Naso-2024

Rabbi David Laor

Shabat Shalom!

It is traditional that after the lighting of the Shabbat candles at home, or after the Kiddush, the father, or the mother if the father is not present, blesses his children with an emotional blessing. The sons are blessed: "May the Eternal make you like Ephraim and Menasseh" and the daughters: "May the Eternal make you like Sara, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah" later the Birkat Hacohanim is added, which is the priestly blessing of the Cohen that appears in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Naso. The priestly blessing is in fact a Mitzva Mideoraita (from the Torah) for the priests to bless the people of Israel in the temple. The blessing consists of three verses hence it is also known as the "triple blessing". The text of this beautiful blessing is found in Numbers 6 from 22 to 27: “22 And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, 23 ”Speak unto Aharon and unto his sons, saying, ‘In this way you shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them: 24 The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you; 26 the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.’ 27 “And they shall put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.

In some communities, this priestly blessing is recited during the repetition of the Amidah prayer performed by the leader of the religious service. Those who consider themselves descendants of previous Cohen generations, recite these three verses of the blessing and carry out a Nesiat Kapaim, the projection of their hands towards the community. This blessing is also recited in other cases, for example during the redemption of the firstborn ceremony, performed by a Cohen. At Succoth, an impressive ceremony is held at the Kotel Hamaaravi – The Wailing Wall, when hundreds of Cohen gather and with the help of an organized speaker, they bless all the people of Israel in unison.

Historically, Bircat Hacohanim is the oldest blessing known today. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem shows in display plaques found in exhumation caves in Jerusalem. Those plaques are estimated to be from 600 BCE, close to the time of the first temple. On those stone plates, the verses of the Birkat Hacohanim were found almost exactly as we know it in the biblical text. In the Mishne Torah of Maimonides, the process of this blessing is described in the book of Ahava:

“And how did they bless? The Cohanim rose to the podium after performing their continuous daily morning sacrifices, then they raised their arms above their heads with their outstretched fingers, beside the supreme Cohen who did not raise his hands. One read them word for word as it was done outside Jerusalem, until finishing the three verses. The people do not answer Amen, after each verse, but a single blessing is done in the temple. When they finished the congregation answered "בָּרוּךְ ה 'אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִן הָעוֹלָם וְעַד הָעוֹלָם." Blessed is Adonai God of Israel for all eternity." The priestly blessing was not said anywhere and only in sacred language (Hebrew) as it is written: "Thus they will bless the people of Israel", “Thus” as those who heard from generations back to Moses our teacher learned: "Thus they will bless" on their feet, "Thus they will bless", with the extension of their hands, "Thus they will bless", in sacred language (in Hebrew), "Thus they will bless" face to face, "Thus they will bless", in a loud voice, "Thus they will bless" using the sacred name”

From here we understand that it was very important how this mitzva was fulfilled with seven conditions: only the Cohen, standing, extending their hands, only in the Hebrew language, standing face to face, loudly, and using the sacred name. However, the description of the use of the holy name contradicts the fact that was the high priest who pronounced it once only, during the holy day of Yom Kippur. There are other laws and details about it, however, Maimonides' text does not explain a more essential part of it. Why does the Cohen have to bless the people? Don’t the blessings come only from the creator of the Universe? I was a witness in a certain community, where some congregants left the synagogue during this blessing, and this while a Cohen of dubious moral values or even at odds with others, came up to the front. “After all”, - they said - “who is he to have the privilege to bless US and the whole community?

Perhaps the most significant problem is the definition of who is defined as a Cohen. It is written: "Speak unto Aharon and unto his sons" and if we consider "his sons", potentially today any of you could be a descendant of Cohen! Who can prove that his ancestor was Cohen? It is a definition that passes from generation to generation, from fathers to their children, hence anyone could have decided at any time to be Cohen and from there pass it to their descendants until today. Conversely, a Cohen could have decided not to be Cohen anymore and simply lose this thread. There is no way to prove it. The genetic tests that try to confirm who Cohen is, are absurd! Besides this, the priestly blessing was related to the sacrifices in the temple, hence, after its destruction, this priestly function ended and with it, its function of blessing the people. The priests in those days were a separated group from the people and eventually became an elite, which greatly emphasized a difference in social class among all the people.

Some Jewish liberal movements did not accept the concept of “differentiating”  Jews having higher or lower ranks, who received it by birth, often doubtful, a privileged liturgical status such as being Cohen or Levy. Hence, for example, the original Jewish reform movement decided to eliminate this section during the religious services. However, today the text returned to all the liberal prayer books, why? First, it is no longer a blessing that specific people perform it, it was only left as a reading by all the participants during the religious services. The text itself also has a deep spiritual message which, in my opinion, is beautiful.

At one of the Bar Mitzva ceremonies I performed in Israel, I was asked to invite the Bar Mitzva´s grandmother, who was the daughter of a prominent Cohen Rabbi in Europe. She would come up to bless her grandson with the priestly blessing. In this way, the grandmother wanted to transmit the blessing that she received from her father who died in the Holocaust. During the ceremony and outside the liturgical protocol, I called the old lady who slowly went up to the stage where her Bar Mitzva grandson was waiting for her. The community was suspended. Everyone standing with great emotion witnessed this special blessing. The grandmother wrapped herself in her Tallit and placed her trembling hands over her grandson's head as she repeated the blessing word by word, with some difficulty in a very low voice. I was standing before an elderly and courageous woman, who understood the value and strength of this special blessing, which turned those moments into one of the most emotional ones I have ever witnessed in a ceremony.

Birkat Hacohanim has been transformed from a public and conditioned blessing into a familiar, egalitarian expression. Today these verses are used to bless not only by the Cohen, but by any person, not only by men but also by women, not only standing, but also by any disabled or sick person, not only in Hebrew, but in any language that the person understands, not only out loud, but in a low and tired voice like that of that courageous grandmother, who lovingly blessed her Bar Mitzva grandson for his protection, his guidance and perhaps most importantly for Peace. May we all be blessed by those magnificent words that I normally use to close our Shabat services tonight.

Shabat Shalom!

Rabbi David Laor

June 14th, 2024

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784