By Cantor Jay Frailich, AJRCA Professor of Liturgical Studies
At the heart of Parshat Naso is one of the most ancient of all blessings in continuous use. Numbers 6:22-27 contains the Priestly Benediction (numbers 24-26) surrounded by the instructions from God to bless the people of Israel. God, through Moses, tells the Kohanim (Aaron and his sons) to carry out this blessing (v. 22). Verse 27 answers why God wants this done. The priest’s blessing will link the people to God’s holy name.
The Priestly blessing has an elegant but simple structure in Hebrew. Its three verses consist of 15 words in verse lengths of 3,5 and 7 words each. God’s Name (YHVH) is the second word of each verse. Some suggest that the remaining twelve words of the blessing correspond to the twelve tribes.
The blessing asks God to 1. Bless 2. Keep (or protect) 3. Shine (or enlighten) 4. Be gracious 5. Lift God’s countenance (or bestow favor) 6. Give peace. Although the blessing is communal the Hebrew uses the singular “you” as if to say the blessing is for each individual as well as the community.
This ritual of the blessing was a regular daily ritual in the ancient Temple. It continues on a daily basis in Israel and in Sephardic synagogues. In most of the Diaspora, the ritual of the Kohanim blessing the people is performed on the Three Festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The ritual as performed today is both beautiful and mysterious. The Kohain or Kohanim (if more than one) stand on a raised platform. In Yiddish the ritual is known as duchanen from the Hebrew word for “platform.” The Kohain places his tallit over his head and with his hands forms the letter shin for “Almighty.” I remember as a child my Zayde placing me under his own tallis and admonishing me not to look at the Kohain while he was blessing us. Our Cantor first chanted the plaintive melody and the Kohain repeated the chant word by word. It was haunting and even a bit frightening. Of course, I peeked just a little and was relieved that nothing bad actually happened to me. That same experience also happened to an American actor a generation older than me: Leonard Nimoy. When he was cast as Mr. Spock in the television series Star Trek he and the producers wanted a hand sign to go with Spock’s signature greeting, “Live long and prosper.” Remembering his own experiences with witnessing duchanen, Nimoy used the Kohain’s hand sign. Thus, the Priestly Benediction entered popular culture.
In Orthodox congregations, the blessing is still done only by Kohanim. In more liberal synagogues the Priestly Benediction has become ubiquitous as a closing prayer for services; as a blessing during B’nai Mitzvah services; Weddings; and Naming rituals. Still, on Friday nights it is a long standing custom for parents to bless their children with the words from Numbers 24-26. May God bless us and protect us. May God enlighten us and be gracious to us. May God bestow favor on us and grant us peace.