The Blessing of the Jewish Priest
By Larry Fine
Unlike other religions, Jewish priests are born not made. The unique activity of service to G-d was originally invested in the first-born child; but when the Jews sinned serving the Golden Calf, the service was taken from them and given to the tribe of Levi. Beginning shortly after the time after the Jews left Egypt and were given the Torah, the office of the priest was given to Aaron, the brother of Moses, and subsequently inherited only by Aarons sons through out the generations. Only a male descendent of Aaron (the first priest) in a patriarchal lineage, can be a priest.
The Jewish priest-hood is a male-only inheritance, from father to son, with the provision that the mother be a born Jewess. If a mans mother was a daughter of Aaron (or of his following sons) then he is ineligible for the priestly office. Another disqualifying factor is if the mother was not Jewish or even if she was a Jewish woman, but one who is forbidden to marry a priest, as in the case of a mumzer (a mumzer is a child born from the union of a married woman with a man who is not her husband.) If a male descendent of Aaron has the flaw of mumzer in his family, as an example, his father was a mumzer, then no subsequent males from this blemished family can ever be eligible to serve as a priest.
During the times of the holy Temple, the various families of priests, (in Hebrew: Cohanim or singular Cohain) would split into twenty-four weekly shifts that would rotate through out the year. In this manner, each family would come up to Jerusalem twice a year and serve in the Temple for a period of a week and afterwards return to their home. No Jew, no matter how learned or pious was eligible for the Temple service unless he was a descendant of Aaron; indeed, if someone who was not of the priestly lineage choose to enter into the Temple to perform the Temple service he could be liable to the death penalty.
Today, the Jewish priests, the Cohanim, have no Temple and so the service there is extinct. However there is a still one service that is available to them alone in the synagogue, this is the service of the Priestly Benediction that came the conclusion of the Temple service. At this time, the priests would appear on the Temple stairs, called the duchen, to bless the people with the blessing that is written in the Torah (Numbers 6:24-26):
"G-d shall bless you and watch you.
G-d shall let His presence enlighten you and give you grace.
G-d shall direct His providence toward you and give you peace."
Today, this blessing is included in the repetition of the standing silent Amidah prayer that is said three times each day and was instituted by the sages of Israel as part of the Morning Prayer service. In Israel, it is the custom in many synagogues that the priests, the Cohanim, ascend to the stage or area in front of the Ark of the Torah Scrolls towards the end of the repetition of the Amidah. They cover theirselves with a Talit and upon the command of the Chazzan, they turn and face the congregation, spread their hands in the unique manner (pictured above) and recite the very same blessing just as Aaron and his sons did during the Temple periods.
Outside of Israel, the priestly benedictions are only recited during the major festivals. Because of its rarity, it becomes a major aspect of the festival service.
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Insight of the Blessing
The blessing is composed of three sentences. Each sentence is a separate blessing which is composed of two parts.
The first sentence is three words long (in Hebrew) and is a blessing for material success. G-d shall bless you and watch you. The priest invokes G-ds goodness to grant you material prosperity and in addition that it be protected. Merely to make much profit and acquire material wealth and see it go out in expenses is an empty blessing. The priest asks that G-d not only give you an increase, but that this increase should be protected from loss.
The second blessing is five words long and is a blessing for spiritual development. G-d shall let His presence enlighten you and give you grace. The priest requests that G-d grant you enlightenment, that you may understand what the correct path to choose is, and that you be successful in learning Torah. This is a blessing for intellectual and spiritual advancement. The end of the blessing, "and give you grace," comes to add (in addition to the enlightenment that he grants you) that others should find what you say acceptable. Sometimes being intelligent and correct can earn you the wrath of you friends, but here the priest beseeches G-d that your friends shall accept your wisdom.
The third blessing is seven words long. It is a blessing for peace, shalom. G-d shall direct His providence toward you and give you peace. This is a request that G-d single you out and bring you peace. Any blessing for material, intellectual or spiritual success is incomplete unless it brings with it peace. There are many wealthy people in the world who are unhappy just as there are many educated people who suffer greatly. Therefore, to be truly blessed with material, intellectual and spiritual gains requires the gift of peace.
Now, note that the blessing for material prosperity is only three words; spiritual enlightenment is five words, but for peace, there are seven words. Since this is the blessing that G-d told Aaron and his sons to say when blessing His children, there is something important in the amount of words used.
Material prosperity is fairly easy to come by; its blessing consists of only three words. Spiritual and intellectual enlightenment is more difficult, and therefore it requires two more words, a total of seven. However, peace is the most difficult to realize, it requires the most words, a total of seven words.
May all of us merit hearing and seeing the priestly benedictions directly from the sons of Aaron in the holy Temple in Jerusalem quickly during our lifetime.
from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine