|Halakhic texts relating to this article|
|Shulchan Aruch:||Orach Chayim 128–130|
The Priestly Blessing or priestly benediction, (Hebrew: ברכת כהנים; translit. birkat kohanim), also known in rabbinic literature as raising of the hands (Hebrew nesiat kapayim), or Dukhanen (from the Yiddish word dukhan – platform – because the blessing is given from a raised rostrum), is a Hebrew prayer recited by Kohanim - the Hebrew Priests. According to Torah, they are descendants of Aaron the first High Priest, older brother of Moses and have been divinely chosen by God to work in the Tabernacle and assist the Israelites in blessings, ministering, sacrifices and atoning for their sins to God, for all eternity.
According to the Torah, Aaron blessed the people after offering sacrifices, and YHWH promises that "I will place my name on their hands" (the Kohanim's hands) "and bless them" (the Jews receiving the blessing). The Jewish Sages stressed that although the priests are the ones carrying out the blessing, it is not them or the ceremonial practice of raising their hands which results in the blessing, but rather it is God's desire that His blessing should be transferred by means of the Kohanim's hands.
Even after the destruction of the second Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem, the practice has been continued in Jewish synagogues, and today in most Jewish communities, Kohanim bless the worshippers in the synagogue during special Jewish prayer services.
The text of the Priestly Blessing recited by the Kohanim, which appears verbatim in the Torah, is:
- May the LORD bless you and guard you –
- יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
- (Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā ...)
- May the LORD make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you –
- יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
- ("Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viḥunnékkā ...)
- May the LORD lift up His face unto you and give you peace –
- יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
- ("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm.")
This is the oldest known Biblical text that has been found; amulets with these verses written on them have been found in graves at Ketef Hinnom, dating from the First Temple Period, and are now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Use of the Blessing to ward off evil
Extrabiblical evidence such as the two silver Iron Age amulets found at Ketef Hinnom, contemporary Phoenician and Punic amulets and bands, and blessing inscriptions from the southern Levant have shown that the language of the Priestly Blessing derived from a broader tradition of apotropaic text, which was often inscribed on metal and worn in order to provide protection against evil.
Versions of the blessing are often found in mortuary and cultic contexts, and anticipate early Jewish commentaries that relate the blessing to death. Although specific words in the Priestly Blessing are commonly found in the Bible, the syntactic sequences in which they occur suggest parallels not to other biblical passages, but to blessing inscriptions from late Iron Age southern Levant. In particular it has been suggested that the enigmatic instruction to "put [Yhwh's] name on the Israelites" in Numbers 6:27 reflects an ancient practice of physically wearing the deity's name and blessing for protection against evil.
In Hebrew law and custom
- Only Kohanim (i.e., adult – age 13 or older – males in direct patrilineal descent from Aaron) can perform the Priestly Benediction. And the blessing should be performed only in the presence of a minyan (quorum of ten adult males in orthodox Judaism, ten adults in non-orthodox branches of Judaism) – even if the Kohanim themselves must be included for a total of ten.
- Tradition prohibits a Kohen from reciting the blessing while under the influence of alcohol, or in the period immediately following the death of a close relative.
- All Kohanim present are obligated to participate, unless disqualified in some way. If a Kohen does not wish to participate, he must leave the sanctuary for the duration of the blessing. A Kohen may be disqualified by, e.g., having imbibed too much alcohol, having a severe speech impediment, blindness, having taken a human life, having married a disqualifying wife (such as a divorcee), or the recent death of a close relation.
- A Kohen who is on bad terms with the congregation or who is unwilling to perform the ritual should not perform it.
- It is customary that, once the Kohanim are assembled on the platform, the cantor or prayer leader will prompt them by reciting each word of the blessing and the Kohanim will then repeat that word. This custom is especially followed if only one Kohen is available to give the blessing. Apparently this prompting is done to avoid errors or embarrassment if any of the Kohanim should be ignorant of the words of the recitation. However, if there are a number of kohanim, they may say the first word of the blessing ("Yevorekhekhaw") without the prompting, presumably to demonstrate their familiarity with the ritual.
- If the prayer leader is a Kohen himself, he does not prompt the other Kohanim in the blessing. Instead, a non-Kohen is designated with that task, and the leader remains silent.
- The Jewish Mishnah records advice that a person who is troubled by a dream should reflect on it when the Kohanim recite their blessing. This practice is still done in many Orthodox communities. It is also recited at bedtime. Both uses derive from the Song of Songs 3:7–8, telling of 60 armed guards surrounding Solomon's bedchamber to protect him from "night terrors"; the 60 letters in the [Hebrew] text of the blessing similarly defend against night terrors.
- In many traditional Jewish communities it is the custom for congregants to spread their tallitot over their own heads during the blessing and not look at the Kohanim. If a man has children, they will come under his tallit to be blessed, even if they are quite old. The (unattributed) basis of this custom is to emphasize the spiritual aspect of the blessing over the role of the Kohanim themselves; as per the scriptural verse, the Kohanim are simply a vehicle for the expression of the blessing, when they "place My name upon the children of Israel".
- A tradition common among Ashkenazim rests on the basis that during the recital of this birkhat the Shekhinah or Yahweh becomes present where the kohanim have their hands in the "shin" gesture, so that gazing there would be harmful.
- This blessing is also recited by Jewish parents to bless their children on Friday night before the beginning of the Shabbat meal. Some rabbis will say the blessing to a boy at his bar mitzvah or to a girl at her bat mitzvah. It is usually prefaced, for boys with a request for God to make the child like Ephraim and Manasseh These were the two sons of Joseph) who are remembered because according to tradition, they never fought with one another. For girls the traditional request is God to make them like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the Matriarchs of the Jewish people.
- It also may be said before a long journey, and some people will write it out and wear/keep it as an amulet. It is often used in the liturgy as the first section of Torah to be read in the morning after reciting the blessing before studying Torah.
- In the case where no Kohanim are present in the synagogue (but there still is a minyan) the hazzan will read the prayer verse by verse, and the congregation will respond after each verse with "ken yehi ratzon" (May it be God's Will). This response is used instead of "Amen", because the hazzan is merely "mentioning" the blessing, essentially quoting it rather than actually performing the ritual. However, some congregations (including Chabad) do indeed respond "Amen". This response is also employed on days and times when the Amidah is repeated but the Kohanim do not recite the priestly blessing. However, according to Abudirham, since the Priestly Blessing is not a conventional benediction (that would begin with "Blessed are You ..."), but rather a prayer for peace, ken yehi ratzon is the more appropriate response at all times.
This ceremony is traditionally performed by Jews, daily in Israel (except in Galilee), and among most Sephardic Jews worldwide, every day during the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah. On Sabbath and festivals it is also recited during the repetition of the Musaf prayer. On Yom Kippur the Jewish ceremony is performed during the Ne'ila service as well. On other fast days it is performed at Mincha, if said in the late afternoon. The reason for offering the blessing in the afternoon only on Fast days is that the Kohanim are forbidden to eat and (especially) to drink alcohol prior to the ceremony.
In the Diaspora in Ashkenazic Orthodox communities, the Jewish ceremony is performed only on Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. German communities perform it at both Shaharit and Musaf, while on Yom Kippur it is performed at Neilah as well. Eastern European congregations only perform it at Musaf. On Simchat Torah, some communities recite it during Musaf, and others during Shacharit, to enable Kohanim to eat or drink during the Torah reading between Shacharit and Musaf. On weekdays and Shabbat, in Ashkenazic diaspora communities, the blessing is not recited by Kohanim. Instead, it is recited only by the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader), or a hazzan (cantor), after the Modim prayer, towards the end of the Amidah, without any special chant or gestures. This Ashkenazic practice is based on a Rabbinic ruling of the Remoh, who argued that the Kohanim were commanded to bless the people with joy (besimcha) and that Kohanim in the diaspora could not be expected to feel joyful except on the above-mentioned holidays where all Jews are commanded to feel joy.
At the beginning of the Jewish ceremony, Levites in the congregation wash the hands of the Kohanim and the Kohanim remove their shoes (if they are unable to remove their shoes without using their hands, the shoes are removed prior to the washing) and ascend the bema in front of the Torah ark at the front of the synagogue. The use of a platform is implied in Leviticus 9:22. They cover their heads with their tallitot, recite the blessing over the performance of the mitzvah, turn to face the congregation, and then the hazzan slowly and melodiously recites the three verse blessing, with the Kohanim repeating it word by word after him. After each verse, the congregation responds Amen. If there are more than one Kohan performing the blessings then they wait until someone in the congregation calls out "Kohanim" before starting the blessing over performing the blessings; the hazzan then continues the procedure. However, if there is only one Kohan performing the blessings he starts the blessing over performing the blessings without any prompting from the congregation; the hazzan then continues as normal. In the Yemenite tradition when there is a solitary Kohan he says the first word of the blessing without prompting after having said the preparatory blessing.
Raising the hands
During the course of the blessing, the hands of the Kohanim are spread out over the congregation, with the fingers of both hands separated so as to make five spaces between them; the spaces are (1) between the ring finger and middle finger of each hand, (2) between the index finger and thumb of each hand, and (3) the two thumbs touch each other at the knuckle and the aperture is the space above or below the touching knuckles.
The Kohen raises his hands, with the palms facing downward and the thumbs of his outspread hands touching. The four fingers on each hand are customarily split into two sets of two fingers each (thus forming the letter Shin (שׁ), an emblem for Shaddai, "Almighty [God]"), or sometimes they are arranged to form an overlapping lattice of 'windows.' This Jewish ceremony is sometimes called Nesiat Kapayim, the "lifting of the hands." The Jewish tradition states the Divine Presence would shine through the fingers of the priests as they blessed the people, and no one was allowed to look at this out of respect for God.
Each kohen's tallit is draped over his head and hands so that the congregation cannot see his hands while the blessing is said. Performing the Jewish ceremony of the priestly blessing is known in Yiddish as duchening, a reference to the bema on which the blessing is said. The tradition of covering the hands stems from the biblical prohibition against a Kohen with hands that are disfigured in any way from offering the blessing. The rabbis softened this prohibition by saying that a Kohen with disfigured hands to which the community had become accustomed could bless. In later centuries, the practice became for all Kohanim to cover their hands so that any disfigurement would not be seen by the Congregation. This gave rise to folklore that one should not see the hands of the Kohen or even that harm would befall someone who sees the hands of the Kohen. Some congregants will even turn their backs to the Kohanim so as to avoid any possibility of seeing their hands—although this practice is unsupported by any rabbinic source.
In some Jewish communities, it is customary for the Kohanim to raise their hands and recite an extended musical chant without words before reciting the last word of each phrase. There are different tunes for this chant in different communities. Aside from its pleasant sound, the chant is done so that the congregation may silently offer certain prayers containing individual requests of God after each of the three blessings of the Kohanim. Because supplications of this nature are not permitted on Shabbat, the chant is also not done on Shabbat. In Israel, though, this chanting is not the custom.
Variation among Jewish denominations
In Conservative Judaism, the majority of congregations do not perform the priestly blessing ceremony, but some do. In some American Conservative congregations that perform the ceremony, a bat kohen (daughter of a priest) can perform it as well. The Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has approved two opposing positions: One view holds that a bat kohen may deliver the blessing; another view holds that a bat kohen is not permitted to participate in the Priestly Blessing because it is a continuation of a Temple ritual which women were not eligible to perform. Conservative Judaism has also lifted some of the restrictions on Kohanim including prohibited marriages. The Masorti movement in Israel, and some Conservative congregations in North America, require male kohanim as well, and retain restrictions on Kohanim.
Reform, Reconstructionist and Liberal Judaism
In Liberal (and American Reform) congregations, the concept of the priesthood has been largely abandoned, along with other caste and gender distinctions. Thus, this blessing is usually omitted or simply read by the hazzan. North American Reform Jews omit the Musaf service, as do most other liberal communities, and so if they choose to include the priestly blessing, it is usually appended to the end of the Shacharit Amidah. Some congregations, especially Reconstructionist ones, have the custom of the congregation spreading their tallitot over each other and blessing each other that way.
This custom was started when a Reconstructionist rabbi from Montreal, Lavy Becker saw children in Pisa, Italy, run under their fathers' tallitot for the blessing, and he brought it home to his congregation.
Orthodox Judaism does not permit a bat kohen (daughter of a kohen) or bat levi (daughter of a Levite) to participate in nesiat kapayim because the practice is a direct continuation of the Temple ritual, and should be performed by those who would authentically be eligible to do so in the Temple.
Use in Christian liturgy
The Priestly blessing has been used by the Catholic Church since the first centuries and is listed as Solemn Blessing #10 (Ordinary Time I) in the Roman Missal; it is also widely used in the Anglican Communion, Lutheranism, and other liturgical traditions. Only those ordained to consecrate the Eucharist (bishops and priests in the Catholic traditions and their equivalents in Protestantism) are authorized to pronounce blessing (as opposed to asking for a blessing, as at a meal), and so are the only ones who perform the blessing in the Liturgy, however, due to the Christian theology of the universal priesthood, all members of the church are considered kohanim, and the priest is considered an icon of Jesus, the Eternal High Priest.
The version contained in the Roman Missal reads as follows:
Deacon or Priest: Bow your heads and pray for God's blessing.
Celebrant (with arms extended): May the Lord bless you and keep you.
Celebrant: May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
Celebrant: May the Lord look upon you with kindness, and give you peace.
Celebrant: And may the blessing of almighty God, the Father, and the Son, + (making the Sign of the Cross) and the Holy Spirit, descend upon you and remain with you forever.
Deacon or Priest: Go forth, the Mass is ended.
Response: Thanks be to God.
Peter C. Lutkin (1858–1931) composed a setting of the benediction, titled "the Lord Bless You and Keep You" and originally published in 1900. John Rutter composed another in 1981.
In the mid-1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, used a single-handed version of this gesture to create the Vulcan salute for his character, Spock, on Star Trek. He has explained that while attending Orthodox services as a child, he peeked from under his father's tallit and saw the gesture; many years later, when introducing the character of Mr. Spock, he and series creator Gene Roddenberry thought a physical component should accompany the verbal "Live long and prosper" greeting. The Jewish priestly gesture looked sufficiently alien and mysterious, and became part of Star Trek lore.
On February 28, 2015, following the death of beloved Star Trek TOS Spock actor, Leonard Nimoy, astronaut Terry W. Virts tweeted an image from the International Space Station of his Vulcan Cohanim-inspired salute (which had been improvised by the late actor when he was asked to portray an alien life form's desire that others live long and prosper) as a sign of reverence as the ISS flew over Boston, the city of Nimoy's birth.
- Encyclopaedia Judaica. 16. Keter Publishing House, and in New York by the Macmillan Company. 1972. p. 513.
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) s.v. Birkat Kohanim, page 109; Gold, Avi, Bircas Kahonim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) pages 28–29
- Numbers 6:23–27. Found in Parshat Naso, the 35th Weekly Torah portion of the annual cycle.
- Liturgical perspectives: prayer and poetry in light of the Dead Sea scrolls ...By Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature. International Symposium. p. 243.
- Clyde M. Woods, Justin Rogers (2006). Leviticus and Numbers. College Press. p. 218.
- Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) pages 90 & 94; Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, Engl.transl. 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publ'n Society) page 64, citing Mishna, Megillah 4:4.
- Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) page 94; for this reason, the blessing is not performed in the afternoon service of a festival (as distinguished from a fast), Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) pages 109–110; Sperling, Abraham, Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions [Ta-amei Ha-Minhagim] (orig. 1890, Engl. transl. 1968, NY, Bloch Publ'g Co.) page 67 (citing Orakh Hayyim 129:1)
- Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) page 95; the length of the period depends on the deceased relation.
- Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) page 90; but a Kohen is required to recite the blessing only once in a day, so a Kohen may refuse a request to perform the blessing a second time in the same day.
- Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) pages 94–95.
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 111, citing the Zohar, Naso 147b, and the Kohanim themselves preface the blessing with their own prayer, thanking God for commanding them "to bless his people, Israel, with love."
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 111; The Orot Sephardic Weekday Siddur (1994, NJ, Orot Inc.) page 178; Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, Engl.transl. 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publ'n Society) page 63 ("The priests did not begin on their own, but the precentor had to call out the blessing before them, and this custom has become so deeply rooted that it is regarded as a rule of the Torah. (citing Sifre, Numbers, sec. 39)"
- Mansour, Eli. "Does a Kohen Who Serves as Hazzan Recite Birkat Kohanim?". DailyHalacha.com. Torah Learning Resources Ltd. Retrieved 10 March 2013.
- cf. The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Ashkenaz ed., 2nd ed. 1987, Brooklyn) page 923; Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) pages 43 & 69.
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 112; Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, Engl.transl. 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publ'n Society) page 64; The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Ashkenaz ed., 2nd ed. 1987, Brooklyn) page 295.
- See, e.g., Leonard Nimoy, Live Long and Prosper (Shekhinah descends and looking at it would seriously injure or kill person); Birkhat Kohanim ("the Divine Presence would shine on the fingers of the Kohanim as they would bless the Jews, and no one was allowed to look out of respect for God").
- During the First Temple period, people wore as amulets silver scrolls on which the Birkhat Kohanim was inscribed, as described in the article Ketef Hinnom.
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 110; Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) page 95; The Orot Sephardic Weekday Siddur (1994, NJ, Orot Inc.) pages 178 & 181.
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 110
- Sperling, Abraham, Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions [Ta-amei Ha-Minhagim] (orig. 1890, Engl. transl. 1968, NY, Bloch Publ'g Co.) pages 62–63.
- בצפון ובכל מקום שנהגו לשאת-כפיים רק במוסף שבת
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) pages 109–110; Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, Engl.transl. 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publ'n Society) pages 64–66.
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 109; Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) pages 37–38.
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) pages 110–111, although the Zohar and the Vilna Gaon had distinct instructionson the leader turning to the left and right at certain words.
- Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) pages 109–110; although Yom Kippur is a solemn occasion, by the Neilah service there is a sense of hope and optimism for Divine forgiveness.
- Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) page 41.
- Mayer Rabinowitz, Women Raise Your Hands, OH 128:2.1994a
- Rabbis Stanley Bramnick and Judah Kagen, 1994; and a responsa by the Va'ad Halakha of the Masorti movement, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, 5748
- Kol Haneshamah Sahabat Vḥagim, The Reconstructionist Press Wyncote PA 1994 p.348 (footnote 2)
- 1983 television show "Leonard Nimoy's Star Trek Memories" This story was told by Nimoy on camera and repeated in somewhat abbreviated form in 1999 on the SciFi Channel "Star Trek: Special Edition" commentary for the episode "Amok Time". Again, the story was told by Nimoy on camera.
- Associated Press. "Astronaut Sends Vulcan Tribute to Leonard Nimoy From Final Frontier". NBC News. Retrieved 28 February 2015.
- Leonard Cohen recites the blessing at the end of his concert in Israel
- Rabbi Avi Gold, Bircas Kohanim: The Priestly Blessings: Background, Translation, and Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Sources Artscroll Mesorah Series, 1981, 95 pages. ISBN 0-89906-184-2
- Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer, David Brofsky, KTAV Publishing House/OU Press/Yeshivat Har Etzion. 2010. (ISBN 978-1-60280-164-6)
- Reasons for the customs of the Priestly Blessings (Birchat Kohanim) from the Chabad.org Jewish Knowledge Base
- Priestly Blessing, from the Union of Reform Judaism
- www.cohen-levi.org procedure for the blessing of the kohanim (info on ceremony and picture of hand position for blessing—Orthodox perspective)
- Recording of the Priestly Blessing on the Zemirot Database
- Why the Priestly Blessing is not recited daily in the Diaspora
- Article provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism
- Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, at Hebrew for Christians