"The Lord bless you, and keep you [protect you, sustain you, and guard you]; the Lord make His face shine upon you [with favor], and be gracious to you [surrounding you with lovingkindness]; the Lord lift up His countenance (face) upon you [with divine approval], and give you peace [a tranquil heart and life]." (Numbers 6:24-26)

The Key to God’s Blessing – LoveIsrael

Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, which we read in this week’s parasha of Naso, is a favorite moment for people who go to the synagogue. In Israel, this blessing is recited every day; outside of Israel, it is recited several times a year. Toward the end of the prayer service, the Kohanim walk up to the front of the synagogue, wrap themselves in their tallit (prayer shawl), raise their hands toward the congregation and bless it with a blessing composed of three parts: “May the Lord bless you and watch over you; May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you; May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” (Bamidbar [Numbers] 6:24-26)

When the Torah instructs the Kohanim to bless the congregation with Birkat Kohanim, we read two additional verses. One serves as the introduction to the blessing and the other as a conclusion. The introduction is: The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them: May the Lord bless… (Ibid Ibid, 22 – 23)

Simply, God instructs Aharon and his descendants the Kohanim to bless the nation. But with the conclusion of this instruction we read another verse that raises a question regarding the identity of who is giving the blessing: They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them. (Ibid Ibid, 27)

So who is giving the blessing? God who says “so that I will bless them”, or the Kohanim who were told “This is how you should bless the children of Israel”?

Actually, when you listen to the content of Birkat Kohanim itself, this question is easily answered. The Kohanim say to the congregation “May the Lord bless you and watch over you”. So we see that the Kohanim bless the nation with God’s blessing. They do not create the blessing themselves. They just pass it on.

As to the literal meaning of the words “so that I will bless them”, the great Jewish sages of the 1st century CE, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael, disagreed with one another. This dispute is mentioned in the Talmud Bavli (Tractate Chulin, daf 49). According to Rabbi Akiva, the meaning of these words is as we understand: It is not the Kohanim who bless the nation, but rather God provides His blessing to the nation. “I will bless them”, with “them” referring to the Jewish nation.

Rabbi Yishmael does not disagree with this concept since, as we have already shown, the blessing itself shows us that God is the one doing the blessing and not the Kohanim. And yet, he believes the words “I will bless them” contain an additional meaning: The entire nation is blessed with God’s blessing by the Kohanim, but – asks Rabbi Yishmael – who blesses the Kohanim themselves? “…so that I will bless them” is the answer to this. God Himself blesses the Kohanim.

But are the Kohanim not included in the blessing of the entire nation? Do they not receive the blessing from God which they themselves bequeath to the congregation standing before them who hears their blessing? Why would we need another blessing in the form of “I will bless them”?

It seems that Rabbi Yishmael is teaching us an incredibly important lesson. Indeed, the Kohanim are blessed by the same Godly blessing which they pass on to the entire nation. But by performing this deed, by blessing the nation, they merit an additional blessing.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site

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