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Nasso: The Priestly Blessing

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department 

And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, Thus ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace, And they shall put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them. (6, 22-27) 

The priestly benedictions are familiar to every Jew who visits the synagogue, so familiar indeed that we are perhaps inclined to forget their true content and fail to appreciate their profound significance. Simple as their wording appears these benedictions have puzzled many of our classic commentators. Here is one of the difficulties involved as phrased by Isaac Arama the author of Akedat Yizhak:

What purpose is served by the fact that this precept enjoins that these benedictions should proceed from the priests to the people? Surely it is He on high Who blesses and what is gained or added whether the priests bless or refrain from doing so? Is it up to them to assist Him?

Indeed the very wording of the verses prompts this question. The blessings are introduced by an order addressed to the priests “thus ye shall bless” and conclude with the divine statement “And I will bless them”. An easy solution to the above dilemma would be to take the object of the last phrase “I will bless them” as referring not to all Israel but to the priests engaged in blessing Israel, as Ishmael observes in the Talmud (Hullin 49a):

We have learned regarding the blessing of Israel; but regarding a blessing for the priests themselves we have not learned. The additional phrase “And I will bless them” (repairs this omission and) implies: the priests bless Israel and the Holy One blessed be He blesses the priests.

But most of our commentators have not accepted this interpretation including the Rashbam. He explains that the priests were not commanded to bless the people as one individual blesses another but to invoke the divine blessing on them. God promised to respond to their prayer that He bless and guard Israel. A similar idea is expressed by our sages in the Midrash Tanhuma:

Said the House of Israel to the Holy One blessed be He: Lord of the Universe, you order the priests to bless us? We need only Thy blessing. Look down from Thy holy habitation and bless Thy people. The Holy One blessed be He replied to them: Though I ordered the priests to bless you I stand with them together and bless you.
These sentiments of our Sages underline that it is not the function of the priests which is all-important. Their benedictory function is even more reduced and deprived of any independent significance in the following citation from our Sages:

How do we know that Israel should not say: Their blessings are dependent on the priests? And that the priests should not say: We shall bless Israel? The Torah states “And I will bless them.” (Sifrei) You might think that if they (the priests) desired to bless Israel they would be blessed and that if they did not, they would not be blessed? The Torah states: “And I will bless them”. Willy-nilly “I will bless them” from heaven. (Sifrei Zota)

But the above statements of our sages, careful, as they are to avoid any suggestion of the magical efficacy of the priestly blessing, do not give us a clear answer to the question of the House of Israel:

Lord of the Universe, you order the priests to bless us? We need only Thy blessing.

Since the verb bless (in Hebrew Berech) appears in two different contexts, first with reference to the priests and then with reference to God, it is suggested by Abravanel that there is a difference in the implications of the verb in these two contexts.

“Blessing” is a homonym referring both to the good emanating from God to His creatures as in “And the Lord blessed Abraham with all” (Genesis 24) and the blessing proceeding from man to God above in the sense of praise, as in “And David blessed the Lord” (I Chronicles 29). Then there is the blessing given by one person to another which is neither to be compared to the abundance of grace emanating from God nor to the praise proceeding from His creatures, but rather constitutes a supplication by the author calling on God to bless the person concerned. Into this category falls the priestly blessing … They merely invoke the divine blessing on Israel. Accordingly only the phrase “and I will bless them” and “the Lord bless thee” in the first section come under the category of divine blessing in the sense of an outpouring of His goodness unto man, whilst the “blessing” of human beings is nothing more than a prayer, an invocation and not a real gift. Hirsch in his comments on our subject illustrates how the Torah wished to rule out any suggestion of creation of a priestly caste endowed with any special power of blessing:

The priest who blesses in but an instrument, a medium through which the benediction is expressed. The death of the two sons of Aaron (Leviticus 10) the first heirs to the priesthood emphasised the irrevocable law that only service “which God had commanded” – could be considered service. Service which “the Lord had not commanded” – human deeds and machinations constitutes something alien and the very opposite of the service desired by the Lord. This same principle applied to the priestly benediction “thus shall ye bless the Children of Israel” – only thus and no deviation whatsoever is permitted … Only after being summoned by the congregation do they recite the blessing, with the representative of the congregation acting as the prompter so that the congregation invokes the divine blessing through the vocal medium of the priests.

The question then arises why do we need the priest at all? This principle of enlisting human cooperation in the work of God is to be found in many places. In Deuteronomy (10, 16) we read:

And ye shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts.

Later we read (30, 6):

And the Lord thy God shall circumcise you heart.

Similarly in Ezekiel (18, 31) we read:

And make you a new heart and a new spirit.

Whilst later (36, 26) we read:

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit …

This symbolic cooperation between God and man is referred to in the Talmud (Shabbat 89a):

When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One blessed be He adoring the letters (of the Torah) with crowns. The Holy One said to him: Moses ,is it not customary in your town to ask after a person’s welfare? Moses answered him: does a slave greet his master so? The Holy One answered him :You should at any rate have given Me a helping hand. (i.e. wished me success in My work).

Rabbi H.Y. Pollak ,one of our commentators, interprets this Midrash as follows:

The Holy One asked Moses whether he had done all in his power as a leader to promote the welfare and moral perfection of his society. Moses however had thought that it was not within human capacity to purify and perfect human society beyond the limits set to their nature by God. To which God replied that though everything was ultimately dependent on His will it was man’s duty to purify himself and society through upright conduct. Only in such a manner would they be fit to receive the blessing of God, just the same as the earth cannot profit by the rain and the dew until it is properly sown and plowed. That was the meaning of the Almighty’s reply: You should at any rate have helped Me.

The human assistance that God requires is implied in the order to the priests to bless the Children of Israel and prepare their hearts “they shall put My name on the Children of Israel”, just as the ground is prepared by the farmer for the rain. The exact formula for the benediction is laid down in the Torah and is not left to man. The blessing is divided into three parts, each one containing two verbs and the name of God in the middle. Here is the first section of the blessing as explained by our commentators:

“May the Lord bless thee”– that thy goods may be blessed. (Rashi) This implies the blessing appropriate to each person; to the student of Torah success in his studies; the businessman – in his business, etc. (Ha’amek Davar) “And keep thee” – that plunderers should not come and take your property. He who gives a gift to his slave cannot safeguard it from everyone and if thieves come and take it what benefit has he therefrom? But the Holy One blessed be He He both gives and stands guard … (Rashi) A blessing requires guardianship so that it should not, God forbid, be turned to a wrong purpose. The Torah scholar requires guardianship to save him from pride and bringing the name of the Lord into disrepute, and the like. The businessman requires guardianship against his wealth becoming a stumbling block to him as in the case of Korah and Naboth, and in its literal sense, against theft and loss. (Ha’amek Davar)

Whichever interpretation we accept, the blessing referred to in the first section is material.

“May the Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee …” This is the light of Torah that He should enlighten your eyes and heart in Torah and grant you children learned in Torah, as it is said: “For the commandment is a lamp and the Torah a light”. (Bamidbar Rabbah 11,6)

The second section of the benediction refers to spiritual blessing and we may take the phrase” be gracious unto thee” to imply the good will and respect inspired by the one who engages in the study of Torah.

The third section adds to and sums up the previous:

The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

In this connection it is fitting to quote the following dictum of our sages in Sifra (Behukotai):

Peradventure you will say (in comment on the blessing in Leviticus 26, 3-6: “And ye shall eat your bread to the full…and I will give peace in the land”) food and drink is all well and good, but without peace they are worth nothing! The Torah therefore states “and I will give peace in the land” – for peace outweighs all else.

Accordingly the three sections of the priestly benedictions illustrate an ascending order, starting with a blessing concerned with man’s material needs and then dealing with his spiritual wants, and finally reaching a climax combining both these factors together, crowning them with the blessing of peace. This ascending order and increasing surge of blessing is reflected in the language and rhythm. The first phrase consists of three words, the second of five, and the third of seven:

The Lord bless thee, and keep thee:
The Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:
The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.