Numbers 4:21 to 7:89 The reading this week contains the Priestly Benediction … three lines invoking the blessing of God on the Israelite people. It is believed to be the oldest known example of Torah text. The actual words were found on metal scrolls dating back to the First Temple – 2600 years ago.
The parsha opens with text about the census of the Levite tribes which began in last week’s reading. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses: ‘Take a census of the Gersonites also by their ancestral house and clans…’” (Num. 4:21-2)
Then, if we look further into the text … toward the end of the parsha … we find the poetic words of the Priestly Benediction:
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:’”
“The Eternal bless you and protect you!”
“The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you!”
“The Eternal bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!”
“Thus they (the priests) shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I (the Eternal) will bless them.” (Num.6:22-27)
The blessing can be interpreted as follows:
Line 1: bless and protect – God will deliver the people’s basic needs for survival.
Line 2: deal kindly and graciously – God will act to allow the people to keep their possessions and freedom. And the wealth and positions that are accumulated will not become a stumbling block as it did for Korach. (Num. 16:1-35)
Line 3: give you peace – God will provide the spiritual needs to create a life full of inner satisfaction.
It is said that these might be the oldest known words of Torah dating back to just before the destruction of the first Temple. They were found on two silver plaques discovered in Jerusalem in 1979 and dated back to about 700 BCE. The plaques read:
“May he [or she] be blessed by God, the rescuer and rebuker of evil?”
The words share a similar meaning with the second of the three blessings. (Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. p. 922)
As the blessing was delivered, the priests would hold up their hands with spaces between the thumb and second/third fingers and the fourth/fifth fingers to form the Hebrew letter Shin (See picture above)…. This tradition has continued through to contemporary times.
Nehama Leibowitz raises a question about this blessing …..By what power do the priests have to bless the people with Gods power?
In answer to the question, the priests can bless the people because God commanded them to do so … as stated in the first line of the above Torah quote. And as we learned from the deaths of Aaron’s sons at the Tabernacle’s dedication, the ritual instructions of the Eternal are to be followed… exactly.
However, according to most commentators, including Rashbam, this is not to be a blessing like that of one person blessing another person. In this case, the priests invoke the divine blessing on the people. Then, God promises to bless and guard Israel.
A similar idea is presented in Midrash Tanhuma: Said the Israelites to the Eternal, “You order the priest to bless us. We need only thy blessing. Look down from Thy holy habitation and bless thy people. The Holy One … replied: ‘Though I ordered the priest to bless you I stand with them together and bless you.’” (N. Leibowiz, Studies in Bamidbar/Numbers, p. 60-63)
But, why the priests and not a direct blessing from the Eternal?…. God blessed each of the patriarchs. God’s blessing should continue through the generations…. But, when God delivered the Ten Commandments, according to Torah, the people were full of fear and asked that God only speak to Moses. So, now for God to bless the people, a middle agent was needed … the priests.
It is believed that, at first, the priests blessed individuals using the words of the benediction. Later, they blessed the entire community.
After the Temple and the priests disappeared, the words become more of a prayer than a priestly blessing. This prayer acted to pass the blessing that God conferred on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob forward to future generations. The Eternal no longer spoke the words directly. In the days of the First and Second Temples, the blessing was delivered to the people through the words of the priests…. And now the blessing is carried forward through the words of Torah and our spoken prayers.
According to Wikipedia the Priestly Benediction is recited daily in Israel and among most Sephardi Jews worldwide. On Shabbat and festivals it is also recited during the repetition of the Musaf service.
In the Diaspora, it is generally accepted that Ashkenazic Orthodox communities perform the ceremony involving the Priestly blessing only on the major festivals. (Pesach, Shavuot, Shemini Atzert, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur)
According the Wikipedia article most Conservative congregations do not perform the priestly blessing on a regular basis. Liberal congregations (Reform and Reconstructionists) have, for the most part also eliminated the blessing from their liturgy. If it is included, it is usually added at the end of the Amidah of the Shacharit service. (morning prayer service)
And so the three poetic lines that continue the blessing that God conferred on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continues to be a part of our tradition…. They are now delivered to the people through the words of Torah and our prayers.