Parashat Naso: Numbers 4:21 to 7:89

For Shabbat, June 2, 2023

This week’s Torah portion includes one of the most frequently invoked of all biblical passages, the “birkat Cohanim,” the priestly benediction. The stark simplicity of the blessing is precisely the source of its power. It is a highly structured, progressing text, moving from three to five to seven words, thus reaching a gorgeous Hebrew culmination. Modern commentators refer to it as a “rising crescendo” that reaches its climax with the blessing of shalom.Originally the blessing was part of the daily ritual in the Jerusalem Temple. Following the destruction in 70 C.E. the ritual continued to be re-enacted by the priests as part of the synagogue service. To this day, it is part of the daily service in Israeli synagogues, and is recited for the High Holiday Musaf services in traditionalist synagogues. In the diaspora (of which we’re a part) the practice is called “duchanen,” after the word “duchan” which means a rostrum, from which the blessing is pronounced. 

Frequently this blessing is used by rabbis for a wedding ceremony, or at the conclusion of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. In traditionalist synagogues, the “kohanim” face the congregation with their ‘talitot’ draped over their heads and arms, their arms raised with the fingers of their hands forming the Hebrew letter “shin,” which symbolizes ‘Shaddai,” one of the names used for God in the book of Genesis. So the priests are delivering the blessing, but the source of the blessing is God! One other important note: the kohanim (priests) must recite this blessing facing the congregants, and express the words with a sense of love for their people. Without love and kindness, there is no meaning to these special words.

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