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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
One of the most impressive and characteristic features of the service both in the Temple of Jerusalem and in the synagogue, having its origin in the blessing pronounced by the Aaronites in accordance with the command and the formula ordained in Numbers 6:22-27: "And God spake unto Moses saying, Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise shall ye 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." Thrice in the Pentateuch the priestly blessing is mentioned: once in speaking of Aaron (Leviticus 9:22; compare Sifra, Shemini, and Soṭah 38a), and twice in referring to the priests (Deuteronomy 10:8, 21:5). In the historical books of the Bible there are two references to the blessing of the people by the priests (Joshua 8:33; 2 Chronicles 30:27).
In Temple and Synagogue.
Many rules were observed by the priests when pronouncing the blessing. These rules made some distinctions between the service in the Temple of Jerusalem and the services elsewhere. Thus, in the Temple the blessing was spoken after the sacrifice of the daily offering (Soṭah 7:6; Tamid 5:1, 7:2; Meg. 18a); elsewhere it was pronounced during the daily morning service and on Sabbath and holidays at every service, with the exception of that in the afternoon, because this followed shortly after the midday meal, at which the priests were permitted to drink wine; and it was feared that this might unfit them to perform the function properly. On fast-days, however, the blessing was pronounced also at the afternoon service (Ta'anit 26a, b; Maimonides, "Yad," Tefillah, 14:14; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 39, 1). In the Temple the priests used the Tetragrammaton, Yhwh, pronouncing it distinctly in uttering the blessing; elsewhere the pronunciation see see ADONAI was substituted (Soṭah, 38a; Num. R. 11:4; Sifre, Naso, 39; "Yad," c. 10). According to one report, the priests discontinued using the Tetragrammaton, even in the Temple, after the death of Simon the Just, in order that no man who was not respected and worthy might learn it (Yoma 39b). In the Temple the three portions of the blessing were spoken without pause, and at the close the people responded: "Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel from eternity to eternity" (DOXOLOGY). Elsewhere the priests paused after each sentence, and the people responded with an "Amen."
Restrictions and Regulations.
The blessing was given with uplifted hands. In the Temple service the priests raised their hands above their heads, while in other places they lifted them only to their shoulders. Any Aaronite who had attained manhood's estate was enjoined to perform the function; there were, however, certain disqualifications due to physical, moral, or ritualistic defects (Meg. 24b; Ber. 32b; "Yad," Tefillah, 15:1-6; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 128, 30-41; see Blemish); viz., if a priest had ever killed a human being (even though unintentionally), committed idolatry, violated any of the Levitical purity or marriage laws pertaining to the priests, committed any crime without having repented, or had indulged unduly in drinking wine (this is based upon the juxtaposition of the chapter on the Nazarite, Numbers 6:1-21, and the priestly blessing, Ta'anit 26b, 22-27); if he were crippled, a hunchback, or blind even in one eye, or had anydefect on his hands, or if his speech were not distinct; and, finally, without ablution of the hands, he was disqualified. (Compare Blemish.) Should any priests who were thus incapacitated, or who considered themselves unworthy, be present at the service, they were compelled to leave before the reader in his prayer gave the signal to the priests; for otherwise they would violate the command, "Thus shall ye bless the children of Israel."
The blessing was to be spoken standing, as were the blessings in Deuteronomy 27 (Soṭah 38a; Sifre, c.; Num. R. c.). The priests faced the congregation out of respect for the people; but the latter were not allowed to look at the priests while the blessing was spoken, lest their attention should be distracted and their devotions disturbed ("Yad," c. 14:7). In all motions connected with the blessing, such as advancing to the platform, or turning toward the Ark or the congregation, the priest was always to go to the right ("Yad," c. 14:13 after Soṭah 15b).
The blessing was to be spoken in Hebrew because of the command "thus"; that is, only in the prescribed words and language. It was to be pronounced in a loud voice so that all the congregation could hear. The priests were required to discard their leather foot-wear (sandals) when they ascended the platform to pronounce the blessing (Soṭah 40a). They were required to wash their hands before proceeding to the performance of the function (Soṭah 39a).
Its Place in the Liturgy.
Originally the priestly blessing was a function performed every morning at the regular service, provided the necessary number of ten persons were present (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 128, 1). But in the course of time, as the daily business became too pressing to allow the people to spend so much time on their devotion, the blessing was merely recited by the reader and introduced by a brief prayer such as is inserted in the common daily ritual; and the priestly blessing was reserved for Sabbath and holy days (Ḳol Bo, 128). Finally, in view of the fact that on the festival days people are better disposed, both in body and in soul, for the reception of the divine blessing, owing to the purifying ablutions of the previous day and to their greater cheerfulness of spirit, the festival day alone was retained for the imparting of the priestly blessing, and not the "Shaḥarit," but the "Musaf" service was selected, on which occasion the attendance is large (see Bet Josef, Ṭur Oraḥ Ḥayyim, c.; Moses Isserles, to Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 1:44, and the commentators; also Magen Abraham, for the reason why the blessing is not imparted when the holy day falls on the Sabbath). In Amsterdam and other places the blessing is recited every Sabbath.
The main idea pervading the whole function of the priestly blessing rests upon the Name of God (Shem ha-Meforash), which is to be "put upon the children of Israel." While originally every greeting or blessing was accompanied by the pronunciation of the Name to make it efficient (see Ber. 9:4; compare Psalms 118:26), it became later only the privilege of the priests to use the Name in blessing the people; and the reverential sanctity attached to the Name lent to the priestly function a mystical and almost magical power. Hence the belief prevailed that during the lifting up of the hands by the priests, the Shekinah was hovering over their heads and its rays streamed through their open fingers, the people not being allowed to look on lest, like those who gazed at the sacred Ark in ancient times, they might be hurt, struck with dimness of the eyes and other misfortunes (Ḥag. 16a; Soṭah 39b; Yer. Meg. 4:75c; Cant. R. 2:9; Num. R.; "'Aruk," s. ; see, however, Tosef., Ḥag. 16a; and Yer. Meg. c., for more rationalistic views regarding the time when the Name was no longer pronounced). That great magical powers were long afterward ascribed to the priestly blessing may be learned from the advice given in the time of Rab Ashi to those troubled by bad dreams; viz., to offer a prayer that God might turn every curse into blessing (Ber. 55b)—a prayer which has been embodied in the common ritual, and is still recited during the singing of the blessing; the medieval mystics having added strange, fantastic, angelic conjurations to make it still more efficacious.
Another opinion (Cant. R. on 3:7; Num. R. 11:9) is that the mere listening to the priestly blessing is a charm against every malign influence, the sixty letters of the blessing being "the threescore valiant men, each his sword upon his thigh because of the fear in the night" (Song of Songs 3:8).
Even the haggadic comments and the Scripture parallels given in Soṭah 39b-40a, Sifre and Num. R. c., to the priestly blessing have been embodied in the ritual; and they are, partly on the recommendation and partly with the disapproval of the Rabbis, recited during the singing of the blessing by the priests (see Tos. Soṭah 40a; Ḳol Bo, c., and ABUDARHAM).
After the "Modim," the reader introduces the priestly blessing with the words: "Our God and God of our fathers, bless us with the threefold blessing which is in the Torah, written by Moses, Thy servant, spoken by Aaron and his sons, the priests, Thy holy people." Then the Aaronites proceed to the platform and offer the following invocation silently: "May it be Thy will, O Eternal our God, that this blessing wherewith Thou hast commanded us to bless Thy people Israel may be a perfect blessing; may it be imparted without stumbling and error now and ever" (Soṭah 39a). The benediction is also prescribed which the priests recite before giving the blessing.
In the Reform ritual the priestly blessing is usually recited by the rabbi at the close of each service before the dismissal of the congregation; the assumption being that the Aaronites have ceased to possess special claims and obligations as priests, since with the destruction of the Temple the people of Israel became the priest-nation (CONFERENCES, RABBINICAL).
The great danger in all blessings by priests lies in the possibility that the people may believe such blessings to have mediatorial power. This idea has always been foreign to the spirit of Judaism. The priest is not a mediator. The blessing which he utters has no magical power for good or It is merely a portion of the prescribed ritual. Not thepriest, but God, blesses (see Sifre, c.): "I (God) will bless them." These words are used so that the Israelites may not say that their welfare depends upon the blessing by the priests; God alone can bless. Furthermore, these words are used that the priests may not say, "We will bless Israel." From God alone do blessings flow: no man has power to bestow them (Sifre, c.; Ḥul. 49a, where, in opposition to R. Ishmael (the priest), R. Akiba interprets the words "And I will bless them" as referring to Israel and not to the priests, since these could merely pronounce the blessing, while the real blessing comes from God).
Each word of the priestly blessing was a fruitful theme of comment and interpretation.
"May God bless thee" with wealth, and "keep thee" in health.
"May He let His countenance shine toward thee"; e., "May He give thee the light of the eyes"; or, according to Rabbi Nathan, "the light of the Shekinah."
"May He be gracious to thee" with knowledge and understanding, with learning, instruction, and wisdom.
"May He lift up His countenance toward thee"; e., "May His anger pass away from thee."
"May He grant thee peace" in thy going out and in thy coming in, with all men, in thy house, and without end.
"Great is peace, for through it alone is blessing secured."
"Great is peace, because it seals all the blessings" (Num. R. 11:7; Sifre, Naso, 40-42).
The ceremony of pronouncing the benediction is termed in the Talmud (Ḥul. 132b; Meg. 24b et passim) "nesiat kappayim" (raising of the hands), from Leviticus 9:22. It is also familiarly called "dukan" (platform), from the position of the priests during the ceremony. These stand on a dais or platform, such as that upon which the Levitical choir in the Temple was placed. Hence the Judæo-German verb in common usage, "duchanen."
The hands as upraised during the priestly blessing, with the thumb and first finger and the middle and ring-fingers so separated as to form little spaces through which the rays of the Shekinah streamed upon the assembled worshipers, in accordance with Song of Solomon 2:9 (see Soṭah 39b; Num. R.; 'Aruk, s. ), were adopted as the family badge of a Cohen. It is found thus on gravestones, objects of ecclesiastical art, imprints of books, etc., and is still so used, being frequently surmounted by a crown ("keter kehunah") (see COHEN (2)). The fear that the people might gaze at the priest during the blessing, which was regarded as a perilous irreverence, gave rise to the custom of covering the head (and usually the hands as well) with the ṭallit during the recital of the benedictions. As the reader commences to intone the first of the three passages which form the conclusion of every "'Amidah," those Aaronites who desire to be released from the performance of the Biblical command withdraw from the synagogue, in order that they may not hear the reader call upon the Kohanim to carry out their duty. With them withdraw any Aaronites who may be mourners, or under the age of puberty, defective in person or speech, accidental manslayers, or married to divorced women—all these being excluded from participation. Those remaining remove their leather boots, after which water is poured over their hands by the Levites. The priests then assemble on the steps of the Ark with their faces toward it, each covering his head with his ṭallit; and when, during the service, the reader calls out to them, "Kohanim," they face right about, spread their hands horizontally above their heads, palms downward, in the manner indicated, and chant together: "Blessed be Thou, Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast sanctified us with the holiness appertaining to Aaron, and commanded us to bless Thy people Israel in love." Word by word the three verses are then dictated by the reader, the priests swinging north and south at suitable words in order to include the congregants standing right and left as well as those in front of them. At the close of each verse the response "amen" is given; and after the third verse they face about again, remaining before the Ark until the reader concludes the 'Amidah with the next paragraph.
The Spanish Chant.
From the first the benedictions appear to have been uttered with the singing rather than the speaking voice (compare Maimonides, "Yad," Tefillah, 14:14). Even in Talmudical times the singing seems to have been so protracted that Biblical texts suitable to each word were suggested to the congregation to meditate upon during the chanting. But the recital of these verses by the worshipers, or the introduction of more than one melody by the Kohanim, was rather deprecated by the Rabbis. The tunes of the chanting on each of the holy days differfrom one another, some appearing to be of very ancient origin. One of these is preserved in the traditions of the Sephardim, to which each of the fifteen words of the benediction is sung at length; and this has been seriously claimed to be the identical melody sung by the priests in the Temple. But while obviously antique, being practically melismatic psalmody in the sixth ecclesiastical mode, yet its structure, particularly its coda, is so close a reproduction of many another strain in the music of the southern Jews, of acknowledged peninsular origin by them, that no claim could be allowed to an origin more remote than Moresque Spain, even were not the resemblance to some of the later Mozarabic intonations so unmistakable. (See p. 246.)
"The Chant of the Dead."
The Ashkenazim have a large number of melodies to which the words of the benediction are sung. Almost every congregation, indeed every family of Kohanim, has its own tradition. Often, however, these airs are but distinctive melodies of a particular festival, or echoes of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century German folk-song. Only two have any claim to antiquity like that of the Spanish chant. The older is a medieval German melody, which exists in several variants, and is in most instances reserved for the concluding days of the festivals ("Hazkarat Neshamot, Matnat Yad"), when departed relatives are called to mind. From this it has come to be widely known as "Niggun Metim" or "The Chant of the Dead." Its recent history is of particular interest. Developed with insight and feeling by Cantor Naumbourg of Paris, an instrumental arrangement was published in E. Pauer and F. L. Cohen's "Traditional Hebrew Melodies," London, 1896, which attracted the attention of the late Queen Victoria, and was played as the introductory voluntary at several memorial services of the British royal family. In its original simple form this chant is as follows:
The Polish Melody.
The other old northern chant is of Polish origin, probably of the seventeenth century, and is perhaps even more extensively known. At once beautiful in itself and very characteristic, it is to many lovers of music a typical example of Hebrew melody. In most British synagogues the whole ceremony is performed to its melodious phrases.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Blessing, Priestly'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/b/blessing-priestly.html. 1901.
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26