Photo Credit: Jewish Press

I confess to a thrill every time I read these words:

Tell Aharon and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
“May the L-rd bless you and protect you.
May the L-rd make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the L-rd turn His face toward you and grant you peace.”’
Let them put My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. (Bamidbar 6:23-27)

These are among the oldest continuously-used words of blessing ever. We recite them daily at the beginning of the morning service. Some say them last thing at night. We use them to bless our children on Friday nights. They are often used to bless the bride and groom at weddings. They are widely used by non-Jews also. Their simplicity, their cumulative three-word, five-word, seven-word structure, their ascending movement from protection to grace to peace, all make them a miniature gem of prayer whose radiance has not diminished in the more than three thousand years since their formulation.


In previous years I have written about the meaning of the blessings. This time I ask three different questions: First, why kohanim? Why not prophets, kings, sages or saints?

Second, why the unique form of the birkat ha’mitzvah, the blessing made by the kohanim over the commandment to bless the people? The blessing is, “who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon and commanded us to bless His people with love.” No other blessing over a command specifies that it be done with love.

There is an argument in the Talmud as to whether commands must be performed with the proper intent, kavannah, or whether the deed itself is enough. But intent is different from motive. Intent merely means that I am performing the command because it is a command. I am acting consciously, knowingly, deliberately, in obedience to the divine will. It has nothing to do with an emotion like love. Why does this command and no other require love?

Third, why have human beings bless the people at all? It is G-d who blesses humanity and His people Israel. He needs no human intermediary. Our passage says just this: “Let them put My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” The blessings come not from the kohanim but from G-d Himself. So why require the kohanim to “put His name” on the people?

In answer to the first, Sefer Ha’Chinnuch says simply that the kohanim were the sacred group within the people. They ministered in the house of G-d. They spent their lives in divine service. Their life’s work was sacred. So was their habitat. They were the guardians of holiness. They were therefore the obvious choice for the sacred rite of bringing down G-d’s blessings upon the people.

Rabbi Aharon Walkin, in the preface to his Matsa Aharon, offered a more prosaic explanation. The kohanim had no share in the land. Their sole income was from the mattenot kehunah, the gifts of the kohanim, that was their due from the people as a whole. It followed that they had an interest in the people prospering, because then they, too, would prosper. They would bless the people with a full heart, seeking their good, because they would benefit thereby.

Rabbi Avraham Gafni offered a third explanation. We read that on the consecration of the Tabernacle, “Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them” (Vayikra 9:22). Rashi says that the blessing he gave the people on that occasion was indeed the priestly blessing as specified in our parsha. However, Ramban suggests that perhaps Aharon’s blessing was spontaneous, and because he showed such generosity of spirit, he was given by G-d the reward that it would be his descendants who would bless Israel in future.

What then about the reference in the blessing to love? There are two different interpretations: that the reference is to the kohanim, or that the reference is to G-d.

The second reverses the word order of the blessing and reads it not as “who commanded us to bless His people with love,” but rather, “who in love commanded us to bless His people.” The blessing speaks of G-d’s love, not that of the kohanim. Because G-d loves His people, He commands the kohanim to bless them.

The first reading, grammatically more plausible, is that it is the kohanim who must love. This is the basis of the statement in the Zohar that “a kohen who does not love the people, or a kohen who is not loved by the people, may not bless.” We can only bless what we love. Recall how the blind and aged Yitzchak said to Esav, “Prepare me the tasty food that I love and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die” (Bereishis 27:4). Whether it was the food that Isaac loved, or what it represented about Esav’s character – that he cared enough for his father to find him the food he liked – Yitzchak needed the presence of love to be able to make the blessing.

Why then does the blessing for this mitzvah and no other specify that it must be done with love? Because in every other case it is the agent who performs the ma’aseh mitzvah, the act that constitutes the command. Uniquely in the case of the priestly blessings, the kohen is merely a machshir mitzvah – an enabler, not a doer. The doer is G-d Himself: “Let them place My name on the children of Israel and I will bless them.” The kohanim are merely channels through which G-d’s blessings flow.

This means that they must be selfless while uttering the blessings. We let G-d into the world and ourselves to the degree that we forget ourselves and focus on others. That is what love is. We see this in the passage in which Yaakov, having fallen in love with Rachel, agrees to Lavan’s terms: seven years of work. We read: “So Yaakov served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Bereishis 29:20). The commentators ask the obvious question: precisely because he was so much in love, the seven years should have felt like a century. The answer is equally obvious: he was thinking of her, not him. There was nothing selfish in his love. He was focused on her presence, not his impatient desire.

The key text of the holiness ethic is Vayikra 19: “Be holy for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy.” It is this chapter that teaches the two great commands of interpersonal love, of the neighbor and the stranger. The ethic of holiness, taught by the kohanim, is the ethic of love. This surely is the basis of Hillel’s statement in Pirkei Avot, “Be like the disciples of Aharon, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah.”

That ethic belongs to the specific vision of the kohen, set out in Bereishis 1, which sees the world as G-d’s work and the human person as G-d’s image. Our very existence, and the existence of the universe, are the result of G-d’s love.

By blessing the people, the kohanim showed them what love of one’s fellow is. Here is Rambam’s definition of what it is to ‘love your neighbor as yourself”: “One should speak in praise of his neighbor, and be considerate of his money, even as he is considerate of his own money, or desires to preserve his own honor.” Blessing the people showed that you sought their good – and seeking their good is what loving them means.

Thus the kohanim set an example to the people by this public display of love – or what we would call today “the common good.” They thus encouraged a society in which each sought the welfare of all – and such a society is blessed, because the bonds between its members are strong, and because people put the interests of the nation as a whole before their own private advantage. Such a society is blessed by G-d, whereas a selfish society is not, and cannot, be blessed by G-d. No selfish society has survived for long.

Hence our answers to the questions: why the kohanim? Because their ethic emphasized love – of neighbor and stranger – and we need love before we can bless. Love is mentioned in the blessing over the commandment, because love is how blessings enter the world. And why have human beings bestow the blessing, instead of G-d doing so Himself? Because the kohanim were to be role models of what it is for humans to care for the welfare of others. I believe that Birkat Kohanim contains a vital message for us today: A society whose members seek one another’s welfare is holy and blessed.


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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.