Last year, on the Passover holiday, the coronavirus reigned in Israel and the world, people were isolated in their homes, and the decades-old custom of the mass Birkat Cohanim—priestly blessing—at the Kotel each pilgrimage holiday was interrupted. It was one of the signs that a terribly dangerous plague was about.
This Monday, as Israel is essentially over the pandemic, with God’s help (One Bedouin Tribe Remains Red, the Rest of Israel Is Over the Pandemic), the wonderful custom returned. Encouraged by the Rabbi of the Kotel and the Holy Places, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, and the Jerusalem Municipality and Mayor Moshe Leon, the masses (still not as many as in past years) returned to the Western Wall plaza for the Birkat Cohanim.
The idea for a mass ceremony of the Birkat Cohanim at the Western Wall was initiated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Geffner in the summer of 1970, following difficult security incidents that had taken place in Israel. Rabbi Geffner received the consent of his Rabbi, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe Rabbi Chaim Meir Hagar, the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Alter, and Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky. Rabbi Kanievsky suggested not to do much publicity for the event, so as not to “stir up Satan.”
For years, Rabbi Geffner was the main organizer of the mass Priestly Blessings at the Western Wall. He received many letters of thanks, including personal stories about people who were redeemed from all kinds of troubles after attending the event.
Rabbi Geffner died in 1988, but his heirs continue to lead the ceremony, as they have done on Monday. In his will, Rabbi Geffner referred to the custom he initiated, and concluded: “And the blessing of the priests with the help of the blessed God will continue until the coming of the Just Redeemer, and may the blessing of God be upon you, Amen, may this be His will.”
Over the years, the number of participants in the biennial Birkat Cohanim at the Kotel increased, and tens of thousands attended. Police prepare to prevent riots and stone-throwing by the Muslims on the Temple Mount and deploy thousands of officers in the area. Following the intermediary holiday prayer, the pilgrims are welcomed by the Chief Rabbis of Israel and the Rabbi of the Western Wall.