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Mr. Spock

In Numbers 6:22-27, G-d institutes the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, commanding Moshe:

Speak to Aaron and his sons saying: So shall you bless the children of Israel, say to them:
May Hashem bless you and guard you.
May Hashem shine His face upon you and be gracious to you.
May Hashem lift up his countenance to you and give you peace.
So shall they put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.

Historic evidence exists that the practice of the Kohanim blessing the Jewish people with this Tripartite Blessing dates at least as far back as the seventh century BCE and the time of the First Temple. A 1979 archaeological dig at a burial chamber in Ketef Hinnom (south of the Old City of Jerusalem) unearthed the oldest extant text containing a biblical verse: two tiny, folded silver scrolls, which are believed to have been used by the ancient Jews as amulets, that included the words “May [Hashem’s name] bless you and guard you; may [Hashem’s name] make his face shine upon you.”

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While the Torah explicitly commands the Kohanim to bless the people, it does not tell them where or when to do so. This has led to a broad discussion and debate amongst the commentators and resulted in a range of traditions through the centuries and a variety of different practices that exist to this day.

 

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Etching: Synagogue of the Portuguese Jews at the Hague.
“The Priests descendants of Aaron giving the Benediction to the People.”

In Israel, the Kohanim bless the congregation daily at shacharit (and during mussaf on Shabbat and Yom Tov) during the repetition of the Amidah. In Ashkenazic Diasporan synagogues, however, it is recited only during mussaf of festival days, and Sephardic communities outside Israel generally follow a hybrid approach by reciting it only on days when the Torah is read in the synagogue (which includes Monday and Thursday mornings).

Since Birkat Kohanim is a positive biblical commandment and many sources require its performance every day, as in Eretz Yisrael, it is interesting to consider why that practice did not become the norm in Diasporan communities. One reason given is that the practice was for the Kohanim to immerse themselves in a mikveh before performing the Tripartite Blessing, a difficult, even dangerous, practice to follow during the notorious winters of Eastern Europe. A second popular explanation is that the Kohanim must be in a state of joy whenever they bless the people and, outside Eretz Yisrael, they have mundane workday concerns about earning their daily bread and can only attain the requisite spiritual level of joy on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

In this remarkable 21 Tammuz (July 16) 1979 correspondence to Rav Kalman Kahana, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes:

The Rebbe’s letter: Why is Birkat Kohanim not recited every day in the Diaspora?

Special thanks for the details that the Rav wrote regarding the customs of Eretz Yisrael, and especially that the Rav attached “basket handles” [see note below], citations and sources.

And here is the place to express what I thought and have not yet found a solution to the matter, and this is that from time to time the great Rabbinic leaders were stirred with respect to increasing [the frequency of] the Priestly Blessing or also to institute it daily but, at the end of the day, this did not come to be, and this is the thing.

With pleasure, I read in the Rav’s correspondence about the publishing of Keter books in the near future, including on the subject of time-specific obligations as they pertain to the Seventh Year and shemittah. And may it be Hashem’s will that the Rav’s strength in Torah be increased; among all our Jewish brethren, may we merit to fulfill the destiny as per our Sages’ homiletical teaching on the verse [Psalms 85:2] “Hashem, you have been favorable to your land, you have returned the captives of Jacob.” And the merit of those who observe the Seventh Year helps, speeds, and advances that destiny when we will fulfill the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim each and every day, including the end of the Biblical section “. . . and I will bless them” [Numbers 6:27] as per the interpretation of Rabbi Yishmael Kahana in support of Kahana. [A lovely pun on the name “Kahana” by the Rebbe; R. Yishmael Kahana was a Kohen – see, e.g., Tractate Chullin 49b – as was the recipient of the Rebbe’s letter, Rav Kalman Kahana]

With respect and blessings that these days will be changed to joy and happiness and to festive seasons.

The Rebbe’s use of the term “aznayim la-kupah,” which he puts in quotation marks, appears to be a reference to the term as used in Mishnah Shabbat 2:8, where the Mishnah discusses the quantity of rope that one must carry to violate the Sabbath proscription against carrying, which is the measure of rope necessary to make an ear-shaped handle for a basket. It seems likely that the Rebbe uses this phrase to suggest the “handles” that Rav Kahana gave him to “hold on” to the information he supplied; i.e., the sources and explanations that he had provided.

Rav Kahana (1910-1991), a leader of the Po’alei Agudat Israel movement, made aliyah in 1938 with a group of young Orthodox settlers, founded kibbutz Chafetz Chaim, and went on to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence and to serve as a Knesset member from its establishment in 1949. He published several important rabbinical studies, particularly about shemittah and other agricultural halachot of Eretz Yisrael, which is also a subject that the Rebbe discusses with him in his letter. (Note that the commencement of a shemittah year on Rosh Hashanah 1979, just over a month later, makes this entire subject of immediate concern.)

Our correspondence echoes the Rebbe’s letter in Likutei Sichos, volume 18, p. 48 where he writes that R. Schneur Zalman (1745-1812), the first Lubavitcher Rebbe known as the Baal HaTanya, greatly desired to institute daily performance of Birkat Kohanim in the Diaspora but, for unknown reasons, held back from doing so.

Early 20th century postcards depicting parents blessing their children with Birkat Kohanim based upon paintings by perhaps the two greatest Jewish thematic artists of the 19th century, (L-R) Hermann Junker and Moritz Oppenheim.

In a beautiful tradition spanning at least the past several hundred years, parents have blessed their children with the Birkat Kohanim at the onset of Shabbat on Friday night and Yom Tov, but I have been unable to determine precisely when and how this tradition began. Rav Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) writes that “it is customary to bless children, young and old, either in the synagogue after the evening service or upon returning home. Part of the blessing-text includes the three-fold Priestly Blessing.” I am uncertain that a source even exists, and I invite readers to share their thoughts on this question. My thought (based entirely on conjecture) is that blessing children with the Birkat Kohanim may have emerged organically from “the bottom up” rather than as a practice mandated by the Rabbis.

Parents blessing their children with the Birkat Kohanim on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. (Note that Hashem’s name has been whited out to avoid creating shaimos.)

The idea of extending the Tripartite Blessing to children seems to be related to the idea that just as the Kohanim are designated as the instrument through which G-d blesses the people of Israel, so parents act as intermediaries for providing G-d’s blessing upon their children. The Rebbe offers a beautiful insight on this question; he explains that the privilege of bestowing blessings upon others is not exclusive to the Kohanim and that, in fact, in the Torah reading for Shavuot (Exodus 19:6), G‑d famously refers to the entire Jewish people as “a kingdom of priests.” As such, the Rebbe used to encourage all Jews to grant blessings to their peers at every possible occasion, pointing out that each one of us has the power to bless . . . and who do we want to bless more than our children?

The Rebbe always emphasized that the Land of Israel is the heart of the world and the channel through which all Divine blessings flow. He taught that the daily blessings issued by the Kohanim in Jerusalem extend throughout the entire world, showering G-d’s blessings on Jews in the rest of the Land and the Diaspora as well, and tradition holds that, as the center of holiness in Eretz Yisrael, all prayer ascends to heaven from the site of the Western Wall.

Flyer calling for 300 Kohanim to gather at the Kotel in support of Soviet Jewry (1970).

In 1970, Rav Menachem Mendel Gafner instituted the practice of holding an annual mass Birkat Kohanim ceremony at the Kotel on Passover and Sukkot, during which some hundreds of Kohanim bless as many as 100,000 Jews, a truly breathtaking and awe-inspiring sight. Shortly thereafter on Tuesday, December 1, 1970, a historic protest on behalf of Soviet Jews was held at the Kotel where many hundreds of Kohanim recited the Birkat Kohanim to bless the Jews trapped in the Soviet Union.

Exhibited here is a rare and beautiful flyer calling for at least 300 Kohanim to gather at the Western Wall and to pray for the benefit of our Russian brethren:

 

Whereas the nation of Israel in the Holy Land is in need of great compassion, particularly our brothers of the House of Israel in Russia who are in a very difficult situation, may Hashem have mercy on them.

With the grace of the Holy One, Blessed be He, a manuscript has recently discovered, a great essay on the Torah by our Rabbi, and in the Torah potion Tetzaveh he writes that there is great merit to the number “three hundred Kohanim,” and he says that if 300 Kohanim will go up and will say “May Hashem Bless you,” etc. [e.g., The Birkat Kohanim], this is a great and wonderous thing to bring an abundance of blessing and good to the Jewish people.

And, as is written in Chronicles II, “and the Kohanim will be holy to the masses,” etc., “and the Kohanim, and the Levites and the entire congregation,” etc., “who come from Eretz Yisrael and who dwell in Judah,” etc.,

And the Kohanim will rise, etc. and will bless the nation and [Hashem] will heed their voices and their prayers will arrive in Heaven in honor of His holiness.

Therefore, it has been decided with the agreement of the great Rabbinic leaders and the lights of Israel that all of the Kohanim from Jerusalem and from Eretz Yisrael where it is possible for them will endeavor to come to

THE WESTERN WALL

to fulfill the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim, for the glory of the King will be pronounced amongst the multitude.

On Tuesday to arrange “and he met Hashem” [a verse from the weekly Torah portion of Tetzaveh] on the third of Kislev, 1970, will gather, G-d willing, to fulfill this mitzvah, and in this manner great abundance of good will accrue to the Jewish people.

Morning prayer time at 7:15 a.m., and the Birkat Kohanim will commence at precisely 8:00 Every Kohen should bring his own tallit, and whoever is able should bring a shofar with him.

And Hashem will bless his nation Israel and will receive their prayers in good will.

The reference is to Divrei Hayamim II:30, where King Chizkiyahu organizes a mass event in Jerusalem at which a large group of Kohanim assembled to bless the people and the blessing was accepted in heaven.

In Sefer Chasidim, written in the early 13th century, R. Yehuda Hachasid cites a parade led by R. Chai Gaon around the Mount of Olives to hasten the arrival of the Messiah and, in Sefer Rokeach, R. Elazar of Worms (died 1238) writes that “if 300 Kohanim had stood atop the Mount of Olives, the Messiah would have arrived.” (Here, the Kohanim could not assemble on the Mount of Olives because of the Jewish cemetery there, so the Kotel was chosen as the most suitable alternative.)

The very strange text at the verso of this September 23, 1933 photo (not shown) is as follows:

The first photo ever of Birkat Kohanim?

The strange and beautiful service of “Birkat Kohanim” or “The Blessing of the Priests” was participated in at the Hebrew Sheltering Home for the Aged, Los Angeles, California recently in celebration of the ushering in of the Jewish New Year. With their heads vieled [sic] and their fingers locked in the blessing, Joseph Knewbow, Josef Golfberg, Joseph Ross, and Mordechai Kaplan are shown here before the alter [sic] in the temple of the home. This is said to be the first time this service ever has been photographed in all the years of the Jewish Orthodox faith.

There is simply no evidence that I have found for the seemingly bizarre proposition that this is the first time that the Birkat Kohanim was ever photographed, and I imagine that any number of counterexamples exist (although I have not researched this question).

Leonard Nimoy as Spock: “Live long and prosper.”

Finally, Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015), the iconic ultra-rationalist and logical – dare we say “Maimonidean?” – first officer of the Starship Enterprise who grew up in a strictly observant Orthodox family, based several aspects of his Star Trek character on his Jewish upbringing. Most famous was the “Vulcan finger-salute,” which has become a universal sign for the blessing “live long and prosper.”

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry encouraged his actors to incorporate elements of their personal identities and experiences into their characters. As Nimoy tells the story, he recalled attending the Russell Street Synagogue at age eight during the High Holy Days with his parents, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine:

I was sitting with my father, grandfather, and brother on the bench seats – the women were upstairs – and 5 or 6 guys get up on the bimah, they face the congregation their tallit over their heads, and they start this chanting – I think it’s called duchening. My father said, “don’t look,” so everybody’s got their eyes covered with their hands, and I hear this strange sound coming from them; they’re not singers, they were shouters and dissonant, all discordant, they’re kind of wailing, not together not in unison. And then the leader shouts out “Yevarechecha” and the rest of the congregation would shout out “Yevarechechah Hashem V’Yishmerecha.”

It was chilling; something major is happening here. The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality . . . I had heard that this Shechinah that enters the sanctuary, the Spirit of G-d, was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, and so I obediently covered my face with my hands. [But then] I peeked and I saw them with their hands stuck out like this [demonstrating] before the congregation. Wow! Something got ahold of me; this is something I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical . . .

I never dreamed that I would be involved in that someday but, sure enough, one day we’re making the Star Trek series and we come to a lovely script called Amok Time, where my character, Spock, has to return home to fulfill a marriage betrothal – the first time I’ve seen other Vulcans, others of my race, so I was supposed to find some touches that could develop the story of Vulcan sociology, history, ritual, whatever. So, I said to the director “I think we should have some special greetings that Vulcans do,” and that’s how we did it as a Vulcan greeting and, boy, that took off through the culture . . .

And it’s been that way for 50 years, people are still doing it. It just touched a magic cord. Most people to this day don’t know what it’s all about . . . people don’t realize that they’re blessing each other with this . . . it’s great!

“People blessing each other . . .”; I think the Rebbe would have approved!

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.