Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Naso 5762/ May 18, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Naso 5762/ May 18, 2002
The Priestly Blessing and Social Harmony

Aryeh (ha-Cohen) Arazi
The Martin Szusz Department of Land of Israel Studies

In Parshat Naso the priests are commanded to bless the people of Israel (Num. 6:23): "Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them." The priests were to pronounce the benediction, but at the end the Lord says (v. 27), "Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them."[1] The blessing is the Lord's; the priests do not give their own blessing, rather they recite an exact repetition of the text that is read to them, so that they are nothing more than the vehicle through which the blessing of the Lord is conveyed to the people. In his commentary on this verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noted:

It is not the priests who bless the people of Israel. Nowhere do the words that they utter have the force of a blessing... Their role is to place the name of G-d on the people of Israel, so that the people of Israel shall be a vehicle for the Divine Presence (Shekhina).

At this point the question arises why the priests should have been chosen for this task? The Lord of all blessings, after all, could have blessed Israel directly! This question is addressed in Sefer ha-Hinukh (par. 378):

For the Lord, in His great beneficence, wished to bless His people through His servants who abide constantly in the House of the Lord, whose every thought is directed to His worship, whose souls are bound in awe of Him all day, that blessing come upon them by their merits.

Malbim (Bible commentator, 1809----1879) took a similar approach,[2] explaining that at times the recipients of the Lord's abundance are not capable of absorbing this abundance in terms of their degree of spirituality, and therefore the Lord chose to transmit this Divine abundance by "means of G-dly people who are servants of the Lord, so that they open the channels of blessing through their deeds, prayers and benedictions, bringing this blessing upon the people. Thus He chose the sons of Aaron who are close to the Lord in their sacred service."

In the light of these explanations we must ask whether indeed the priests today are (or more precisely, for quite a long time in history have been) at the spiritual level depicted by Sefer ha-Hinukh or Malbim's commentary?

Regretfully, the answer is negative.[3] The priests are no different from the rest of the Jewish people in terms of their religious-spiritual level, and likewise in their occupations and vocations. When we attempt to investigate whether this fact has an impact on their ability to bless and on the congregation's ability to receive a blessing, we encounter a complex question with no simple answer. The Jerusalem Talmud asserts: "Why is it that a person (of the people of Israel whom the priests bless) is not to say: 'So and so is involved in illicit sexual relations and bloodshed, and yet he blesses me!' The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Who is it that blesses you? Is it not I, as it is said, 'and I will bless them?'" (Gittin 5, 8). It would seem from this passage that the spiritual level of the priest has no bearing on the matter of blessing.

It is not quite so simple. To begin with, we note that the discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud actually concerns a priest who has done repentance. Moreover, in the Babylonian Talmud it says: "Rabbi Johanan said: A priest who has killed another person may not give the priestly blessing."[4] In my opinion, the answer is also a function of the controversy over whether we reckon with the reasons for the commandments.[5] Surely those who deduce in Scripture reasons for the commandments would conclude that the inferior condition of the priests today, which does not even match their level as described in Sefer ha-Hinukh or Malbim, affects the very spiritual process itself of giving the priestly blessing.

One solution to this problem, albeit a partial one, can be found in the concluding words of the benediction recited by the priests before they say the priestly blessing itself:  "Who commanded us to bless His people Israel with love." This benediction originates in the gemara:  "What is the benediction? Rav Zera quoted Rav Hisda, who said: who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love" (Sota 39a). Whence did the Sages derive the imperative of this act being done with love, for this was not explicitly commanded of them? In his commentary on Saadiah Gaon's Sefer ha-Mitzvot Perla notes[6] that the Talmud[7] says and the Halakhah[8] essentially rules that the words, "thus shall you bless" mean face to face, and this indicates love and affection, like the Cherubim, as the gemara remarks,  "When the people of Israel obey G-d's will, the Cherubim face one another like a man to a woman"  Bava Batra 99b).

This relationship of love that is commanded of the priests when they bless the people is not a unilateral relationship which the priests are required to develop towards the community being blessed, rather it is a condition that must exist mutually between the priests and the community being blessed and among the members of the community themselves. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained[9] that the priests are like emissaries of the public, and that when they give the blessing it is as if the entire community were standing and directing their hearts towards a state of love. As he put it:

Thus the priests who give the blessing are altogether passive ... They give the blessing only when called to do so by the congregation, and they only say the blessing that is read out to them in the name of the congregation. In truth, it is the congregation that brings on itself the blessing that comes from the mouths of the priests at the Lord's command.

In Nefesh Hayyim[10] Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin noted that G-d wished to give human beings all the blessings in the world; but for human beings to enjoy the Divine Abundance that is showered on them, they must be worthy of such blessing. Accordingly, only when there is harmony and love in the community being blessed - a condition of this act being done "with love" - can the community be worthy and enjoy the Divine Abundance in the priestly blessing. This view, by which the Lord's "ability" to affect what happens on earth is dependant on our behaviour, is further strengthened by the words of Rabbi Hanina Bar Papa, who said: "Whoever benefits from the things of this world without blessing [the Lord], is like one who steals from the Holy One, blessed be He and from the commonality of the people of Israel"  Berakhot 35b). On the face of it one might take this to mean that theft occurs when a person eats of food which is not his own before he has blessed the Lord for it. Rashi, however, did not understand it this way, rather he said,  "He has stolen from the Lord His blessing."  This was further explained by Rabbi A. Kahn,[11] who followed an idea stated by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin,[12] that it is not the food which is stolen from the Lord, but the blessing. God created the world as a system in which man can develop relations with the King of the Universe, and as a result of these relations Divine Abundance was given to the world, blessing it with the Divine Presence. A person who does not recite a blessing before eating distances himself from the Lord, preventing Divine Abundance from being bestowed on the earth, and in this way he steals the blessing of the Holy One, blessed be He, preventing it from being bestowed on the people of Israel.

Thus we discover how important and even essential the love mode is (to borrow a term from computer terminology) to the priestly blessing. Only when the community and society are in a mode of harmony and love can the priests function effectively as the binding link through which the community being blessed brings on itself the Lord's blessing. This notion finds concrete expression in the halakhic principle[13] by which a priest who does not love his congregation, and the congregation love him, may not give the priestly blessing.

One could conclude here without going beyond a learned theoretical discussion. However our rabbis stressed that study of the Torah which leads to action is to be highly valued (Kiddushin 40b). Therefore it is befitting to ask whether and how one can actually attain a mode of love that would enable the priestly blessing to apply maximally, everywhere, and in every sort of community and congregation. A practical suggestion that might promote our attaining this ideal condition is to develop an attitude of mutual respect, tolerance, and openness, allowing for a pluralistic exchange of views among all members of the community. Likewise, the weak in the community must be assisted, giving them both financial as well as moral support. This will enable the priestly blessing to be realized in its entirety: "The Lord bless you and protect you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!"

[1] In the Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 49a, we find a controversy between Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva over whom the Lord is blessing, the priests or the people of Israel.
[2] Malbim, Numbers 6:22.
[3] Cf. Dodson, Ayal, Ha-Kehunah be-Yisrael le-Doroteiha, mi-Ye'ud ve-Erekh le-Ibud ha-DerekhTallelei Orot 9, 2000, pp. 169-193.
[4] Berakhot 32b. Also cf. Torah Temimah, Numbers 6:27. (159), where this issue is discussed.
[5] I.e., when the Torah presents a commandment along with an explicit explanation of its underlying reason, or a commandment that is not explicitly explained but has been interpreted by the Sages, does the reason itself have any halakhic significance regarding observance of the commandment under various circumstances? Opposing views were taken on this question by Rashbi and Rabbi Judah (baraitha B.M. 115a, and Sanh. 21a), and following them, by the risohonim as well (Rambam, Malveh ve-Loveh (3.5), Tur H.M. 97.14). For example, the Torah commands, "You shall not take a widow's garment in pawn" (Deut. 24:17). Rashbi explains the reason for this commandment, saying that this is specifically about taking a poor widow's garment in pawn, since the reason for the commandment is that a poor widow needs the garment all the time. However, in his opinion, it is permissible to take in pawn the garment of a wealthy widow. Rabbi Judah does not give a reason for the commandment, saying that it is an unexplained decree of Scripture and that it pertains to all widows, rich and poor. Cf. also Encyclopedia Talmudit, Vol. 20, pp. 568-595.
[6] Sefer ha-Mitzvot Shel Rav Saadiah Gaon, Positive commandment, par. 16.
[7] Sotah 39b.
[8] Mishnah Berurah 128.10.
[9] See his commentary on Numbers 6:23.
[10] Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, disciple of the Vilna Gaon, lived 1749-1821. Opposed to the Hassidim and the way of the Baal Shem Tov, he founded the Yeshiva at Voloshin (Lithuania) which engaged in Talmud study. To this end he also composed Nefesh ha-Hayyim.
[12] Nefesh Hayyim, Part 2, Ch. 4.
[13] Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 128.11, Ba'er Heitev par. 20.