Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Naso 5765/ June11, 2005

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

The Priestly Blessing

 

 Prof. Amos Frisch

 

Department of Bible

 

One of the more prominent features of the priestly blessing (Num. 6:22-27) is its structure: three utterances, three blessings, each progressively longer than the previous one. The first blessing consists of three words, the second of five, and the third of seven.  This gradation has been noted by many exegetes and scholars; some have remarked on a similar progression in the number of letters (15, 20, and 25, respectively). [1]   In this and in other details, the form of Birkhat Kohanim is concise but striking. The basics which are common to all three verses – each has two verbs in the third- person future tense, G-d is their subject, and His name appears between them as the second word in each of the three blessings – further emphasizes the form and the progressive lengthening:

Yevarekhekha A-donai ve-yishmerekha – The Lord bless you and protect you.

Ya’er A-donai panav eleikha ve-yehuneka – The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious to thee.

Yissa A-donai panav eleikha ve-yasem lekha shalom – The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and grant you peace.

 

Structure and Content

Do the structural features stand on their own, or does the form reflect a gradation in the content of the blessing?

Quite a number of commentators indeed find a progression in content as well. [2]   We shall illustrate this using the commentary of Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno:

“[May the Lord] bless you” – with wealth and possessions, for “without flour there is no Torah”; “and protect you” – from robbers.  Ya’er [shine]” – may He open your eyes to the light of His countenance, to behold the wonders of His Teaching and His deeds, having satisfied your needs through His blessing.   “May the Lord lift up His countenance to you” – for eternity... “and grant you peace,” eternal peace, Eternity without any admixture of punishment, as befits all who are whole, for the World to Come.

Rabbi Ze’ev Gottlieb, the editor of the Sforno commentary to Numbers in the Mossad ha- Rav Kook edition, distinguishes aptly between three spheres of blessing:  “According to his [the Sforno’s] explanation, the blessings revolve around three things:  the material existence of this world (as laying the ground for spiritual life), the spiritual life of Torah and good deeds in this world, and the life of the World to Come, in the future. [3]   The remark by the tanna, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah” ( Avot 3.17), is cited by Sforno to make clear the significance of material success:   it is not an anticipated reward, rather it is a means to spiritual elevation.  A similar interpretation is found in the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:  “The first benediction blesses Israel with success in their enterprises, physical and material, and protection against any adverse influence.” The second blessing, according to him, is spiritual:  “to understand His words in the Torah and the prophets; that He teach you to learn from them about His hand in history and your role in life.”  If we take proper advantage of the first two blessings, the Lord’s leadership of the world will focus on us, but will not distance us from other people, rather, “all thinking and feeling people around you will see you as a perfection of themselves; they will emulate you and see in you the foundation of their existence.” [4]

 

Details of the Blessing

A variety of explanations have been given for the details of the blessings.   Rabbi Solomon Ephraim of Luntshitz, known as the Kli Yakar, wrote:  “Many are the opinions regarding elucidation of the blessings, each interpreting them according to his intelligence.” [5]   In addition to the commentaries cited above, in our discussion of the gradation in the blessings, it is in place to note Cassuto’s explanation. [6]   According to him, the first verse is comprised of “a positive wish and a negative wish”:   May the Lord bless you – granting all the good that is in the world, and protect you – from all the bad.   Thus we see that two independent actions are mentioned in the verse, each complementing the other – removing bad and granting good.  In the second verse Cassuto sees an action and its consequence – G-d will gaze on you with a bright face, a face expressing satisfaction, and as a result He will grace you, will treat you beneficently.  He finds a similar relationship in the third verse, as well – G- d’s bright face will always be turned to you, and as a result He will bring you to goodness and perfection. [7]

Scripture does not simply establish that the Priests must bless the nation, rather it presents the exact formulation to be used, prefacing with the words:   “Thus shall you bless.”   The precision in the formulation of the blessing has prompted commentators to relate with precision to the details of the blessing.  Thus the priests are not permitted to bless the people using their own words.   This brings out the divine source of the blessing, and the priests are but the vehicle for transmitting the divine will.  The Lord’s words that conclude the subject provide an explicit proclamation regarding the source from which blessedness comes:  “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”  If we take the antecedent of the pronoun “them” to be the people of Israel, [8] a theological statement is implied thereby:  true, the priests are the ones who voice the blessing, but the one who actually confers the blessing is G-d (the “I” emphasizing the source of blessedness:  I, and not a messenger).

 

An Unconditional Blessing

The roots b-r-kh (bless) and sh-m-r (protect) appear in this blessing side by side in the same verse, and this is the only time they do so in the entire Bible.  Aside from the priestly blessing there are several places in Scripture where these verbs are textually close (although beyond the limits of the individual verse), [9] yet in all these instances, save for two, sh-m-r is a human action expressive of being faithful to the Lord, and b-r-kh is the Lord’s response to the person’s faithfulness.   The first exception is G-d’s words to Jacob when He revealed Himself to him at Bethel:   “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and by your descendants.  Remember, I am with you:  I will protect you wherever you go,” etc. (Gen. 28:14-15).   The second is G-d’s promise to those who observe His commandments:  “And if you do obey these rules and observe [u- shmartem] them carefully, the Lord your G-d will maintain [ve-shamar] faithfully for you the covenant that He made, ...  He will favor you and bless you and multiply you,” etc. (Deut. 7:12-13).   In these passages, as in the priestly blessing, the act of protecting/maintaining the covenant is in itself a blessing from Heaven.  In the verses from Deuteronomy, the act from Heaven of maintaining the covenant [ ve-shamar] comes after the observing done by human beings [u-shmartem].   This formulation emphasizes the element of measure for measure:  if you observe the Lord’s laws, He will repay you by maintaining the covenant He made with the patriarchs.  In contrast, the formulation in Genesis 28 emphasizes the absence of any stipulation:   the blessing to Jacob is not conditional on observing the commandments or on any specific action on Jacob’s part, rather, it is given him henceforth without any preconditions.   The same applies to the priestly blessing; the people of Israel are considered worthy of the blessing by virtue of their status as the Lord’s people, with no condition being stipulated for receiving the blessing.

 

Adjacent chapters

What is the context of the priestly blessing, and how does it fit into its textual setting?  The blessing follows upon the law of the Nazirite and the law of the Sotah. We offer three approaches to this question:

1)   Some see a thematic connection with what precedes it.  Abarbanel explains:

After the Lord gave the commandments concerning a woman suspected of adultery and the commandments concerning the Nazirite ... He gave the commandment regarding the priestly blessing.  Since the entire camp was now set out according to divine order, the camp was sacred, fine, in perfect harmony.  Therefore the Holy One commanded Moses to now command Aaron and his sons regarding the style of the blessing they were to use to bless all the Israelites together.

After preparing a well-ordered camp, came the time for blessing. [10]

2) Some see an associative connection.  Cassuto finds the context arranged associatively, be it by idea or by language. [11]  Regarding the connection of the priestly blessing to what precedes it, he does not point to a connection with the passage on Nazirites but rather he suggests a connection (too weak, to my mind) with the passage on a woman suspected of adultery, that precedes the passage on Nazirites. Cassuto’s point is a contrastive association: although in that case “the priests must lay a curse, for the most part their main function is to bless.”

3)   Some see a thematic connection with what follows.  The next chapter (Num. 7) tells of the festive event of inaugurating the Tabernacle, and this provides the setting for reciting the blessing.  This is illustrated by the remark of the amora from the land of Israel, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who related to the verse, “Make for me an altar of earth ... in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you” (Ex. 20:21).  Hence, he commented, “when they made the Tabernacle, the Holy One, blessed be He, gave them the blessings” ( Pesikta Rabbati 5.11). One could put this differently, saying that since the priestly blessing has to do with the work of the priests in the Tabernacle, the inauguration of the Mishkan was the appropriate time to present it.  As a precedent and parallel, we can point to the blessing that Aaron delivered on the eighth day, after the seven days of consecration:  “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them” (Lev. 9:22). Some commentators view this as the first time that the priestly blessing, set forth in this week’s reading, was recited (see Nahmanides, loc. sit.).

 

A Contrastive Comparison

Perhaps all these elements can be combined to form a single theme.   In explaining the verse that follows the passage of the priestly blessing – “On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle ...” (Num. 7:1) – Rashi presents the following interpretation:  “It says kallot [=finished]; on the day the Tabernacle was set up, the Israelites were like a bride [kallah] coming under the bridal canopy.”  This interpretation lends colorful expression to the status of the Israelites when the Tabernacle was erected.  The building marked a significant landmark in the covenantal relations between the Holy One, blessed be He, and His people.  In anticipation of the general communion with the Lord, now to take place in a locale to which the entire people could come, the groom bestowed his gift – the great blessing to the people.  That is to say, the lord bestowed the Priestly Blessing upon the people.

 

Prior to this, only the exceptions to the rules of the Torah   were mentioned – those who were impure (see Num. 5) or sinful, like the Sotah on the one hand, and the Nazirite who set himself apart to be holy, on the other.  The details concerning these cases were discussed elsewhere, so that mentioning them in this context could be viewed as a contrastive comparison between the exceptions and the entire people. The Israelites now had to sanctify themselves in preparation for their meeting with G-d.  At this meeting the Lord’s regular emissaries, whom He sanctified and chose – the priests, sons of Aaron – come and bless the entire people, conferring on them an unconditional blessing, as they stand before the Lord just as the bride stands before her groom.

 



[1] Cf. M. Greenberg, “Tefillah,” Encyclopedia Mikra’it, VIII, Jerusalem 1982, col. 913;   J. Milgrom, Numbers (JPS Torah Commentary), Philadelphia 1990, p. 51.

[2] Cassuto asserts, “The content of the blessing ascends from verse to verse, and the gradation of the idea is emphasized by the gradation in structure” (M. D. Cassuto, “.1 BerakhahBirkat Kohanim,” Encyclopedia Mikra’it, II, Jerusalem 1954, col. 359).   Similarly, Greenberg:   “The progressively longer sentences symbolize steadily increasing abundance” (ibid.).

[3] Be’ur al ha-Torah le-Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno [Commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno], Z. Gottlieb ed., Jerusalem 1980 (1984), p. 265.

[4] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Numbers, Hebrew translation by Rabbi M. Breuer, Jerusalem 1990, pp. 67-68. 

[5] In contrast to all those who make careful distinctions between the details of each blessing, and even find a progression there, Haran maintains that “each verb repeats the same idea, and the repetition itself is done not in order to add further depth, but to add emphasis and reinforcement” (M. Haran, “Birkat Kohanim mi-Ketef Hinnom – ha-Mashma’ut ha- Mikra’it shel ha- Taglit [The Priestly Blessing from Ketef Hinom – the Significance of the Finding to the Bible],” Cathedra, 52: 9(1989), p. 81).

[6] See note 2, above.

[7] The letter vav that precedes the verb that begins the second part of each of the three verses (yishmerekha, yehuneka, yasem) might be interpreted as conjunctive, and then we would have six distinct actions; or, it could be interpreted as a vav denoting the result of the first verb, in which case we would have only three actions; cf. Milgrom (note 1, above), p. 51, in his explication of verse 22.

[8] In the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, Hullin 49a, in contrast to the opinion of Rabbi Ishmael, who views the pronoun as referring to the priests.  For a detailed analysis of both grammatical possibilities, see S . Kogut, Ha- Mikra bein Tahbir le-FarshanutSugyot be- Tahbir ha-Mikra ba-Aspaklariah shel ha- Parshanut ha-Yehudit ha- Klassit, Jerusalem 2002, pp. 201-203.

[9] What Korpel calls “external parallelism,” although I see the situation somewhat differently from him.  See M. C. A. Korpel, “The poetic Structure of the Priestly Blessing,” JSOT, 45 (1989), pp. 3-13.

[10] Cf. what Yehudah Mori’el has to say on the idea of sanctity as the common element of the adjoining passages; cf. what Yehudah Mori’el has to say on the idea of sanctity as the common element of the adjoining passages; cf. Y. Mori’el, Iyyunim be-Mikra II: Numbers – Deuteronomy, second edition, Tel Aviv, 2000, pp. 46, 48-49.

[11] Cf.  M. D. Cassuto, “Smikhut ha-Parshiyot ve-Sidduran be-Sifrei ha- Mikra” [1947], Sifrut Mikra’it ve-Sifrut Kena’anit (Mehkarim be-Mikra u-va-Mizrah ha- Kadmon, I), Jerusalem 1972, p. 202.