Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Naso 5760/2000

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 5760/10 June 2000

Why Do We Not Look at the Priests?

Prof. Jacob Spiegel

Department of Talmud

Mishnah Sotah 7, 6 reads:

1) How did they pronounce the Blessing of the Priests?--In the provinces they recited it as three blessings [Rashi: with the priests pausing after each verse and the assembly responding amen], but in the Temple as a single blessing [Rashi: since one does not respond amen in the Temple, hence there was no need to pause].

2) In the Temple they pronounced the Name as it was written [Rashi: the tetragrammaton Y-WH], but in the provinces by its substitute word [Rashi: Hashem].

3) In the provinces the priests raised their hands on a level with their shoulders, but in the Temple above their heads [Rashi: above their heads because they blessed the people with G-d's explicit name, and the Shekhinah was above their fingertips], save the High Priest who did not raise his hands above the front-plate. Rabbi Judah says, The High Priest also raised his hands above the front-plate [because G-d's name was written on it], as it is said, "And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them" (Lev. 9:22).

This mishnah indicates that the Priestly Blessing, "The Lord bless you and protect you ... and grant you peace," was recited differently in different places. In the Temple it was recited in one way, and in the provinces, i.e., outside the Temple, it was recited in another. The differences, as we listed them above, were three-fold. Let us concentrate on the differences concerning the pronouncement of G-d's name.

It follows from the mishnah that when the priestly blessing was recited in the Temple the priests would pronounce G-d's ineffable Name. Needless to say that uttering the Divine Name denotes the highest level of sanctity, indicating the Divine Presence in the Temple. Indeed, a baraitha in Tractate Yoma 39b informs us: "The year in which Simeon the Righteous died ... his brothers the priests refrained from using G-d's name in the blessing [Rashi: from bestowing the priestly blessing on the people using G-d's name, for they were not worthy]." In other words, after Simeon the Righteous passed away the priests felt that they did not have a sufficiently high degree of sanctity in order to utter G-d's name. This view is shared by the Tosafists (Sotah 38a, s.v.harei), who wrote, "since they did not merit the Divine Presence disclosing itself to them again."

Now let us investigate what in the priestly blessing caused the Divine Presence to manifest itself. In Tractate Hagigah 16a it says:

R. Judah explained in the name of R. Nahmani, Resh Lakish's translator: Whoever looks at the following three things, his eyesight fails: at the priests as they stood on the dukhan when the Temple existed and blessed Israel using G-d's explicit name...

The Talmudic text here refers to the priests pronouncing the blessing using G-d's name during the time when the Temple stood and the blessing was recited in the Temple. Since uttering the Tetragrammaton is a manifestation of the Divine Presence, Rabbi Judah cautioned in the name of Rabbi Nahmani that whoever looks at the priests at that moment, his eyesight will fail. Moses reacted in a similar way when the Divine Presence was revealed to him at the burning bush: "Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at G-d" (Ex. 2:6).

We may conclude from these remarks that when the blessing is recited without using G-d's explicit name there is no manifestation of the Divine Presence, and hence no danger that looking at the priests would cause one's eyes to fail. The same follows from the remarks of Rabbi Judah in the name of Rabbi Nahmani, who clearly specified the conditions: "when the Temple existed, as they stood on the dukhan [i.e. in the Temple] ... using G-d's name."

But Rashi holds that even when the priestly blessing is recited without pronouncing the tetragrammaton one may not look at the priests. The reason he gives is as follows: "Since the Divine Presence rests on their hands" (Tractate Megillah 24b; mishnah, s.v. "kohen"). This is contrary to the opinion of the Tosafists (Tractate Hagigah 16a, s.v. "ba-kohanim"), who do not agree with this reason. While the Tosafists do agree that even in this case one may not look at the priests, they explain it differently: if a person looks at the priests, it distracts his attention from the blessing.

Rashi's view seems somewhat perplexing. If indeed the priests do not use G-d's name in the blessing, what sense is there in prohibiting one from looking at them? An answer is given by Rosh (in his glosses on Tractate Megillah), based on a midrash in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parshat ha-Hodesh, 8 (Mandelbaum ed., p. 91):

"There he stands behind our wall" (Song 2:9), behind the walls of synagogues and houses of study; "gazing through the window" (ibid.), over the priests' shoulders; "peering through the lattice" (ibid.), through the priests' fingers. "My beloved spoke thus to me" (Song. 2:10), and what did He say? May the Lord bless you and protect you.

The midrash plainly means that whenever and wherever the priests bestow the blessing, the Divine Presence is with them and there is a manifestation of the Divine Presence. Therefore, today as well, one is forbidden to look at the priests when they give their blessing. Indeed, this is how Rosh explains it:

Even though it no longer causes one's eyesight to fail, it did when the Temple stood, for in the time of the Temple one's eyesight would fail because G-d's name was used to bless Israel. Now, however, that Israel is not blessed using G-d's name, one's eyesight does not fail. Nevertheless, one does not look at them because the Holy One, blessed be He, is peering between their fingers, as it is said, "gazing through the window, peering through the lattice."

To sum up thus far: when the priests said the blessing using G-d's name the Divine Presence was manifest; therefore all agreed that one may not look at them for fear that one's eyesight would fail, for looking at the priests was like looking at the Divine Presence. When the blessing is recited without using the tetragrammaton, then the manifestation of the Divine Presence is reduced. In Rashi's opinion even this reduced manifestation of the Divine Presence forbids us to look at the priests. According to the Tosafists, since the manifestation is reduced, one might have been permitted to look at the priests, nevertheless one is forbidden to do so for fear that it cause the person who looks at them to take his mind off the priestly blessing.

In Beit Yosef (§128) Rabbi Joseph Caro sides with the Tosafists, since the Jerusalem Talmud accords with their approach. Likewise he views the plain sense of the Talmud in Tractate Hagigah as we explained it above, namely that the prohibition against looking at the priests is in force only when they pronounce the blessing using G-d's name. Most posekim after R. Joseph Caro followed his lead.

Nevertheless, there appear to be several practices whose simple explanation seems to be rooted in Rashi's approach. Suffice it to mention two of them:

1. Magen Avraham (Orah Hayyim 128.22) notes that in the opinion of the Tosafists a fleeting glance at the priests is permitted, since that does not entail distraction; in Rashi's opinion, however, even such a momentary glance would be forbidden because of the glory of the Divine Presence. Now even though most of the posekim agree with Tosafot, nevertheless Magen Avraham says that the present custom not to look at the priests at all is "in remembrance of the Temple." In other words, since when the Temple stood looking at the priests was flatly forbidden, as stated above, in remembrance of the Temple the people should follow the same practice today as well, even though the priests do not use G-d's name.

It seems to us, however, that the reason for the practice today is that now, too, the Divine Presence rests on the priests, as Rashi says, and therefore one does not look at them. Kaf ha-Hayyim (128, 140) takes this view as well, relying on the Zohar. Thus we see that the practice stands on its own and is not simply in remembrance of the Temple.

2. Rema (Orah Hayyim 128,23) mentions an additional custom: "Neither should the priests look at their own hands; therefore they drape their tallit over their heads and hold their hands outside the tallit." What underlies this custom? The posekim and the Mishnah Berurah explain it as follows: "Also on account of distraction." One might wonder, why would the priests want to look at their own hands? And even if they did, why should this lead to distraction? Do they not know what their own hands look like? Even though this difficulty can be resolved by saying that they might do so because they wish to see whether their hands are properly parted, as required for the priestly blessing, this explanation is far-fetched.

Here, too, the practice can be explained in terms of Rashi's approach. Namely, the Divine Presence rests on the priests' hands, and therefore they themselves may not look at their own hands. This explanation, as well, appears in Kaf ha-Hayyim (ibid., 141).

Now we return to what we said above. Both Rashi and the Tosafists admit that during the priestly blessing there is always some manifestation of the Divine Presence. Their only point of difference regards whether nowadays, since the intensity of the Divine Presence is diminished, the prohibition against looking at the priests still holds, or whether one has to find another reason for the prohibition. The consensus regarding the manifestation of the Divine Presence during the priestly blessing is clear. For the priests do not pronounce the blessing of themselves but as the agents of G-d, and the Divine Presence is always with them when they pronounce the blessing, as explained in Sifre (loc. sit):

"And I shall bless them" (Num.6:27) -- so that Israel not say, "Our blessings depend on the priests", therefore it says "I shall bless them"; and so that the priests not say "We shall bless Israel", therefore it says "I shall bless them," I shall bless my people Israel.

A similar interpretation is also found in Midrash Rabbah (11.2), a relatively late work, which expands on the text from Pesikta quoted above to explain Rashi's approach. And this is what it says:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them [to Israel]: Even though I said to the priests that they should bless you, I stand with them and bless you; therefore the priests spread their hands, to indicate that the Holy One, blessed be He, stands behind them; hence it says "gazing through the window," i.e., between the priests' shoulders, and "peering through the lattice," i.e., through the priests' fingers.
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