Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemini 5763/ March 29, 2003

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 Shemini 5763/ March 29, 2003

Was Aaron's Blessing the Birkhat Kohanim?

Prof. Joseph Tabori
Department of Talmud

This week's portion relates the climax of the inculcation of the Sanctuary in the desert, the Mishkan. After seven days of training or milluim, the "running-in" period was over and the inaugural ceremony was performed on the eighth. As it is told in our parasha, with the completion of the offerings in the Tabernacle on the eighth day, "Aaron lifted his hands towards the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being" (Lev. 9:22). The Sages note that the Torah does not say explicitly what blessing Aaron recited but they assume it was Birkhat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, even though it is first to be found in the book of Numbers:

And blessed them - since this blessing was not made explicit we do not know what it was, but later Scriptures explains: 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. (Sifra, Mekhilta de-Milluim, beginning of Parashat Shemini 30).
The Priestly Blessing, in Numbers 6:22-27, is an ethereal commandment, detached from any context. The text does not stipulate when this formulation is to be recited, nor how. In fact, the details were learned by the Sages in light of our Parasha and the blessing which the text here in Leviticus says that Aaron gave the people. The Babylonian Talmud mentions that from this passage it was deduced that since the Priestly Blessing was given by Aaron after the sacrificial worship, it should be recited at the end of the amidah prayer (Megillah 18a). The Jerusalem Talmud adds that the Priestly Blessing is to be recited not only in the shaharit service, but also in musaf, since Aaron did not bless the people after the regular daily offering (korban tamid), but after the special offering of dedication or milluim (Jer. Talmud, Ta'anit 4.1; 67a). The Babylonian Talmud further deduces from our text that the Priestly Blessing should be said with raised hands, since Aaron lifted his hands towards the people when he blessed them (Sotah 37b-38a).

Rashi concurred with the Talmudic way and commented on the verse in our parasha, saying that it referred to the Priestly Blessing. Nahmanides challenged him, arguing that Rashi's view would imply that Aaron blessed the people with the Priestly Blessing before the commandment for that blessing had ever been given. Nahmanides, however, proceeded forthwith to given an explanation which justifies Rashi's argument, noting that immediately after the Priestly Blessing in Numbers comes the passage on the offering brought by the chieftains of Israel, introduced by the words, "On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle" (Num. 7:1). If we accept the notion that there is a chronological connection between the passages, the Priestly Blessing turns out to have been commanded shortly before the chieftains began bringing their offerings. Since the chieftains commenced their offerings on the eighth day of dedication of the Tabernacle,[1] we can indeed say that Aaron was commanded regarding the Priestly Blessing before he began the sacrificial service of the eighth day, which is described in this week's reading.

At the same time, Nahmanides offered his own opinion about the content of Aaron's blessing. Aaron's blessing here was not the Priestly Blessing, rather a blessing that he gave the Israelites on his own initiative, just as King Solomon did when he dedicated the Temple (I Kings 8:22). Nahmanides acknowledged that the interpretation from Sifra, cited above, serves as a strong argument in support of Rashi's approach, but he then interpreted Sifra in a forced manner so that his own interpretation would stand.[2]

We do not know why Nahmanides was reluctant to accept Rashi's interpretation, which was based on the Rabbinic tradition. However, we too would like to make another argument for the case that the Aaron's blessing on the eighth day was not the Priestly Blessing set forth in Numbers, but a personal blessing that Aaron gave Israel. Our argument is based on the significance of the Priestly Blessing and how it differs from a personal blessing that a priest might bestow. When we give someone a personal blessing, we essentially offer a prayer to G-d to bestow His blessings on that individual; the Priestly Blessing, however, which is made on the strength of G-d's command, is not addressed to G-d, rather it is addressed to human beings from G-d, who blesses them.

Another side of the Priestly Blessing emerges from the fact that it is placed at the end of the service, whether in the Temple or today in the synagogue. We are familiar with this from our daily worship; the Kohanim recite the blessing at the end of the Shemone Esreh. This was also once true of the recitation of Shema, with its surrounding benedictions, when it was recited in the Temple, as described in the ancient Mishnah, Tamid 4.3-7.2: "and they recited one benediction, the Ten Commandments, the three paragraphs of the Shema, then they blessed the people with these three benedictions: True and firm, and Avodah, and the Priestly Blessing." We see that the Priestly Blessing is the conclusion of the service. The order of the Temple service was similarly described by Ben Sira (second century BCE): "When he finished the service at the altar and his utterances, he approached, then he came down and lifted up his hands to the entire community of Israel, the blessing of the Lord on his lips, in the name of the Lord, may He be glorified" (Ben Sira 50:29-32). Similarly Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Temidin u-Musafin (6.5) that the Priestly Blessing was recited in the Temple after the priests had placed the parts of the tamid sacrifice on the altar. Elsewhere he wrote, "In the Temple the Priestly Blessing was recited once a day, after the tamid [offering] of the morning" (Hilkhot Tefillah u-Nesiat Kapayim 14.14).

Accordingly one could say that the Priestly Blessing is like confirmation from the Holy One, blessed be He, that the worship was accepted. Ibn Ezra mentioned in his commentary the view of the Karaites that "The priest would give this blessing to anyone who brought an offering (minha) and that therefore it appears in Numbers right after the Law of the nazirites, who bring a minha offering." But as we have seen above, the Priestly Blessing is not a blessing from the Priest to the people but a blessing that the Lord gives the people of Israel who bring an offering from the community. This also explains psychologically why we so anxiously await the priests' blessing at the end of the Ne'ilah service on the Day of Atonement. This blessing is the Lord's response to our worship of Him, confirming that our devotion has been favorably received and that He has granted us His blessing.

The Temple service, as described in Tractate Tamid, however, indicated a different situation. There the Priestly Blessing comes before the priests place the parts of the tamid offering on the altar. It is true that elsewhere I mentioned that this marks a change that the Sages instituted in the status of the Priestly Blessing,[3] but in the wake of analyzing this week's reading I have arrived at a different conclusion: although the Priestly Blessing in the Temple came before placing the parts on the altar, it was said immediately after burning the incense. We know that in the Second Temple Period great value was placed on the ritual of burning incense, which provided a pleasing odor before the Lord. That was considered a time of G-d's grace and was the moment when people tended to present their personal supplications to G-d. Thus, the conclusion of the incense ritual would be the most appropriate moment for the Priestly Blessing, as the Lord's confirmation that their prayers had been favorably received.
Now let us return to this week's reading. Aaron placed the parts on the altar, then came down after making the sin offering, the burnt offering and the offering of well-being. Yet he had not yet "given" the Lord anything, for there was no fire on the altar, and the parts to be sacrificed had simply been placed there. Therefore, it was not yet appropriate to recite the Priestly Blessing as the Lord's blessing to the people, so Aaron's blessing was only a personal blessing, an expression of thanks to the people for supporting him as he was performing the sacrificial service.

Afterwards it is said that Moses and Aaron entered the Tent of Meeting again (Lev. 9:23). It is not clear for what purpose they entered this time, but Rashi interpreted this passage, on the basis of a homily in Torat Kohanim (Sifra), that this time Moses taught Aaron what to do with the incense. In other words, either Moses burned the incense while Aaron observed him and learned how to burn it, or Aaron burned the incense while Moses instructed him. The verse concludes, "When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people." This blessing is not explicitly detailed, but it seems that the fitting time for the Priestly Blessing from the Lord was at that moment, after burning the incense. Moses, after all, had ministered as Priest during the days of dedication of the Tabernacle, and he did not need a commandment from G-d to place the Lord's blessing on the people, since he was His faithful servant and all that he did was at G-d's behest. Indeed, after the incense was burned and the benediction that Moses and Aaron gave the people was recited, the Presence of the Lord appeared to the people.

[1] According to a tradition of the Sages, the eighth day fell on the first of Nisan (for a list of sources, see L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Moses in Numbers, n. 376). According to Megillat ha-Mikdash, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the days of dedication began on the first of Nisan, and the eighth day of dedication was on the eighth of the month. For a discussion of this debate, see Y. Erder, "The First Date in Megillat Ta'anit in Light of the Karaite Commentary on the Tabernacle Dedication," JQR, 82 (1992), pp. 263-283.

[2] As far as the other evidence for the view of the Sages, see Mishneh la-Melekh, Hilkhot Tefillah 14:9. Mishneh la-Melekh notes that the other sources indicate that the Sages learned about the Priestly Blessing from Aaron's blessing by way of analogy, and hence Aaron's blessing was not the generally acknowledged Priestly Blessing. These other sources turn out to support Nahmanides' view, not challenge it.

[3] J. Tabori, "BirkhatKohanim - Me-Mikdash le-Medinah," Kol Peh Lekha Yodeh: Iyyunim li'khvodo shel Prof. Dov Rappel, Jerusalem , 2002, pp. 158-162.