The famous Priestly Blessing (Num. 6: 24–26) is an ambiguous text in our liturgy that appears in various guises. It is presented as a selection for study from the Written Torah each morning (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 5), and is chanted by the leader of the service at the end of the ‘Amidah (43). The text presents the Torah verses as a memory:
“Bless us our God . . . with the threefold blessing . . . pronounced by Aaron and his descendants, the Kohanim (Priests) . . . ”
The leader of the service is not the one who “bestows” the blessing; we are reminded that this blessing is reserved for the kohanim, the descendants of Aaron. In some synagogues, during the additional (Musaf) service on festivals and High Holidays, this blessing is chanted by those who believe they are in fact descendants of Aaron; they raise their hands and “bless” the congregation, prompted word by word by the leader of the service. A media clip of this ritual at the Western Wall in Jerusalem is linked at the end of this essay.
The most fascinating and compelling version of the tradition of the Priestly Blessing is part of the Shabbat ritual at home on Friday night. Here the blessing text is bestowed from parents to their children, with no hesitation or restriction. The traditional explanation is that following the destruction of the Temple, the context of Temple and priest was transferred to the Shabbat table; the salt on the challah (bread) recalls the salt added to all sacrificed animals, and the role of priest falls upon the parents. So parents in that moment are fully “vested” with the power and authority to bless their children—and have done so for centuries. I have seen the blessing offered through four generations at the same Shabbat gathering; even a “child” of 60 years is not “too old” to receive such a blessing.
My wife and I have blessed our children every Friday night of their lives, and plan to do so at least until age 120; I urge all parents to join us. In giving blessings, we can give more than we have, and become richer as we do so.
The synagogue version of this text is chanted here by Oberkantor Estranga Nechama (z”l), a survivor of the Holocaust who served for many years in Berlin:
Two clips of the Friday-night parental blessing of children can be seen here:
As always, I am interested to hear comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org