The Aaronic Blessing
“Speak to Aaron and to his sons saying: Thus shall you bless the children of Israel, it is to be said to them: May G-d bless you and keep you, May G-d shine His face upon you and be gracious to you, May G-d turn His face to you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:23-26)
G-d instructs Moses to teach Aaron how to bless the children of Israel. The blessing is written in the singular – the word “you” refers to the individual, not the common you. Each and every person of Israel is blessed by the priests.
Notice the end of the first verse – “it is to be said to them”. The language of the blessing is dictated to the priests, the children of Aaron and through that dictation, they will bless the people of Israel. While G-d invests the priests with this special obligation to bless Israel, He does not give them power over them. G-d provides the wording and they perform their obligation. In this way, the priests should not become arrogant and believe that they have a special power of their own, to bless the people or refrain from blessing, as they choose, to create the content of the blessing, as they wish. They are merely vessels of G-d’s will.
In fact, the words “it is to said to them” have been interpreted to mean that it is the people of Israel who must initiate this blessing – when the people of Israel dictate this blessing, it is repeated by the priests and they bless Israel. In fact, this is the custom in synagogues to this very day.
The priestly tradition has been preserved for thousands of years, even though we no longer have a Temple in which to serve G-d through sacrifice and the other rituals prescribed in the Bible. Every Jew with the name Cohen (or Cohn, Kahn, Kahan) is a descendant of a priest, and this tradition has been passed from father to son. Each priest knows who he is and continues to bless the people of Israel. Every single day in Israel (only during holidays abroad), during the morning prayer services, the priests in the congregation proceed to the front of the synagogue at a specified time, raise their prayer shawls above their heads to hide their faces, turn to face the congregation, raise their arms above their heads and recite the Aaronic blessing. However, they only recite the blessing after being called upon to do so by the leader of the service. And that leader pronounces each word of the blessing first, softly so as not to attract undue attention. The priests then repeat each word in a loud chant.
The priests were a holy group of people, invested with special duties and obligations. They owned no land in Israel and were responsible for the service in the Temple. They, in effect, represented the people of Israel to G-d and enabled the people to serve G-d. They were also identified with peace. Aaron was a man of peace, far calmer of spirit than his brother Moses. His descendant, Pinchas (Phineas), a hot- headed individual, is invested with G-d’s covenant of peace. (Numbers 25:12). And the Aaronic blessing ends with the wish for peace.
It is imperative that the priests remain separate yet part of the people of Israel. They are not political leaders but spiritual ones. In fact, during the second temple period, the priests usurped the political leadership and chaos and corruption resulted. Their duties to bless do not confer upon them extra powers or privileges. They are servants of G-d, servants of the needs of the people. And in fulfilling their duties, according to G-d’s will, they can indeed bring peace among the Jewish people.
Director, Israel Office