Birkat Cohanim

Priestly Blessing

Large crowds congregate on Passover at the Western Wall to receive the priestly blessing

Halakhic texts relating to this article:
Torah: Numbers 6:23–27
Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chayim 128–130
* Not meant as a definitive ruling. Some observances may be rabbinical, custom or Torah-based.

The priestly blessing or priestly benediction, (Numbers 6:24–26):

May the LORD (YHWH) bless you and guard you -
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
("Yebhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy weyishmerēkhā ...)
May the LORD make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you -
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
("Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā wiḥunnékkā ...)
May the LORD lift up His face unto you and give you peace -
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā wiyāsēm lekhā shālōm.")

Biblical source

The source of the text is Israelites with this blessing.

This is the oldest known Biblical text that has been found; amulets with these verses written on them have been found in graves in dating from the First Temple Period, and are now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Various interpretations of these verses connect them to the three Patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or to three attributes of God: Mercy, Courage, and Glory.

In Hebrew law and custom

  • Only Kohanim (i.e., adult - age 13 or older - males in direct patrilineal descent from Aaron) can perform the Priestly Benediction. And the blessing should be performed only in the presence of a minyan (quorum of ten adult males) - even if the Kohanim themselves must be included for a total of ten.[3]
  • Tradition prohibits a Kohen from reciting the blessing while under the influence of alcohol,[4] or in the period immediately following the death of a close relative.[5]
  • All Kohanim present are obligated to participate, unless disqualified in some way.[6] If a Kohen does not wish to participate, he must leave the sanctuary for the duration of the blessing. A Kohen may be disqualified by, e.g., having imbibed too much alcohol, having a severe speech impediment, blindness, having taken a human life, having married a disqualifying wife (such as a divorcee), the recent death of a close relation.[7]
  • A Kohen who is on bad terms with the congregation or who is unwilling to perform the ritual should not perform it.[8]
  • It is customary that, once the Kohanim are assembled on the platform, the canter or prayer leader will prompt them by reciting each word of the blessing and the Kohanim will then repeat that word. This custom is especially followed if only one kohen is available to give the blessing. Apparently this prompting is done to avoid errors or embarrassment if any of the kohanim should be ignorant of the words of the recitation. However, if there are a number of kohanim, they may say the first word of the blessing ("Yevorekhekhaw") without the prompting, presumably to demonstrate their familiarity with the ritual.[9]
  • If the prayer leader is a Kohen himself, he does not prompt the other Kohanim in the blessing. Instead, a non-Kohen is designated with that task, and the leader remains silent.[10]
  • The Mishnah records advice that a person who is troubled by a dream should reflect on it when the Kohanim recite their blessing. This practice is still done in many Orthodox communities.[11] It is also recited at bedtime.[12] Both uses derive from the Song of Songs 3:7-8, telling of 60 armed guards surrounding Solomon's bedchamber to protect him from "night terrors"; the 60 letters in the [Hebrew] text of the blessing similarly defend against night terrors.
  • In many traditional Jewish communities it is the custom for congregants to spread their tallitot over their own heads during the blessing and not look at the Kohanim. If a man has children, they will come under his tallit to be blessed, even if they are quite old.
  • This blessing is also used by some parents to bless their children on Friday night before the beginning of the Shabbat meal. Some rabbis will say the blessing to a boy at his bar mitzvah or to a girl at her bat mitzvah. It is usually prefaced, for boys with a request for God to make the child like Ephraim and Manasseh These were the two sons of Joseph) who are remembered because according to tradition, they never fought with one another. For girls the traditional request is God to make them like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the Matriarchs of the Jewish people.
  • It also may be said before a long journey, and some people will write it out and wear/keep it as an amulet. It is often used in the liturgy as the first section of Torah to be read in the morning after reciting the blessing before studying Torah.
  • In the case where no Kohanim are present in the synagogue (but there still is a minyan) the hazzan will read the prayer verse by verse, and the congregation will respond after each verse with "ken yehi ratzon" (May it be God's Will). This response is used instead of "Amen", because the hazzan is merely "mentioning" the blessing, essentially quoting it rather than actually performing the ritual.[13] However, some congregations (including Chabad) do indeed respond "Amen". This response is also employed on days and times when the Amidah is repeated but the Kohanim do not recite the priestly blessing.[14] However, according to Abudirham, since the Priestly Blessing is not a conventional benediction (that would begin with "Blessed are Thou ..."), but rather a prayer for peace, ken yehi ratzon is the more appropriate response at all times.[15]

When performed

This ceremony is traditionally performed daily in Israel (except in Galilee),[16] and among most Sephardi Jews worldwide, every day during the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah. On Sabbath and festivals it is also recited during the repetition of the Musaf prayer. On Yom Kippur the ceremony is performed during the Ne'ila service as well. On other fast days it is performed at Mincha, if said in the late afternoon. The reason for offering the blessing in the afternoon only on Fast days is that the Kohanim are forbidden to eat and (especially) to drink alcohol prior to the ceremony.[17]

In the Diaspora in Ashkenazic Orthodox communities, the ceremony is performed only on Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.[18] German communities perform it at both Shaharit and Musaf, while on Yom Kippur it is performed at Neilah as well. Eastern European congregations only perform it at Musaf. On Simchat Torah, some communities recite it during Musaf, and others during Shacharit, to enable Kohanim to eat or drink during the Torah reading between Shacharit and Musaf. On weekdays and Shabbat, in Ashkenazic diaspora communities, the blessing is not recited by Kohanim. Instead, it is recited only by the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader), or a hazzan (cantor), after the Modim prayer, towards the end of the Amidah, without any special chant or gestures.[19] This Ashkenazic practice is based on a Rabbinic ruling of the Remoh, who argued that the Kohanim were commanded to bless the people with joy (besimcha) and that Kohanim in the diaspora could not be expected to feel joyful except on the above-mentioned holidays where all Jews are commanded to feel joy.[20]


At the beginning of the ceremony, those descended from the tribe of Levi, the Leviim in the congregation wash the hands of the Kohanim and then the Kohanim remove their shoes (if they are unable to remove their shoes without using their hands, the shoes are removed prior to the washing), and walk up to the platform in front of the ark, at the front of the synagogue. The use of a platform is implied in Leviticus 9:22. They cover their heads with their tallitot, recite the blessing over the performance of the mitzvah, turn to face the congregation, and then the hazzan or prayer leader slowly and melodiously recites the three verse blessing, with the Kohanim repeating it word by word after him. After each verse, the congregation responds Amen.

Raising the hands

During the course of the blessing, the hands of the Kohanim are spread out over the congregation, with the fingers of both hands separated so as to make five spaces between them; the spaces are (1) between the ring finger and middle finger of each hand, (2) between the index finger and thumb of each hand, and (3) the two thumbs touch each other at the knuckle and the aperture is the space above or below the touching knuckles.[21]

The Kohen raises his hands, with the palms facing downward and the thumbs of his outspread hands touching. The four fingers on each hand are sometimes split into two sets of two fingers each (thus forming the letter Shin (שׁ), an emblem for Shaddai, "Almighty [God]"), or sometimes they are arranged to form an overlapping lattice of 'windows.' This ceremony is sometimes called Nesiat Kapayim, the "lifting of the hands." The Jewish tradition states the Divine Presence would shine through the fingers of the priests as they blessed the people, and no one was allowed to look at this out of respect for God.[22]

Each kohen's tallit is draped over his head and hands so that the congregation cannot see his hands while the blessing is said. Performing the ceremony of the priestly blessing is known in Yiddish as duchening, a reference to the "duchan" (Heb: platform) on which the blessing is said. The tradition of covering the hands stems from the biblical prohibition against a Kohen with hands that are disfigured in any way from offering the blessing. The rabbis softened this prohibition by saying that a Kohen with disfigured hands to which the community had become accustomed could bless. In later centuries, the practice became for all Kohanim to cover their hands so that any disfigurement would not be seen by the Congregation. This gave rise to folklore that one should not see the hands of the Kohen or even that harm would befall someone who sees the hands of the Kohen. Some congregants will even turn their backs to the Kohanim so as to avoid any possibility of seeing their hands—although this practice is unsupported by any rabbinic source.

The Talmud describes God as peering through the "lattice" formed by the hands of the Kohanim, referencing the verse in the Song of Songs (2:9):

My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart
Behold, he stands behind our wall
He looks in through the windows
Peering through the lattices (הַחֲרַכִּים).

Ha-kharakim means "the lattices" and this is the only place it occurs in the Bible, but splitting off and treating the definite article as a numeral produces ה׳ חֲרַכִּים -- "[peering through] five lattices".[23]

Prayer chant

In some communities it is customary for the Kohanim to raise their hands and recite an extended musical chant without words before reciting the last word of each phrase. There are different tunes for this chant in different communities. Aside from its pleasant sound, the chant is done so that the congregation may silently offer certain prayers containing individual requests of G-d after each of the three blessings of the Kohanim. Because supplications of this nature are not permitted on Shabbat, the chant is also not done on Shabbat. In Israel, this chanting is not the custom.

Variation among Jewish denominations

Conservative Judaism

In Conservative Judaism, the majority of congregations do not perform the priestly blessing ceremony, but some do. In some American Conservative congregations that perform the ceremony, a bat kohen (daughter of a priest) can perform it as well.[24] Conservative Judaism has also lifted some of the restrictions on Kohanim including prohibited marriages. The Masorti movement in Israel, and some Conservative congregations in North America, require male kohanim as well, and retain restrictions on Kohanim.

Reform, Reconstructionist and Liberal Judaism

In Liberal (and American Reform) congregations, the concept of the priesthood has been largely abandoned, along with other caste and gender distinctions. Thus, this blessing is usually omitted or simply read by the hazzan. North American Reform Jews omit the Musaf service, as do most other liberal communities, and so if they choose to include the priestly blessing, it is usually appended to the end of the Shacharit Amidah. Some congregations, especially Reconstructionist ones, have the custom of the congregation spreading their tallitot over each other and blessing each other that way.

This custom was started when a Reconstructionist rabbi from Montreal, Lavy Becker saw children in Pisa, Italy, run under their fathers' tallitot for the blessing, and he brought it home to his congregation.[25]

Orthodox Judaism does not permit a bat kohen (daughter of a kohen) or bat levi (daughter of a Levite) to participate in nesiat kapayim because the practice is a direct continuation of the Temple ritual, and should be performed by those who would authentically be eligible to do so in the Temple.

The Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has approved two opposing positions: One view holds that a bat kohen may deliver the blessing; another view holds that a bat kohen is not permitted to participate in the Priestly Blessing because it is a continuation of a Temple ritual which women were not eligible to perform.[26]

Use in Christian liturgy

The Priestly blessing is listed as Solemn Blessing #10 (Ordinary Time I) in the Roman Missal, and it is widely used in Anglican, Lutheran and other liturgical churches. Only those ordained to consecrate the Eucharist (bishops and priests in the Catholic traditions and their equivalents in Protestant churches) are authorized to pronounce blessing (as opposed to asking for a blessing, as at a meal), and so are the only ones who perform the blessing in the Liturgy, however, due to the Christian theology of the priesthood of the baptized, all members of the church are considered kohanim, and the priest is considered an icon of the High Priest.

The version contained in the Roman Missal reads as follows:

Deacon or Priest: Bow down for the blessing.

Celebrant (with arms extended): May the Lord bless you and keep you.

Response: Amen.

Celebrant: May His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.

Response: Amen.

Celebrant: May He look upon you with kindness, and give you His peace.

Response: Amen.

Celebrant: And may the blessing of almighty God, the Father, and the Son, + (making the sign of cross) and the Holy Spirit, come down on you and remain with you forever

Response: Amen.

Deacon or Priest: Go forth, the Mass is ended.

Response: Thanks be to God.

Pop culture

In the mid-1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, used a single-handed version of this gesture to create the Vulcan Hand Salute for his character, Spock, on Star Trek. He has explained that while attending Orthodox services as a child, he peeked from under his father's tallit and saw the gesture; many years later, when introducing the character of Mr. Spock, he and series creator Gene Roddenberry thought a physical component should accompany the verbal "Live long and prosper" greeting. The Jewish priestly gesture looked sufficiently alien and mysterious, and became part of Star Trek lore.[27] Nimoy later recorded an English translation of the blessing for Civilization IV; the recording is played when the player discovers the technology "Priesthood".

Bob Dylan's song "Forever Young" from the Planet Waves album uses the form and some content ("May God Bless and keep you...") of the Priestly Blessings.

Leonard Cohen ended his concert in Ramat Gan, Israel, on 24 September 2009, with the Priestly Blessing, i.e. reciting it in Hebrew.[28] As his name suggests, Cohen is halakhically a priest.

In the movie Deep Impact, the President of the United States, played by Morgan Freeman, recites the Priestly Blessing in a speech to the world. This speech announces to the world that a comet is approaching the world and will cause an E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event).

See also


Further reading

  • Rabbi Avi Gold, Bircas Kohanim: The Priestly Blessings: Background, Translation, and Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Sources Artscroll Mesorah Series, 1981, 95 pages. ISBN 0-89906-184-2
  • Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer, David Brofsky, KTAV Publishing House/OU Press/Yeshivat Har Etzion. 2010. (ISBN 978-1-60280-164-6)

External links

  • Jewish Knowledge Base
  • Priestly Blessing, from the Union of Reform Judaism
  • procedure for the blessing of the kohanim (info on ceremony and picture of hand position for blessing—Orthodox perspective)
  • Recording of the Priestly Blessing on the Zemirot Database
  • Why the Priestly Blessing is not recited daily in the Diaspora
  • Article provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism
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