I’m not a kohen, nor were my father and grandfather. But that never stopped me from loving birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing. I’ve never used it liberally–you may notice that I don’t bestow it on Bnai-Mitzvah children–but I loved receiving it from my parents and so I love using it to bless my own kids at Shabbat dinner. When I’m at Camp Ramah, one of the highlights of the summer is the appearance of a child on the staff porch of the dining hall, dressed in Shabbat whites, head bowed, ready for the blessing.
In this week’s parshah, Naso the Torah instructs Aharon, the first kohen gadol, high priest, the content of the blessing he is to offer to all of Israel. That’s the threefold text we find not only at our Shabbat dinner tables, but sometimes also as part of the repetition of the Amidah: “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!” (Numbers 6:24-26).
But while the Torah provides content, the rabbis fill in the form of the blessing. They offer expansive commentary on the phrase that introduces the blessing: “Koh tevarkhu et Bnai Yisrael–Thus shall you bless the people of Israel.” Of note are these three criteria for blessing the people, found in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 38a): “Ba’amidah–in a standing position; binesiut kappayim–with uplifted hands; bilshon hakodesh–in the holy tongue.”
It may seem obvious, but giving another person a blessing is a form of intimate communication. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the rabbis emphasize form to accompany content. All communication is characterized by how’s it’s delivered, and not merely by its content. On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at how these three elements of form can enhance modern-day communication in the Jewish world.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise