Parashat Naso

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְיָ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ.

יָאֵר יְיָ פָּנָיו אֵלֶֽיךָ וִיחֻנֶּֽךָּ.

יִשָּׂא יְיָ פָּנָיו אֵלֶֽיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.

Numbers 6:24-26

The Ohel David Synagogue in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), home to a small group of Baghdadi Jews, was once visited by Nathan Katz, as he relates in his book Who Are the Jews of India?  When Katz walked into the synagogue one Shabbat morning, he didn’t realize he was about to set off a major halachic conundrum. As it so happened he was the tenth man, fulfilling the requirement for a minyan. As it also turned out he is a kohen, descendent of the biblical kohanite priests, and therefore required to participate in the ritual of duchan, offering of the priestly blessing. But Katz was wearing short sleeves, which went against the custom of this community for performing duchan – even in tropical Mumbai. Hence the dilemma: if he left, there would no longer be a minyan; if he remained, he would be required to fulfill the priestly duty of duchan, but could not because of his attire. Finally, and after much deliberation, a compromise was reached: he stood in the doorway, which enabled him to be counted for a minyan but not technically inside the sanctuary and so therefore not required to perform duchan

The priestly blessing referred to as duchan (named for the platform on which the priests stood) has its origins in this week’s Torah portion, in Numbers 6:22-27:

God spoke to Moses; speak to Aaron and his sons, thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May Adonai bless you and protect you!
May Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you!
May Adonai bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!
Thus shall they link my name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

Imagine standing among the Israelite people and receiving such a blessing! 

In the Torah we read of countless instructions given by God to Moses with regard to how the priests were to go about performing their rituals; but we don’t necessarily know the extent to which these instructions were actually carried out. However, we do know that the priestly blessing was uttered by the kohanim at the ancient Temple, and that it continues to this very day – and indeed throughout the Jewish world, as evidenced by Nathan Katz’s account.

According to Reuven Hammer in his article in the Jewish Quarterly Review in 1991 titled, “What Did They Bless, A Study of Mishnah Tamid 5:1”, that source contains “the oldest outline of a service that we have”. This section of M. Tamid 5:1 explicitly mentions the birkat kohanim (priestly blessing) as part of the daily morning ritual performed by the Temple priests following the sacrificial offering. Following the destruction of the Temple, the priestly blessing made it into the prayer book, to be recited by kohanite descendants at musaf and on Festivals and Yom Kippur.

Clearly the rite continued: the 16th century Shulhan Arukh describes in great detail how the kohanite priests were to go about performing their recitation of Numbers 6:24-26. It includes a description of the way they were to hold their hands — with gaps between the 3rd and 4th fingers and thumbs separated, thus creating “windows” in the spaces between the fingers; palms facing downward with the back of the hands facing the sky.  Star Trek fans know that Leonard Nimoy used this same hand position when he pronounced the “Live long and prosper” blessing, thereby bringing it into popular culture; Nimoy is said to have derived this from watching the kohanite blessing in his father’s synagogue when he was a small child.

Today in more liberal congregations — or in the absence of a Kohen — the priestly blessing is pronounced by the Rabbi or Cantor on other special occasions as well, including bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies.

For many of us, maintaining a prayer practice takes work. We strive for an intentional frame of mind as we praise, thank and petition God. What a gift it is then, to have the opportunity to be on the receiving end of such a blessing as the birkat kohanim. We yearn to be blessed and protected, to have the Divine Countenance shine over us and not turn away, to receive the peace that comes with God’s blessing. When we hear these words pronounced over us, may we remember that their origin is as old as our very tradition, and that too is a blessing.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.