Parashat Naso: The Priestly blessing

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion


ParAshat Naso


The Priestly blessing



            In this week's Parasha, the kohanim are commanded to bless Israel. They are instructed as follows:


And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to Aharon and to his sons, saying, In this way you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them. The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance to you, and give you peace. And you shall put My name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them. (Bamidbar 6:22-27)


            The kohanim are appointed as God's agents in order to pass on His blessing. The verses themselves display a certain tension regarding the question who precisely is doing the blessing. At the beginning of the passage, the kohanim are told: "In this way you shall bless the children of Israel," implying that it is the kohanim who bless, whereas at the end of the passage, it is stated that the kohanim will merely put God's name upon the children of Israel, but "I will bless them," that is to say, God does the blessing. It stands to reason that the tension arising from the verses appearing in this passage gives expression to the fundamental question regarding a person's blessing in general. What is the meaning of the blessing that Ya'akov gave his sons? Are we dealing with prophecy or with the heart's desire?[1] How are we to understand the blessing that Yitzchak gave to Ya'akov and Esav? And in similar manner, we can ask: What is the meaning of the priestly blessing given to Israel?


            The answer to this last question is presumably connected to the "putting of God's name" mentioned with regard to this blessing, to the nature of the blessing, and to the reason for God's choosing of the kohanim to bring the blessing and pass it on to Israel.


            In this lecture we shall try to deal with all these issues in light of the Chassidic teachings on the topic.




            It is brought in the name of the Ba'al Shem Tov that there is significance to the fact that the command regarding the priestly blessing opens with the word "ko" – "In this way" (ko) you shall bless the children of Israel." R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev writes as follows:


"And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to Aharon and to his sons, saying, In this way you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them." The rule is as follows: For the Ba'al Shem Tov would always reproach the world with this verse: "The Lord is your shade" (Tehilim 121:5). That is to say, just as a person's shadow does as he does, so the Creator, blessed be He, as it were, does as man does. Therefore, a person must perform mitzvot, give charity, and have compassion on the poor, in order that the Creator, blessed be He, should perform kindness for him as well. Now this quality is called "ko," for the meaning of the word "ko" is "in this way." This means: Just as he does, so too the Creator, blessed be He, does. And it is known that the Creator, blessed be He, wishes to benefit His nation Israel, for more than the calf wishes to suckle, the cow wishes to nurse. When a person stands to pray before the Creator, blessed be he – be it the entire Shemone Esre or other words of supplication - he must only pray that the Creator, blessed be He, should take delight in it. As [the Sages] have said in the Mishna (Avot 2:9): "If you have learned much Torah, do not hold this goodly [knowledge] for yourself, for you were created to do so." This means that a person's actions should be intended only to delight the Creator. And it is known that when a person prays on his own behalf, he is then called a "receiver." And when a person wishes to receive something, he holds out his hand, the back toward the ground and the palm upward. But when a person prays only to delight the Creator, blessed be He, he is then called a "bestower," for he bestows, as it were, upon the Creator, blessed be He, and a bestower holds out his hand, the back facing up and the palm facing down. Now, the priestly blessing is recited with uplifted hands, that is, they hold out their hands with the backs toward their faces, like one who wishes to bestow. This is the meaning of the verse: "In this way you shall bless the children of Israel." That is to say, that they should bless Israel in order to delight the Creator, blessed be He, and they should bestow, as it were, upon the Creator, blessed be He, and then the Creator, blessed be He, will bestow all kindness and blessings upon Israel. As we have stated that this quality is called "ko," just as Israel does, as it were, the Creator, blessed be He, also does, bestowing upon His nation Israel goodness, blessing, life and peace. Amen. (Kedushat ha-Levi, Nasa)


            R. Levi Yitzchak's point of departure is the Ba'al Shem Tov's amazing comment on the expression, "The Lord is your shade." God, argues the Besht with tremendous daring, is man's shadow. Just as man's movements effect his shadow and determine how it will move, so too man's conduct in this world determine, as it were, God's governance of the world.


            The Besht tries to see the relationship and connection between God and man as a two-way channel, through which Man is bestowed upon and God bestows, and intermittently, man turns into the one who bestows, and God, as it were, becomes the one who is bestowed upon. The front where the Besht wishes to carry out this revolution is the place where, more than anywhere else, one would have thought that it is God who bestows and man who receives, namely, the arena of prayer. At this front, the Besht chooses the place where this perception of the relationship is strongest – the Shemone Esre prayer and other supplications. It is precisely during prayer, and most strongly during the Shemone Esre and supplications, that the fact is emphasized that it is we who are petitioning God to bestow of His good upon us. This is the classic and simple definition of "bestower" and "bestowed upon" – we petition and God in His lovingkindness bestows. The Besht, however, sees it differently: "For more than the calf wishes to suckle, the cow wishes to nurse." And, therefore, God's pleasure in fulfilling our requests is greater than our own pleasure in having our petitions fulfilled.


            It should be noted that the Besht is trying to walk along a tightrope that constitutes the border between two polar outlooks. On the one side, prayer according to the school of the Maggid of Mezhirech, who tried to turn prayer into a petition on behalf of the Shekhina, in which man effaces and forgets himself, and all his thoughts are directed at the Shekhina and its exile. This outlook scorns personal requests, restricting them to the extent possible:


A person should not pray for his own needs; rather, he should always pray for the Shekhina that it be redeemed from exile. So too the Zohar refers to those who pray for themselves and not for the Shekhina "impudent dogs who bark: give, give." (Magid Devarav Le-Ya'akov, Lvov, 1797, 3d)


            This is the mystical outlook of the Maggid of Mezhirech who wishes to see prayer as an act of communion with the Shekhina which speaks from the throat of the person engaged in prayer.


            On the other side, there is the outlook taken to the other extreme, that of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who sees the focus of prayer in petitioning for human needs, placing man at the center, rather than the Shekhina:


At this stage, prayer is no longer exclusively a cry. It is – correctly stated – a well-defined thought, a clear concept. A cry turns into a prayer. We do not know the precise semantics of the term "tefila" (prayer). One thing, however, is clear: The term is connected to thought, judgment, distinction. In short, prayer is connected to rational activity. A scaled ladder of needs, clearly defined and arranged, is found in the text of the Amida prayer, where not only the emotional consciousness of the need, but also the logos of the need are redeemed – and with it the human creature himself… To pray means to distinguish, to judge, to understand, in other words to petition understanding…. (Ge'ula, Tefila, ve-Talmud Torah in Divrei Hagut ve-Ha'arakha, p. 267)


            According to R. Soloveitchik, man's greatest failure relates to the identification and clarification of his needs. Prayer, and especially the Amida prayer, comes to help man clarify his true needs, his troubles, and the proper scale of values that he should adopt in order to fashion his aspirations and the desire to fulfill them.


As an existentialist, R. Soloveitchik rejects the mystical prayer of the Maggid of Mezhirech, with the argument that Halakha is interested in human needs and in this world, and not in the supernal worlds. And so too, according to his outlook:


Halakha is interested in psychosomatic man, in his very body. It is not pleased by the soul's ecstatic separation from the body during the time of prayer. The service of the heart aims at bringing an offering through the total surrender of soul and body to God… He cannot escape the chains of corporeality and his trivial needs, and any attempt to cast this mission upon him will fail. Halakha deals with human beings who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, those who sin for a piece of bread. These people have nothing but four cubits of loathsome and ridiculous impulse. (Ra'ayonot al ha-Tefila, p. 265)


            We see, then, the two extremes. On the one side, prayer that focuses on the Shekhina, and therefore disdains petitioning for one's personal needs. And on the other side, prayer that focuses on man, and therefore sees petitioning for one's needs as its most important element.


            The Besht, as we have seen, proposes a middle road, which places the petition for human needs at the center of prayer, but this does not detract from his demand that prayer focus on God: "He must only pray that the Creator, blessed be He, should take delight in it."


            The fact that God takes pleasure in bestowing whatever we need upon us allows the Besht to assert that a person may petition for his needs out of a desire to benefit God, as it were. This may be likened to a child who asks his grandmother for a candy, both because he wants the candy, but mostly because he knows how much pleasure she takes in giving it to him.


            This solution impacts upon a person's entire religious consciousness, allowing him to fully conjoin with God's desire, while at the same time remaining firmly planted in this world. This is the Besht's novel and amazing idea, which was not internalized by all of his successors. In this way, asserts the Besht, a person who prays for his own needs turns from petitioner and receiver to bestower. And now his prayer impacts in two directions. We receive God's bounty, but in our desire to cause God delight, we, as it were, bestow upon Him.


            In the aforementioned passage, the Besht clarifies two types of prayer: one that petitions to receive, and a second that essentially petitions to bestow. When a person is engaged in prayer, his hands are usually positioned in such a way that the back of the hand faces down and the palm of the hand faces up, so that the hand becomes sort of a vessel to receive the bounty. This is the ultimate posture of one who petitions – this is the way a poor man holds out his hands when he asks for charity, and this is the way a person engaged in prayer holds out his hands when he seeks God's bounty.


            The kohanim, however, explains R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, teach us about another posture of prayer, in which the back of the hand faces up and the palm of the hand faces down. This is a position of bestowal, of a desire to provide, to give, to bless, like a father who places his hand on his child's head and blesses him, hoping to bestow all kinds of blessings upon him. This is the position of the kohanim who stand and bless Israel. They fall into the category of "bestowers," their eyes being turned not to God, but to the people of Israel.[2]


            Those who bless and bestow are the kohanim, and when God takes delight in the fact that His children are being blessed, He too provides His blessing. According to the Besht, the kohanim, on the one hand, do not petition for God's blessing, but on the other hand, they do not bestow God's blessing upon Israel. The kohanim bestow their own blessing, and in the manner of "the Lord is your shade," God, as it were, follows in their footsteps, and in His delight over their blessings, adds His own blessing to theirs. This is the way the Besht would understand the expressions that we took note of at the beginning of this lecture: "In this way you shall bless the children of Israel" – you shall bless the children of Israel, and "in this manner" – namely, so too I will do – "I will bless them."




            The Sefat Emet goes off in a different, and to a large extent, the opposite direction. He writes as follows:


Regarding the priestly blessing. The three blessings are the aspect of the three Patriarchs. See what we have written in Parashat Toledot that there are three blessings: ba-kol, mi-kol, and kol. And we explained there that mi-kol refers to a separated blessing; ba-kol is more conjoined to the source; [and] kol is the source and root of the blessing itself. And they are the aspects of nefesh, ru'ach, and neshama. Now, "the Lord bless You" is the aspect of Yitzchak. This is what Rashi writes: "'And I will bless you' – with wealth," which is a slightly separated blessing. And there it is written: "'And I will bless you' – that we say, 'God of Yitzchak.'" And He begins with this blessing, because the source of blessings was given into the hands of Yitzchak. And therefore it is written here: "And keep you," because it requires safekeeping, so that Esav should not take hold of it. And for this reason the blessing of Yitzchak is not so conjoined to the source, because of the part of Esav. "The Lord make His face shine" – this is illumination from the source, the aspect of Avraham, ba-kol. "The Lord lift up" – is the aspect of neshama, the quality of Ya'akov, the perfect man. The essence of the priestly blessing is that the children of Israel should be prepared to receive the blessing, as it is written: "And you shall put My name, etc." For, as it were, the Holy One, blessed be He, is always prepared to bless the children of Israel, as it is written: "It pleased the Lord to bless Israel" (Bamibar 24:1). Only they must be vessels to receive the blessing. And therefore it is with uplifted hands, to allude that they are ready to receive the blessing, as it is written: "Lift up your hands in the sanctuary" (Tehilim 134:2). And in the Temple they would rise up further toward the source, as it is written in the Mishna: "In the Temple, the kohanim would raise their hands above their heads." And the three aforementioned blessings are three levels to raise the body to nefesh, ru'ach, neshama, as I have written. (Sefat Emet, Nasa, 5652)


            The Sefat Emet sees the priestly blessing as a process of conjoining with the source of blessing. We are talking about a gradual process, starting with "a separated blessing," continuing with a blessing that is more conjoined to its source, and reaching the source of the blessing.


            The process starts with Yitzchak, whose blessing in relation to the blessings of Avraham and Ya'akov is the most separated blessing of all. Since it is separated from its source, it requires the most safekeeping,[3] and indeed we see that its transmission to Ya'akov was not self-evident, and it almost reached Esav. Whereas in the case of Avraham, the blessing is connected to its source, and in the case of Ya'akov, the perfect man, the source of the blessing is found.


            The process of receiving a blessing, contends the Sefat Emet, is the attempt to rise together with the blessing to its source. We are not satisfied with the attainment of a blessing, but rather we wish to meet with He who gives it and connect to the source of its vitality. The lifting of the kohanim's hands, argues the Sefat Emet, is a process of elevation and an attempt to reach the source of the blessing. We are talking about a motion of receiving bounty: "And therefore it is with uplifted hands, to allude that they are ready to receive the blessing, as it is written: 'Lift up your hands in the sanctuary.'" The lifting of the kohanim's hands is not a motion of bestowing, but rather a motion of receiving. The kohanim bless the children of Israel by preparing them to receive a blessing, and this finds expression in the lifting of their hands.[4]


            The same idea also finds expression in the words of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk:


This is [the meaning of]: "The Holy One, blessed be He, found that no vessel can contain blessing except for peace" (Uktzin 3:12). As is known, peace is connection, the infinite light that illuminates and invigorates everything, the concealed light inside the vessel that bestows bounty upon everything. And, therefore, the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, is peace, because He makes peace (Vayikra Rabba 9, 9). And, therefore, no vessel can contain blessing except through connection to the source and to the hidden light which is the bounty and the peace, and therefore pours into what is deficient and fills it. Now the quality of Aharon the kohen was that he actively pursued peace between man and his fellow, and between man and his wife, as is well known (Avot 1:12), because it was his quality only to pursue the hidden light that invigorates everything and is the source of everything, since it is infinite. Therefore the mitzva is through him, for there the Lord commanded the blessing, Aharon and his sons shall bless the children of Israel. And therefore say to them, face to face, that they should both be directed to the same thing, the hearer and the speaker, only to attain the supernal light, "the commandment of the Lord is pure" (Tehilim 19:9). This would not be the case were the intention of the recipient to attain what he is lacking, which is the rear…. (Peri ha-Aretz, Naso)


            The author of the Peri ha-Aretz refers to the statement of Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta at the end of tractate Uktzin:


Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta said: The Holy One, blessed be He, found that no vessel can contain blessing except for peace. As it is stated: "The Lord gives strength to His people; the Lord blesses His people with peace" (Tehilim 29:11). (Uktzin 2:12)


            Peace is "a vessel that contains blessing," and he who conjoins with the quality of peace is surely fit to be a vessel that bears blessing. This is the quality of Aharon the kohen who loved peace and pursued peace.


            The pursuit of peace, according to R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, is yearning for the upper worlds, seeking the infinite light that invigorates all the worlds. This seeking and yearning are what turn peace into a vessel that contains peace. The seeking and the pursuit create a void and a vacuum that wishes to be filled. The deficiency is more pronounced when there is seeking and yearning, and when the deficiency is more pronounced, the person turns into a vessel that is fit to receive the bounty.


            R. Menachem Mendel, like the Sefat Emet, and unlike the Kedushat ha-Levi, does not see the kohanim as bestowing, but rather as receiving. He does not interpret the kohanim's lifting of their hands toward the people as bestowal and giving,[5] but as the formation of unity – face to face – to serve as a vessel to contain the blessing. The kohanim turn their faces toward the people, not in order to bestow blessing upon them, but in order to invest them with the power and ability given to them by their forefather – Aharon the kohen – to aspire to attain the supernal light.


            According to this, the priestly blessing is not a blessing, but an expression of seeking and yearning. And the lifting of the hands is like the spreading of hands heavenward in an attempt to touch the bounty and stir it to fall to the earth like dew, and fill the vessel of deficiency and yearning.




            Thus far, we have seen two different understandings regarding the priestly blessing and the priestly power to bless.


            On the one side, we saw that the priestly blessing has intense and independent power. Not only does it bestow bounty, but it itself stirs God to bestow of His good. "In this way you shall bless" – "And I will bless them."


            On the other side, we saw that the kohanim's power is to create a desire and yearning for the bounty, or in other words, to transform themselves and the rest of Israel into a vessel that can contain blessing, so that the bounty may be bestowed in it.


            It seems that a different note is sounded in the following words of the Sefat Emet:


In the priestly blessing: "In this way you shall bless the children of Israel." This means that the children of Israel are vessels to draw blessing through them. As it is written: "And you shall put My name, etc." For we find: No vessel can contain blessing except for peace… And the primary explanation of "peace" we have written elsewhere. For the lower part is part of the body, but the children of Israel have conjunction with the upper part, which is called peace. And similarly, the Temple, about which it is written: "Like a city that is compact together" (Tehilim 122:3), and it is called "Shalem." This is the allusion of the lifting of hands, as it is written: "Lift up your hands in the sanctuary"… "Your hands in the sanctuary" are the hand and the power that they have in the holiness, the kohen joining together the lower portion to the upper portion. And it is written: "And Aharon lifted his hands." This is the power of the kohen, the aspect of lovingkindness that was given to the patriarch Avraham, of blessed memory. This power was given to the kohen with which to bless Israel with love. And this is alluded to in the Midrash regarding: "And you shall be a blessing." (Sefat Emet, Naso, 5647) 


            At the beginning of this teaching, the Sefat Emet returns to the principle that peace is the vessel that can contain blessing.[6] In the second part of the teaching, however, he offers a different explanation for the term "peace." According to this explanation, the primary denotation of the term is connection.


            Peace is the ability to make a connection between two enemies, between two ends, between two adversaries. Regarding the statement made about Aharon the kohen that he "loved peace and sought peace," R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk focused on the elements of pursuit, seeking and yearning. In this teaching, the Sefat Emet focuses on Aharon's ability to reconcile two people who are fighting, to mediate between husband and wife. Not the pursuit, nor the yearning, but rather the ability to cause peace to dwell between opposites and polar extremes. This is the ability of Aharon the kohen to make a connection between right and left, between black and white, and thus also between heaven and earth. "The kohen joins the lower portion to the upper portion." According to this, the blessing that the kohanim bring to Israel through peace is not based on the model of a vessel containing blessing and bounty falling upon it, but rather on the model of upper and lower worlds and the connection between them.


            The transition from the yearning to fill a deficiency, that creates a vessel, to the ability to bring about reconciliation and attachment, that allows for connection and relationship, is the transition that gives the kohanim a status that is different from what we have seen thus far – a status of intermediaries, of ambassadors: "the hand and the power that they have in the holiness." The fact that the kohanim are men of peace, who connect heaven and earth, allow them to bring the blessing of heaven down to earth and the petition of earth up to heaven.[7]


            Emphasis is, therefore, placed also on the love that accompanies the priestly blessing - "to bless His nation Israel with love." Love is a condition for peace; when a person loves he can join together two extremes, two opposites and two enemies. With the power of love and peace, the kohanim can cause God's blessing to rest on earth, this being the power of the kohanim, descendants of Aharon.


"For there the lord has commanded the blessing" (Tehilim 133:3)


            We have seen three theological explanations and three psychological positions that fashion the consciousness that may accompany a person who blesses his fellow - from the kohen who blesses Israel, to the father who blesses his son, to the speaker who blesses those celebrating a joyous event.


A person who offers a blessing can direct his hands upwards, and join his prayer to the prayers of those receiving the blessing and petition bounty. He is nothing, and all his thoughts are given to yearning for and pursuit after God's light. This prayer is the blessing placed in his mouth, and he and they together become a vessel that yearns for blessing.


A person who offers a blessing can direct his face downward and lift his hands toward those receiving the blessing, those seeking his blessing, and try to bestow upon them of his goodness, of his feelings, and of the longings of his heart, and out of this desire to provide and to give, he offers his blessing, thereby causing God, as it were, to join him in the blessing.


And a person who offers a blessing can feel that he is a channel, that God gave him the privilege to be His agent, to bring of His blessing to the recipients of the blessing. Through the power invested in him, he tries to join heaven and earth, and to be the bond that connects the receivers of the blessing to the Divine blessing that tries to make its way to the receivers - he with his own blessing providing it with a path.


Sometimes a blessing is a petition. Sometimes it is profusion of bounty. And sometimes it is connection to the source of supernal bounty. Each person with his own blessing, and with his hand motions upward or downward. With God's help, let us merit to bless and be blessed in God's light, in the manner of "The Lord lift up His countenance to you, and give you peace."




[1] The words: "That I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days" (Bereishit 49:1) suggest that a blessing involves prophecy.


[2] This finds expression not only in the position of the kohanim's hands, but also in the fact that they stand on a raised platform, facing Israel, and with their backs, as it were, to God's sanctuary. This is a highly untypical stance.

The prophet Yechezkel rose up against idolaters who turned their back to God's sanctuary. The difference is that whereas the idolaters seek a source of bounty other than the holy, and face away from the sanctuary as if to seek that bounty, the kohanim face Israel, as if they were bestowing bounty upon them from within God's sanctuary.


[3] This may be likened to a person who wishes to bestow a prize in return for good deeds. He himself is the source of the good, for it is he who wishes to bestow the prize. This is the neshama of the good. The second stage is when that person holds the prize in his hands and wishes to give it to his fellow. The prize is still connected to its source, and therefore it will not be given until a deserving person arrives. There is, however, a third stage, at which time that person is liable to put the prize down and leave. From the moment that the prize stands on its own, no longer conjoined to its source, it requires safekeeping, for anyone who wants can come and take it. When cut off from its source, a blessing loses "the guiding hand," becomes blind, and is in need of a guide and leader.


[4] The Sefat Emet relates to the fact that in the Temple the kohanim would raise their hands above their heads, indicating an even higher attainment and an even higher connection to the source of the blessing.


[5] See above, note 2.


[6] We have omitted part of this teaching, because we dealt at length with the idea expressed there in the previous lecture.


[7] The same idea is implied by the following words of R. Levi Yitzchak: "Or it means: 'In this way you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them… And you shall put My name upon the children of Israel.' Therefore, the kohanim must bless Israel out loud, so that Israel will hear, so that the letters heard by Israel from the kohanim will leave an impression upon Israel and shine upon their faces, and thereby they will be blessed. This is: 'In this manner you shall bless… say to them.' To utter the letters, for it does not suffice that they should ask for Israel's blessing in their minds. They must utter the letters of the blessing. This is: 'And you shall put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them,' referring to Israel" (Kedushat Levi, Naso). The kohanim serve as God's agents to bring the ethereal letters with which Israel will be blessed. The kohanim must utter their words out loud, according to R. Levi Yitzchak, in order to issue forth the letters, which have the power to confer and bestow blessing. The kohanim, then, serve merely as a conduit.


(Translated by David Strauss)