Then the Almighty spoke again to Moses and said, Tell Aaron and his boys that when he bless folks he is to say:
“The Almighty bless and keep you.
He makes His face shine down on you, and is cool with you.
The Almighty lifts His spirit on you, and brings you peace.”
– Black Bible Chronicles <1>
What’s the best berakhah (blessing) you can possibly give or get? Spoiler alert: It’s Birkat Kohanim. Here in Israel, the blessing is recited by the kohanim every single morning, so people often take it for granted. In fact, many Torah books speak about how amazing Birkat Kohanim is. The recent hefty work Yevarekhekha Hashem (which sprawls over 1476 pages) pulls together a massive amount of material on this topic. The chapter about Birkat Kohanim’s awesomeness is over 130 pages. Let’s look at three ways that Birkat Kohanim is the best berakhah ever.
When you say goodbye to your friends and you want to wish them the best, don’t just say “Goodbye!” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.<2>) Rather, you should also bless them with Birkat Kohanim. The Chida recommends using it for goodbyes because “It’s an unconditional blessing.”<3> As opposed to the other blessings in the Torah, whose fulfillment is conditional on good behavior, Birkat Kohanim does not depend on anything we do. No matter how undeserving we are to be blessed, Birkat Kohanim applies. Here’s a blessing – no strings attached.<4>
This may well explain why the standard way for parents to bless their children on Friday night is with Birkat Kohanim.<5> After all, when the kohanim recite it, it is preceded by a berakhah that ends with the word “be-ahavah” (with love).<6> And what’s the best kind of love? Unconditional love, of course. That’s the first reason why Birkat Kohanim is the best berakhah ever.
THE KOTEL OF WORDS
What makes the Kotel (Western Wall) so special? Of the multiple reasons,<7> one is that the Kotel is an outer wall of Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount), the other side of which was once the Beit HaMikdash (Temple). Having, in the present, a physical remnant of the Beit HaMikdash from the past also serves as a reminder that there will be a Beit HaMikdash in the future. Just being at the Kotel can give us the powerful feeling that we are part of the chain of Jewish history.
Well, Birkat Kohanim is the verbal equivalent – the Kotel of words.<8> There were once many types of avodah (Divine service) in the Beit HaMikdash. They’re all gone now, except for one. Yes, Birkat Kohanim is the sole survivor of the avodah. When I lift my hands with the other kohanim to do Birkat Kohanim in shul, it isn’t a rabbinic version of the original mitzvah – it is the original mitzvah.<9> My being a kohen means that Aharon, the first-ever Kohen Gadol, is my great-great-etcetera grandfather. So when the Torah says “Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: ‘So shall you bless the Children of Israel’” (Bamidbar 6:23), it’s talking about me and you. I (a direct descendant of Aharon) am to bless you (the rest of the Jewish people) with the exact words written in the Torah. Just being at Birkat Kohanim can give us the powerful feeling that we are part of the chain of Jewish history. That’s the second reason why Birkat Kohanim is the best berakhah ever.
STRAIGHT OUTTA HEAVEN
Finally, there’s something misleading about the term “Birkat Kohanim.” It sounds as if being blessed comes directly through the kohanim. In fact, God formulated it differently: “They (the kohanim) shall place My name on the Children of Israel, and I shall bless them” (Ibid. verse 27). The kohanim say the words, and then God blesses the people. This blessing is straight out of heaven.
The Rambam explains why this is significant:
A priest who does not have any of the factors which hinder the recitation of the priestly blessings mentioned above should recite the priestly blessing, even though he is not a wise man or careful in his observance of the mitzvot. [This applies] even though the people spread unwholesome gossip about him, or his business dealings are not ethical. He should not be prevented from [reciting the priestly blessings], because [reciting these blessings] is a positive mitzvah incumbent on each priest who is fit to recite them. We do not tell a wicked person: “Increase your wickedness [by] failing to perform mitzvot.”
Do not wonder: “What good will come from the blessing of this simple person?” For the reception of the blessings is not dependent on the priests, but on the Holy One, blessed be He, as [Numbers 6:27] states: “And they shall set My name upon the children of Israel, and I shall bless them.” The priests perform the mitzvah with which they were commanded, and God, in His mercies, will bless Israel as He desires.<10>
In other words, since God is the direct source of the blessing, that takes the pressure off the kohanim. Even if a kohen sinned and did not yet do teshuvah, his Birkat Kohanim is just as valuable as that of a righteous kohen. No kohen is the source of the blessing; that’s God’s job.<11>
There’s an even bigger implication here, which relates to the custom of going to tzaddikim (the righteous) for a blessing. Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, currently the most respected leader of the Charedi world, commented:
I’m very surprised to see what people do when they need some sort of heavenly help. They hunt and seek out blessings, often traveling far to get them. But the blessings they receive have no guarantee whatsoever! People don’t realize that every day, they have the guarantee of a specific blessing, which God promised has power and which taps into Divine blessing. It’s the blessing made by the kohanim every day! Yet people don’t make efforts to seek out Birkat Kohanim.<12>
With all due respect to righteous people, they’re not God. Someone who says “I’m going to get a berakhah from a tzaddik” has missed the point. Even if the tzaddik’s prayers are more powerful than those of most people, he or she is not the source of blessing. That would be God.<13> And because Birkat Kohanim brings us blessing from God, it’s the best berakhah ever.
1. P. K. McCary, Black Bible Chronicles, Book One: From Genesis to the Promised Land (New York: African American Family Press, 1993), p. 156.
2. Actually, “Goodbye” is itself a berakhah. It’s a contraction of “God be with ye,” which is a translation of “Hashem imakhem.” In Megillat Rut 2:4, Boaz says the phrase to his workers, and they respond “Yevarekhekha Hashem” (the first two words of Birkat Kohanim).
3. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806), Devash Lefi, ma’arekhet lamed, s.v. tet – leviyah. hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=19580&st=&pgnum=74 (He gives credit to Rabbi Mordechai of Modena for this idea.)
4. This elaboration on the Chida is by Rabbi David Zakut of Modena (1778-1865), Zekher David, ma’amar alef, chap. 29, starting with s.v. ita. hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=5820&st=&pgnum=43 (I got the reference from Rabbi Eliezer Shalom Rothlau, Yevarekhekha Hashem, Vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 2011), p. 60.)
5. For seven reasons why halakhah considers it completely acceptable for non-kohanim to give this blessing, see Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon, “Blessing Children on Shabbat Evening,” The Virtual Beit Midrash. http://www.etzion.org.il/sites/default/files/23bless.doc
6. According to the Magen Avraham (128:11), the Zohar (Naso 147b) is the basis for this formulation of the blessing before the blessing.
7. See, e.g., Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “Six Reasons Why the Wall is Holy,” Aish HaTorah website, November 3, 2002. http://www.aish.com/h/9av/j/48961906.html
8. The comparison of Birkat Kohanim to the Kotel is made by Rabbi Raphael Wolfowitz, Shafrir Tzedek (Jerusalem, 1969), p. 266. (I got the reference from Yevarekhekha Hashem, Vol. 1, p. 109.)
9. On Sefer HaChinukh’s list of the 613 mitzvot, “Mitzvat Birkat Kohanim BeKhol Yom” is #388.
10. Rambam, Hilkhot Nesiat Kapayim 15:6-7. The translation is from Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Mishneh Torah: Sefer Ahavah (Moznaim, 2010). http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/920180/jewish/Tefilah-and-Birkat-Kohanim-Chapter-Fifteen.htm
11. Mishnah Berurah 128:146 cites the above Rambam approvingly.
12. Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (1912-) in B’Orchotekha Lamdeni, p. 38. The translation is mine. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner presented this quote approvingly in his recent article, “Berakhot MeRabbanim uBirkat Kohanim,” BeAhava UBeEmuna (Hebrew), #1068, 5 Iyyar 5776, p. 8. http://www.meirtv.co.il/site/article/?id=2649
13. Dr. Yitzchak Koenigsberg, “VeSamu et Shmi al Bn”Y VaAni Avarkhem,” Shabbaton #422 (Shavuot), 6 Sivan 5769, p. 15. http://www.tora.co.il/parasha/06_shabaton/naso_69.doc