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How is the Priestly Blessing administered?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

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1. Yer Basic Priestly Blessing


During the cantor's Repetition of the Amidah, the kohen or Kohanim remove their shoes. The shoe removal prevents the congregation from snickering at a kohen who happens to have a torn shoe lace and remains behind to tie his shoes and refrains from joining his Kohen brethren. The shoes are stowed beneath a table or chair, out of respect for the synagogue. They then file to the nearest sink, where the local Levi performs the washing-the-hands ritual, pouring water from a large cup over the kohen’s hands six times to heighten his holiness. (Water is a spiritual vitamin.)


The kohanim then proceed to stand at the eastern side of the synagogue, which in most synagogues is the platform at the front, directly in front of the Aron. The people stay in their places, gather their children near them, and cover them all with their Tallit. Facing east, the kohanim cover their heads with their taleitim, and at the verbal signal “Kohanim!” from the cantor, they turn counterclockwise to face west, out over the congregation, and recite the blessing said before Birkat Kohanim. They then extend their arms to full length and raise them to shoulder height, with the right hand slightly higher than the left, and with each hand forming a kind of W—pinky and ring fingers together, middle and pointer fingers together, and thumbs touching at the first joint, thus forming three spaces.


...the hands of the kohen become symbolic of the Western Wall, one of the places the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is found...
The cantor then chants the first word, and the kohanim respond by chanting the word in unison. The cantor and kohanim proceed thusly through all three verses, with the congregation saying “Amen!” when each verse concludes. When the blessing is over, the congregation crawls out from under their taleitim, the kids go scurrying off, and, as the kohanim file back to their places, everyone shakes their hands or otherwise congratulates them.

2. The original Vulcan Hand Sign

Where do you think Mr. Spock got the idea? Little Leonard Nimoy found himself in Shul often, where he would peek out from under his father’s tallit and noticed the unusual hand positions assumed by the kohanim as they delivered the Priestly Blessing. When he grew up and became an alien, he adopted the split-finger posture and Vulcanized it. However, the real reason for the posture is that during the Priestly Blessing, the Shechinah hovers above the kohen’s head, while the hands of the kohen become symbolic of the Western Wall, one of the places the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is found. Just as the Shechinah “peers through the cracks” of the Western Wall, so to speak, seeking an outlet for its presence, so too does the Shechinah seek a “crack” during Birkat Kohanim through which to connect to the congregation. Towards this end, the kohen forms five spaces between his fingers to symbolize cracks.

3. Don’t Worry, Be Happy


To bless someone else one, the kohen must be in a buoyant state of mind himself - which is why this ceremony is reserved for the holidays in so many communities1 . Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Pesach and Shavuot all see the kohanim get up to do their thing. And that’s also why Birkat Kohanim is recited during Musaf: because Musaf is the last part of the services, and Halachah knows that we’re only human and get tired after sitting in shul for a while, and get excited when it comes time to go home. Thus, as services come to an end, we get happier, and when you’re happy, well… when’s a better time to say Birkat Kohanim than when you’re happy?

Footnotes

  • 1. In many Sephardic communities the Priestly blessing is administered daily, and twice on Shabbat, Holy Days and fast days (the second time during either Musaf or Minchah).

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Jewish Identity » Kohains and Levites » Priestly Blessing
Holidays » General Information » Priestly Blessing

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Halachah
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
Sukkot
A seven day autumn festival commemorating the miracle of the Heavenly Clouds which enveloped the Jews while traveling in the desert for forty years. On this holiday we dwell in makeshift booths and shake the Four Species.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
Kohanim
Plural form of Kohain. Priests of G-d. This title belongs to the male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses. The primary function of the Kohain was to serve in the Holy Temple. Today the Kohain is still revered and it is his function to recite the Priestly Blessings on certain occasions.
Amidah
Highlight of every prayer, recited silently while standing. Weekday Amidah consists of nineteen blessings, Sabbath and holiday Amidah contains seven blessings.
Shul
(Yiddish) Synagogue.
Shavuot
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Shmini Atzeret
A joyous one-day autumn festival immediately following the holiday of Sukkot. Outside Israel this holiday is celebrated for two days, the second day is known as Simchat Torah.
Musaf
The additional prayer service added (after the morning prayers) on Sabbath, Biblically mandated holidays and the first day of the Jewish month.
Western Wall
The western wall of the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem. "The Divine Presence never left the Western Wall," and to this day, the Wall remains a holy shrine and a place for prayer.
Tallit
A prayer shawl. A large four-cornered woolen garment with fringes attached to its corners in a specific manner. This garment is worn by males during the morning prayers, fulfilling the Biblical obligation of attaching fringes to four-cornered garments.
Pesach
Passover. A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Aron
Literally: a box. Aron is usually a reference to one of the following: 1) The Holy Ark wherein the holy Tablets were kept. 2) The Ark in the synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept. 3) A coffin.
Levi
1. Name of Patriarch Jacob's third son. 2. A Levite -- a Jew who is a patrilineal descendant of Levi. Levites had special duties in the Holy Temple, and are still accorded special respect.
Shechinah
Divine Presence.