Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Naso
To dedicate this lesson
Hirsch At Your Table

Birkat Kohanim

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

דבר אל אהרן ואל בניו לאמר כה תברכו את בני ישראל אמור להם. יברכך ד' וישמרך. יאר ד' פניו אליך ויחונך. ישא ד' פניו אליך וישם לך שלום. (Nm 6:23-26)
God instructs Moshe to tell Aharon HaKohen and his sons that they will serve as be God's instruments to bless the children of Israel. The format of the blessing process was also told to these Kohanim, as were the actual words of the blessing. The blessing includes the acquisition of possessions and their protection, the granting of knowledge and spiritual abilities, and the use of God's societal rules to achieve harmonious living.

The original ברכת כהנים was part of the service performed by the Kohanim in the Mikdash. It was not a ברכה/blessing, that came from well-wishing or goodness of heart, like a father blessing his children. When the Kohen completed bringing all of the relevant Korbanot and performed the עבודה/service, the ברכה was added. The word ברכה in this context refers to the service of God performed by the Kohanim.

The word ברכה is from the root ב-ר-ך which means "to spur prosperity and growth." The word עבודה is from the root ע-ב-ד which means "to work according to another's will."

Since the ברכה was part of the עבודה, there was no room for improvisations. The ברכה had to be recited exactly as recorded. The word כה/thus, which precedes the command to bless, defines the procedure and all of the details involved in reciting the ברכה. In our verse it refers to the set procedures already promulgated: in this way, and only in this way, could the blessing be given.

The word כה is from the root כ-ה-ה, which means "to dim and to limit". As an adverb, the word כה limits forward development and focuses on past statements.

Hirsch adds yet another ingredient to our understanding of the blessing, that of the role of the recipients of the ברכה. He says that the blessing has no magic formula or spiritual force of its own. Its power and efficacy lies in the mutual efforts of the blessing-givers and the blessing-receivers. The Kohen cannot bless the people unless the people invite him to do so. This has been institutionalized in synagogue practice by the loud call from the congregational representative, inviting the Kohanim to issue the blessing. It also is symbolized by the dictation of each word by the שליח ציבור/community representative, to be echoed by the Kohen as he blesses the congregation.

Hirsch finds that the meaning of most of the words of the ברכה are clear and understandable. However, he does find a need to explain the phrase פני ד', face of God, that appears twice in the ברכה. In the second verse it appears after the word יאר/shine. In the third verse it appears after the word ישא/raise.

The word פני) פנים) is from the root פ-נ-ה which means "to turn and focus" usually by facing. The word יאר is from the root א-ו-ר which means "to illuminate". The word ישא is from the root נ-ש-א which means "to raise" and bring close.

The phrase פני ד' is not to be taken literally; rather it refers to those goals which God has focused on and which He has set as standards for society. God has promulgated these goals and expects the observing Jew to integrate and implement them into every facet of his life. The phrase יאר ד' פניו means that a person should be granted the enlightenment, the illumination, knowledge and understanding needed to satisfy the goals that God has set. The word ויחונך that ends this part of the blessing is from the root ח-נ-ן which means "to bestow traits". These traits generally refer to intellectual and spiritual abilities. The final phrase ישא ד' פניו is not an additional element of blessing, but the result of the first two verses. Closeness to God will result from יברכך, from יאר, from ויחונך .

The Jew will achieve that closeness to God if he properly uses these blessings and directs his efforts solely to God. And finally, God will respond to those efforts by granting the Jew the blessing of living in harmony, וישם לך שלום.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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