The Priestly Blessing, (Hebrew: ברכת כהנים; translit.Birkat Kohanim), also known in Hebrew as Nesiat Kapayim, (lit. Raising of the Hands), is a Jewish prayer recited by Kohanim during certain Jewish services. It is based on a scriptural verse: "They shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them."</blockquote> It consists of the following Biblical verses (Numbers 6:24-26):
May Adonai bless you and guard you – יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
May Adonai make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you – יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
May Adonai lift up his face onto you and give you peace – יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
The Torah prohibits a Kohen from reciting the blessing while under the influence of alcohol, or in the period immediately following the death of a close relative.
All Kohanim present are obligated to participate. If a Kohen does not wish to participate, he must leave the sanctuary for the duration of the blessing.
The Mishnah records advise that a person who is troubled by a dream should reflect on it when the Kohanim recite their blessing. This practice is still done in many Orthodox communities.
In many traditional Jewish communities it is the custom for congregants to spread their tallitot over their own heads during the blessing and not look at the Kohanim. If a man has children, they will come under his tallit to be blessed, even if they are quite old.
This blessing is also used by some parents to bless their children on Friday night before the beginning of the Shabbat meal. Some rabbis will say the blessing to a boy at his bar mitzvah (or for a girl at her Bat Mitzvah in Conservative and Reform Judaism) ceremony. It is usually prefaced, for boys with a request for God to make the child like Ephraim and Manasseh (Jacob's prayer to the children of Joseph) or, for girls with a request for God to make them like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the Matriarchs of the Jewish people.
It also may be said before a long journey, and some people will write it out and wear/keep it as an amulet. It is often used in the liturgy as the first section of Torah to be read in the morning after reciting the blessing before studying Torah.
In the case where no Kohanim are present in the synagogue (but there still is a minyan) the hazzan will read the prayer verse by verse, and the congregation will respond after each verse with "kein yehi ratzon, may it be God's Will." This response is used instead of "Amen," because the hazzan is merely "mentioning" the blessing, as it were, and not actually performing the ritual. However, many congregations (including Chabad) do indeed respond "Amen." This response is also employed on days and times when the Amidah is publicly repeated but the Kohanim do not recite the priestly blessing.
This ceremony is traditionally performed daily in Israel (except in Galilee), and among most Sephardic Jews worldwide, during the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah. On Sabbath and festivals it is also recited during the repetition of the Mussaf prayer. On Yom Kippur the ceremony is performed during the Neilah service as well. On other fast days it is performed at Mincha, if said in the late afternoon.
In the Diaspora in Ashkenazic Orthodox communities, the ceremony is performed only on Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. German communities perform it at both Shacharit and Mussaf, while on Yom Kippur it is performed at Neilah as well. Eastern European congregations only perform it at Mussaf. . On Simchat Torah, some communities recite it during Mussaf, and others during Shacharit, to enable Kohanim to participate in the custom drinking alcohol during the Torah reading between Shacharit and Mussaf. On weekdays and Shabbat, in Ashkenazic diaspora communities, the blessing is not recited by Kohanim. Instead, it is recited only by the shaliach tzibbur, or a chazzan, after the Modim prayer, towards the end of the Amidah, without any special chant or gestures.
At the beginning of the ceremony, the Leviim in the congregation wash the hands of the Kohanim and then the Kohanim remove their shoes (if they are unable to remove their shoes without using their hands, the shoes are removed prior to the washing), and walk up to the platform in front of the ark, at the front of the synagogue. They cover their heads with their tallitot, recite the blessing over the performance of the mitzvah, turn to face the congregation, and then the hazzan or prayer leader slowly and melodiously recites the three verse blessing, with the Kohanim repeating it word by word after him. After each verse, the congregation responds Amen.
Raising the hands
During the course of the blessing, the hands of the Kohanim are spread out over the congregation, with the fingers of both hands separated so as to make five spaces between them. Each kohen's tallit is draped over his head and hands so that neither he nor the congregation can see his hands while the blessing is said. Performing the ceremony of the priestly blessing is known in Yiddish as duchening, a reference to the "duchan" (Heb: platform) on which the blessing is said.
The Talmud describes God as peering through the "lattice" formed by the hands of the Kohanim, referencing the verse in the Song of Songs (2:9):
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart
Behold, he stands behind our wall
He looks in through the windows
Peering through the lattice
In some communities it is customary for the Kohanim to raise their hands and recite an extended chant before reciting the last word of each phrase. There are different tunes for this chant in different communities. Aside from its pleasant sound, the chant is done so that the congregation may silently offer certain prayers during each individual blessing of the Kohanim. Because these prayers are not offered on Shabbat, the chant is also not done on Shabbat.
In Conservative Judaism, the majority of congregations do not perform the priestly blessing ceremony, but some do. In some American Conservative congregations that perform the ceremony, a bat kohen (daughter of a priest) can perform it as well. . Conservative Judaism has also lifted some of the restrictions on Kohanim including prohibited marriages. Orthodox Judaism requires male kohanim (plural of kohen), in continuity with the requirements of the Temple. The Masorti movement in Israel, and some Conservative congregations in North America, require male kohanim as well, and retain restrictions on Kohanim.
Reform, Reconstructionist and Liberal Judaism
In Liberal (and American Reform) congregations, the concept of the priesthood has been largely abandoned, along with other caste and gender distinctions. Thus, this blessing is usually omitted or simply read by the hazzan. North American Reform Jews omit the Mussaf service, as do most other liberal communities, and so if they choose to include the priestly blessing, it is usually appended to the end of the Shacharit Amidah. Some congregations, especially Reconstructionist ones, have the custom of the congregation spreading their tallitot over each other and blessing each other that way.
This custom was started when a Reconstructionist rabbi from Montreal, Lavy Becker saw children in Pisa, Italy run under their fathers' tallitot for the blessing, and he brought it home to his congregation.
In the mid-1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, used a single-handed version of this gesture to create the Vulcan Hand Salute for his character, Mr. Spock, on Star Trek. He has explained that while attending Orthodox services as a child, he peeked from under his father's tallit and saw the gesture; many years later, when introducing the character of Mr. Spock, he and series creator Gene Roddenberry thought a physical component should accompany the verbal "Live long and prosper" greeting. The Jewish priestly gesture looked sufficiently alien and mysterious, and thus was television & science fiction history made.
Bob Dylan's song "Forever Young" from the Planet Waves album uses the form and some content ("May God Bless and keep you...") of the Priestly Blessings.
In the movie Deep Impact, the President of the United States, played by Morgan Freeman, recites the Priestly Blessing in a speech to the world. This speech announces to the world that a comet is approaching the world and will cause an E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event).
↑Kol Haneshamah Sahabat Vḥagim, The Reconstructionist Press Wyncote PA 1994 p.348 (footnote 2)
↑1983 television show "Leonard Nimoy's Star Trek Memories" This story was told by Nimoy on camera and repeated in somewhat abbreviated form in 1999 on the SciFi Channel "Star Trek: Special Edition" commentary for the episode "Amok Time." Again, the story was told by Nimoy on camera.