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The Priestly Blessing

Question:
What is the attitude of the Masorti Movement to Kohanim reciting the Priestly Blessing? Should a Bat Kohen participate in this ritual?

Responsum:
The source of having the priests (Kohanim) bless the people is found in Numbers 4:22-27. The Rabbis taught that the priests are commanded to do so and, if not, violate three precepts (Sotah 38b). This is the ruling of Maimonides as well (Nesiat Kapaim 16:12). Tosafot (Rosh Hashanah 28b) concluded that to fulfill his requirement, the priest must bless the people at least once a day.

Although the Temple was the focus of the blessing, the Mishnah already makes it clear that the blessing was to be offered elsewhere as well and prescribes special rules for doing so (Sotah 7:6).

The important place held by this act of blessing in the hearts of the people is testified to by archaeological findings of the blessing in First Temple graves in Jerusalem, by the extensive Midrashim to the blessing (such as Sifre Numbers 39-43) and by the central role of the blessing in the daily Amidah.

Although today it is customary in the Diaspora to perform the blessing only at Musaf of special Holy Days, the halakhah is actually quite the opposite. Sefer Hahinukh (367), for example, states: this command is to be performed every day, in every place, at all times.

Although many excuses were offered for not doing so, none is convincing. Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen and Professor Zimmer have discussed this extensively elsewhere. If that is the case in the diaspora, how much more so is it important to fulfill this command in the Land of Israel where it was never abandoned!

To advocate abolishing this practice in our synagogues in Israel would require an overwhelmingly convincing reason. To my mind, the contrary is the case. Its performance serves as a historical reminder of the most meaningful part of the Temple service; it invokes the blessing of the Almighty for favor and peace – the highest goal of Judaism, which is sorely needed in our times. It adds an emotional component to the service and enhances the meaning of the closing blessing of the Amidah.

In the rabbinic period, Judaism underwent a revolution, which deprived the priests of any real power either to rule or to teach, a democratic revolution, which enabled any person to become the teacher of Israel through merit, learning and moral authority. But the principle of historical continuity demanded that the priest be left with certain ritual prerogatives, which in no way altered the substance of the democratization. To eliminate the blessing by the priests because of its origin would be to deprive us of the historical continuity and the concrete tie with ancient practice, which is so important. In regard to the question of women’s participation, it is our feeling that because of the historical element, it would not be advisable for women to participate in this. Women’s prerogatives as daughters of priests did not extend to rituals.

The priests serve in the blessing only as a channel of God’s word. The blessing comes from Him, and only from Him. Nevertheless, it deserves to be done properly and well and priests should be instructed in so doing both for the honor of the congregation and for the honor of God.

Finally, it should be noted that the blessing the priest utters states that he has been commanded to bless the people “with love”. We express our love for God verbally in the recitation of the Shema (“love the Lord your God…”). He expresses His love for us in the blessing of the priests, and this love can best be felt through the ritual of the priestly blessing.

In conclusion, the blessing by the priests is to be performed in Israel in its traditional fashion by male priests, at the daily Shaharit and special Musaf services, as it was done in the Temple and, later on, in synagogues.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer
In favor: Rabbi David Golinkin
Rabbi Chaim Pearl
Opposed: Rabbi Tuvia Friedman

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