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Parashat Naso: Parents and Teachers as Quasi-Kohanim? by Jack Bieler

May 22, 2012 by  
Filed under New Posts

Parents appropriating Birchat Kohanim in order to bless their children.

The Biblical blessing appearing in Parashat Naso, that the Kohanim are commanded to bestow upon the Jewish people—

BaMidbar 6:23-26

May God Bless you and Keep you.

May God Cause His Face to shine upon you and Be Gracious to you.

May God Lift His Face towards you and Give you peace.

—is typically more well-known than most other portions of the Tora not only because of its regular invocation during morning prayer services, but also due to the custom of parents blessing their children at the advent of each Shabbat (e.g., ArtScroll Siddur, pp. 354-5), as well as upon the occasion of their wedding (e.g., The RCA Lifecycle Madrich, pp. 86-7).[1]

Is it legitimate for parents to do so?

However the assumption that the blessings appearing in these verses can be freely used by parents, or anyone else for that matter, outside the context of the ritual services in first the Tabernacle, and then the Temples that were intended specifically and exclusively to be led by the Kohanim, and now commemorated during the repetition of the morning prayer services,[2] appears to be belied by BaMidbar 6:22-23 and its Rabbinic commentary.

And God Spoke to Moses, Saying:

Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: “Koh” (in this particular manner, i.e., in these specific words) “Tevarchu” (you will bless) the Children of Israel, say to them…

Ketubot 24b

…In the case of “Nesiat Kapayim” (lit. lifting up the hands, i.e., the act of blessing the people by the Priests that entails their extending their hands before them while pronouncing the Priestly Blessings, implied in VaYikra 9:22 “And Aharon lifted up his hands to the people and he blessed them…”)[3] if one who is not a Kohen performs the pronouncing of the “Birchat Kohanim”, he is transgressing the prohibition of a positive commandment…(i.e., although the Tora never explicitly states in the form of a negative injunction that a non-Priest must not invoke these blessings, there is a clear implication from the converse that if it is the Priests who ought to bless the Jewish people in this particular manner, others are precluded from doing so—see RaShI’s commentary on this passage.)[4]

Even if one uses the same words, perhaps the body language accompanying the blessing should be different from what took place in the Temple.

The following anecdote, related by R. Baruch Halevi Epstein, author of the well-known Bible commentary “Tora Temima”, (Numbers 6:23, #131; Tosefet Beracha, Bamidbar, p. 30) illustrates how at least one illustrious Rabbinic figure took pains to avoid bestowing the “Birchat Kohanim” in a manner identical to how they were invoked during Temple times:

I heard from a trustworthy man in Vilna, who in turn heard from his elderly father, my father-in-law, the Gaon, R. Yechezkel Landau, head of the Vilna Rabbinic Court (who died in 5631 [1871] at the age of 91), that on the day of his wedding, the Gaon of Vilna blessed him, and placed a single hand upon his head at the time of the blessing.  Since it was well-known that all of his (the Vilna law, some who were close to him asked him why he did so, i.e., place only one hand upon the individual being blessed. The Vilna Gaon responded, “We only find a blessing given with two hands when the Kohanim bestowed blessings in the Temple.”

A less “constructionist” approach.

While one could make similar technical adjustments to the manner in which the Blessings are given, following the lead of the Vilna Gaon, that would ostensibly allow  non-Kohanim to impart the Priestly Blessings upon others—the Tora prohibition could be narrowly understood to apply only to someone who is intrinsically disqualified from participating in the Temple rituals were there a Temple today,[5] going up before the congregation during a synagogue service at the point of “Nesiat Kapayim” and acting as if he were a Kohen; consequently as long as the Blessing in question is given in some sort of informal context and in a manner formalistically distinct from what was done during the Temple period, no infraction has occurred—nevertheless it is interesting to consider why a non-Kohen would be interested in using these particular Blessings in the first place. What is their attraction, and why would someone as punctilious as the Vilna Gaon have relied upon what amounts to essentially a legal loophole in order to be able invoke these specific blessings?

Alternate biblical blessings from parents to children.

With respect to the choice of “Birchat Kohanim” as the natural Biblical blessing to be used when parents desire to bless their progeny,[6] potential alternate blessings that were given by parents to their children[7] are recorded in Sefer Beraishit, and one might initially think that at least one of them could serve as a preferable alternative to the verses in BaMidbar in light of the Gemora in Ketubot listed above:

a)  Noach

Beraishit 9:26-7

And he said: Blessed be HaShem, the God of Shem, and let Canaan be their servant.

God Shall Enlarge Yafet and he will dwell in the tents of Shem. And let Canaan be their servant.

b)  Lavan along with the rest of Rivka’s family

Beraishit 24:60

…Our sister, be the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and let your offspring possess the gate of those that hate them.

c)  Yitzchak to Yaakov pretending to be Eisav

Beraishit 27:27-9

…See the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which HaShem has Blessed.

God will Give you of the dew of Heaven and from the fat places upon the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.

Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you.

Cursed is everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you.

d)  Yitzchak to Eisav

Beraishit 27:39-40

…Behold, of the fat places of the earth shall be your dwelling, and of the dew from Heaven above.

And by your sword shall you live and you shall serve your brother. And it will come to pass, when you shall break loose, and you will shake his yoke from upon your neck.

e)  Yitzchak to Yaakov being himself

Beraishit 28:3-4

And God Almighty Bless you and Make you fruitful and multiply you that you may be a congregation of peoples.

And Give you the blessing of Avraham, to you and to your descendents, that you may inherit the land of your sojourning, which God Gave to Avraham.

f)   Lavan to his daughters and grandchildren

Beraishit 32:1

And Lavan rose early in the morning and he kissed his (grand)sons and daughters and he blessed them

g)  Yaakov to Yosef via Ephraim and Menashe

Beraishit 48:14-20

And Yisrael put forth his right hand and placed it on the head of Ephraim, who was the youngest, and his left hand on Menashe’s head; he reversed his hands because Menashe was the first-born.

And he blessed Yosef and he said: The God before Whom my fathers walked,  Avraham and Yitzchak; the God Who has Shepherded me from my formative years until today.

And the angel who has redeemed me from evil, he will bless the boys and cause my name, as well as the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak to be called upon them, and they will be plentifully fruitful in the midst of the land.

And Yosef saw that he had placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim, and it was bad in his eyes, and he took hold of his father’s hand in order to remove it from the head of Ephraim onto the head of Menashe.

And Yosef said to his father: Not so, my father for this is the first-born. Put your hand on his head.

And his father refused and said, I know, my son, I know. He too will become a nation and he will grow; nevertheless his younger brother will become greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.

And he blessed them on that day saying: This is the manner in which Israel will bless—God, Make you like Ephraim and Menashe. And he placed Ephraim before Menashe.

h)  Yaakov to all of his sons

Beraishit 49:3-28

(The summarizing verse following the individual pronouncements to each of Yaakov’s sons): …And this is it that their father spoke to them and blessed them, everyone according to his blessing he blessed them.[8]

The alternatives are really inappropriate.

But upon further reflection, we come to see that the overwhelming majority of these other blessings cannot be appropriated by the generic parent speaking to his child. In the case of Lavan’s blessing to his progeny (f), we are not apprised of what was actually said, perhaps because it is highly likely that in his blessing he invoked the alien gods which he worshipped, as evidenced by Beraishit 31:19. As far as Noach’s (a), and some of Yaakov’s (h) blessings are concerned, they are extremely specific to particular individuals and therefore inappropriate for future parents to use for their children down through the generations.  Lavan’s blessing to his sister (b) is standard fare at weddings (The RCA Lifecycle Madrich, pp. 86-7); however these words appear to be overly gender specific, focused exclusively upon reproduction, as well as quite belligerent.[9] Yitzchak’s first blessing to Yaakov (c) as well as his words to Eisav (d) entail dominance by one sibling over another for which there is ample textual evidence that such expressed sentiments can lead to deep resentments and even the threat of fratricide (see Beraishit 27:41)! The blessing that Yitzchak gives Yaakov before he leaves for Charan (e) is the special blessing that was given to Yitzchak as opposed to Yishmael, and Yaakov rather than Eisav, i.e., a blessing of chosenness, with the implication that whoever does not receive it is consigned to a lesser spiritual status, again rendering such a blessing inappropriate in the overwhelming majority of cases. Subsequent parents would most likely be interested in a formulation that could apply to all of their children equally. The only remaining possibility is the blessing that Yaakov gives to Yosef via his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe (g). While like in the case of (b), this blessing has also found itself into ongoing Jewish practice as part of the Friday night benediction given to one’s sons (ArtScroll Siddur, pp. 354-5), this is also its similar drawback, i.e., it has relevance only to boys just as Lavan’s words are unique not only to girls in general, but specifically when they prepare to marry. Consequently, by the process of elimination, if preference is to be given to invoking a Biblical blessing when wishing to articulate spiritual hopes for one’s children, “Birchat Kohanim” remains the only completely legitimate possibility.

An hypothesis for why parents use this specific blessing when blessing their children.

Nedarim 35b presents an intriguing conceptualization of the role played by Priests that might lend itself to explaining why Birchat Kohanim is uniquely appropriate for non-Kohen parents and teachers to pronounce upon their children and disciples, despite Ketubot 24b. The Talmud poses the following question: “These Priests, ‘Sheluchai DiLan’ (are they our surrogates/representatives) or are they ‘Sheluchai D’Shmaya’ (the surrogates/representatives of Heaven)?” This question’s formulation reflects the assumption that Priests existentially occupy a unique dualistic position within the human hierarchy.[10] On the one hand, the Priests assist everyone else to properly engage in worship of the Divine; but they are also extensions of God, and both receive on His Behalf sacrifices as well as conduct His Holy Service. Consequently, who could be more appropriate to beseech the One Who Appoints them to care for and protect the people they are charged to represent?

From such a vantage point, parents and teachers could be understood as paralleling the Priests in terms of serving and representing “two masters” simultaneously, i.e., they are bound to care for and educate their offspring and disciples, even as the Tora Commands that they are to be viewed by their charges as entitled to respect comparable to that of God Himself. The placement of the obligation to respect parents in the Ten Commandments at the end of the laws governing relationships between man and God which is simultaneously the beginning of the dictums governing how human beings are expected to interact with one another (Shemot 20:12; Devarim 5:16) reflects the “Priesthood” of parents, just as R. Elazar ben Shamua’s dictum in Ethics of the Fathers 4:12, “…And the fear of your teacher should be comparable to the Fear of Heaven” is an indicator of the “priesthood” of Tora teachers. Consequently, just as parents and teachers can be understood to serve as unofficial “Priests” within the galaxy of Jewish interpersonal relationships, perhaps they more than others are entitled to bless those dependent upon them who at the same time look up to them as God’s Surrogates, with the Priestly Blessing.

[1] These verses have also been incorporated into the informal Jewish liturgy by including them in the material recited/studied immediately following the recital of “Birchot HaTora” each morning (ArtScroll Siddur, pp. 16-7) as well as the prayers uttered before retiring for the evening (Ibid., 294-5). However, it would appear from the Tora’s introductory verse to “Birchat Kohanim”—BaMidbar 6:23—that the blessing  was meant to be recited by one person to another, as opposed to pronouncing them only for oneself.

[2] “Birchat Kohanim” is one of a series of religious practices that come under the rubric of “Zecher LeMikdash” (in remembrance of the Temple). R. Yochanan ben Zakai, in order to assist the Jewish people to regroup following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, instituted a number of practices that would continue to call to mind what once took place during Temple rituals. Among such practices are: a) the 4 species associated with Sukkot are to be taken on each of the days of the holiday, even though outside of the Temple, they were taken only on the first day of the “Chag” (Sukka 41a) ; b) in commemoration of the miracle whereby a small amount of oil proves sufficient to keep the Temple Menora lit for 8 days, we light our “Chanukiot” each of the 8 nights of Chanuka (Masechet Sofrim 20:4); and c) after eating Matza and Maror separately, they are eaten together in accordance with Hillel’s practice during Temple times (Pesachim 115a).

[3] For an exploration of the possibility that Aharon originally composed “Birkchat Kohanim” see

[4] RaShI, d.h. “D’Issur Aseh”: “Koh Tevarchu”—you and not non-Kohanim. A prohibition that arises from the converse of a positive Commandment is an (“Issur”) “Aseh” (lit., a positive prohibition, i.e., the oxymoronic prohibition couched in positive, pro-active terminology).

[5] E.g., a Levi, a Yisrael, a convert, etc.

[6] Parents might be attracted to seek out a Biblical blessing rather than a later Rabbinic one because of a sense that the Bible’s words may be a more direct means for invoking God’s Concern and Intervention than by resorting to words that He did not Formulate. Such a line of reasoning would seem to underlie the utilization of the 13 Divine Attributes (Shemot 34:6-7) in the “Selichot” services of the “Yomim Noraim”. See RaShI on Shemot 33:19 for a Rabbinic source that claims that this particular Divine Revelation was intended to teach Moshe how to in turn teach the rest of the Jewish people how to beseech God’s Mercy in times of need.

[7] Aside from those given by parents to children, additional blessings are also found in Beraishit:

a)   from God to man—Beraishit 1:28; 5:2; 9:1; 12:2-3; 17:16, 20; 22:17-8; 25:11; 26:3-4, 12, 24; 35:9; 47:7, 10; 48:3;

b)   from angel to man—32:27-30;

and c)    from man to man (peers, as opposed to parents to children)—14:19.

However, it is clear that the most relevant possibilities for language to be used by parents when blessing children is derived from blessings originally given within a similar context.

[8] Although some of Yaakov’s comments to his sons are clearly blessings, e.g., 49:8-27, particularly his words to Yosef in 25-6, there are others that hardly appear to be such, e.g., 49:3-7. Must we assume that 49:28 wherein all of Yaakov’s statements are categorized as blessings to his sons, applies to most of Yaakov’s comments, but not all? Or can direct and pointed criticism regarding some aspect of one’s behavior also be a blessing, if not in the short-run, than at least down the road?

[9] The RCA Madrich omits the end of the verse “VeYirash Zaraich Et Sha’ar Sonav” in the actual blessing that the father of the bride pronounces upon her at the “Bedecken” ceremony. Consequently, only “Achotainu At Hayii LeAlfai Revava” is recited.

[10] Biblical commentators have noted that man in general occupies such a dual role vis-à-vis the rest of Creation:

RaMBaN on Beraishit 1:26

…In the case of man He Said, “Let us make”, that is I and the aforementioned earth, let us make man, the earth to bring forth the body from its elements as it did with the cattle and beasts…and He, Blessed Be He, to Give the spirit from His Mouth, the Supreme One…In the capacity of the body he will be similar to the earth from which he was taken, and in spirit he will be similar to higher beings, because the spirit is not a body and will not die…The explanation of this verse I have found ascribed to R. Yoseph Kimchi (grandfather for RaDaK)…

Sephorno on Beraishit 1:26

“In Our Likeness”—With regard to actions, he will be somewhat similar to the Heavenly Hosts in terms of their ability to act consciously and causally. However, their actions are not the result of free choice, and in this regard Man is not similar to them. In terms of this quality Man is more like God concerning his being able to make free choices. However, God’s Choices are always for good, which is not the case with respect to Man’s choices…

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