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What is the role of the Priestly Benediction? A Midrashic Interpretation Finds New Meaning

Dr. Gila Vachman
| 30/05/2023

The role of the Birkat HaCohanim blessing takes on a different meaning with a Midrash from Song of Songs (Shir haShirim). Dr. Gila Vachman explores the connections.

In the previous Chumash, Vayikra, the main characters were the Cohanim, the priests. They were chosen to serve at the tabernacle, they were in charge of sacrificing, they were authorized to determine who is pure and who is not, and they were given special prohibitions regarding marriage and family.

Now we have reached Chumash Bemidbar, and the scope expands – not only the Cohanim, but also the rest of their tribe, the Levites, are appointed to take care of the tabernacle and its parts, and to serve as holy workers. Furthermore, all the tribes are counted and put in order, as we saw in last week’s portion.

In our portion, we even find a special rule which enables each person, man or woman, to become a little bit like a priest – the Nazir. We usually translate this word as monk or nun, but that is not what Nazir is.

Just like the Cohanim when they serve at the temple, the Nazir also should refrain from drinking wine.

Just like the Cohanim, the Nazir is also not allowed to be defiled in a case of death, even if it is a relative.

The Nazir, just like the priest, carries the consecration of his God upon his head.

 נֵזֶר אֱלֹהָיו עַל רֹאשׁוֹ

But it is not the Nazir I would like to talk about, rather it is the following section and the role it adds to the list of roles carried by the Cohanim (Num. 6, 22-27):

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָמוֹר לָהֶם.

יְבָרֶכְךָ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.    

וְשָׂמוּ אֶת שְׁמִי עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַאֲנִי אֲבָרֲכֵם.

Even without being fluent in Hebrew, I’m pretty sure you are familiar with these words, known as ברכת כהנים (Priestly Benediction); among the most famous verses in the Torah, words cited not only in synagogue or at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, when the Cohanim get up on the stand covered with their Talit, but also at home, when parents bless their children on ליל שבת  or יום כיפור.

But why is this role given to the Cohanim? A possible answer is offered in the Midrash on Song of Songs 3:7

הִנֵּה מִטָּתוֹ שֶׁלִּשְׁלֹמֹה שִׁשִּׁים גִּבֹּרִים סָבִיב לָהּ. ..

“Behold the bed of Solomon: sixty valiant men surround it, from the valiant of Israel, each armed with a sword, trained in war; each man, a sword on his thigh, from fear in the nights.”

The midrash quotes R. Elazar, who suggests to read this verse as talking about ברכת כהנים:

Behold the bed [mitato] – behold his tribes [matotav] …

Of Solomon [Shlomo] – of the king [of Whom it is said that] peace is His.

Sixty valiant men surround it – these are the sixty letters in ברכת כהנים (indeed, there are sixty letters!) …

Each man, a sword on his thigh from fear in the nights – for even if a person sees in his dream a sword cutting his thigh, what shall he do? He shall go to the synagogue, recite Shema, pray his prayer, hear the Priestly Benediction, and answer amen after them, and no evil matter will harm him.

According to this Midrash, the priestly benediction has a special function: it serves as a protection and a shield for every person of the Jewish People. Its sixty letters are like an army unit consisting of sixty fighters.

What made the sages interpret these verses in such a manner? It seems that the key to understand this midrash is the phrase אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ עַל יְרֵכוֹ which appears, apart from שיר השירים, only in one more place in the Bible: Exodus 32:26-27

“Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side [אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ עַל יְרֵכוֹ] and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.”

The sons of Levy, whose father’s sword has already killed many people in Shechem, are told after the sin of the calf [חטא העגל] to kill their own people. Within the tribe of Levy, the Cohanim are known for their angry temper and zealotry – see for example Pinchas ben Elazar, or Mattathias the Hasmonean and his sons, etc.

In our portion, perhaps to moderate the fanatical and deadly nature of this tribe, and perhaps to reconcile them with their brothers, the priests are commanded to bless all the people of Israel with the priestly benediction. The army of zealots becomes the army of defense for Israel, and the greatest blessing of all is the one that seals these verses: “יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם”


Image: 1740 illumination from a mohel’s notebook, Amsterdam. Courtesy Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, The National Library of Israel. “Ktiv” Project, The National Library of Israel.

Dr. Gila Vachman is a Lecturer in Midrash at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and coordinates The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary’s Torah Lishmah program at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv.

Dr. Gila Vachman received her BA (summa cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew Literature, MA (summa cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah, and her PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is also a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Born on Kibbutz Yavne, Dr. Vachman is married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.


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