The priestly blessing (birkat hacohanim) has always held a certain fascination for me. Although in Israel, and in all Sephardic communities, it is recited daily in synagogue, in Ashkenazi Diaspora communities like mine it is only recited during festivals, so it became something of a special event. I remember from a young age the priests ascending to the stage at the front of the synagogue, by the ark, in preparation for this ancient ceremony. Those who were sitting in seats that were to the side would get up and move so that they could be in front of the priests in order to receive the blessing. We would stand and my father would take me under his tallit (prayer shawl) and instruct me firmly not to look at the priests while they were blessing us – it is forbidden. This combined with the unique and haunting tune sung during the blessing made it a very special moment.
In 1967, after the Six Day War, Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time, and Jews had unrestricted access to the Western Wall. Those of you who have toured with me will be aware of the various complexities associated with that war and its results, but putting that aside for a moment, this was an event of huge importance. This was the first time in memory that Jews were free to visit and pray at this most holy of sites. Whether religious or secular, the significance was huge.
Those of you who have visited the Wall will be aware that there are normally several services happening there in parallel, but in 1970 a rabbi decided to try and create one large public service which would incorporate the priestly blessing. According to Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, an important commentator and mystic from the middle ages, there is special significance to hearing the blessing from over 300 priests, close to where the temple once stood.
Today, the special unified service takes place twice a year. Once during Pesach (Passover) in the Spring and once during Sukkot (Tabernacles) in the Autumn. These festivals are significant as they are two of the ‘Three Foot Festivals’; festivals on which a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is required, as commanded in the Torah in Deuteronomy 16:16:
“Three times a year shall all your people appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [referring presumably to the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot [Pentecost], and Sukkot. They shall not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you”
Often when guiding in the vicinity of what used to be the Temple, I try to help people imagine what it would have been like on these occasions – tens of thousands of pilgrims arriving from around the region in order to offer sacrifices and to be part of the service. And one of the only parts of that ceremony that we can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that would have dated back even to the time of the First Temple (from roughly 3000 years ago) is the priestly blessing. In fact, the oldest version of any part of the bible that exists was found inscribed on an amulet from the 6th century – it was the text of the priestly blessing (and in my opinion one of the highlights of the Israel Museum’s collection).
In Hebrew the word for a pilgrim is an oleh l’regel, the literal translation of which is ‘someone who goes up by foot’. One goes up to Jerusalem both physically (it is in the hills) and spiritually. This week I was due to guide a family in the Old City on the day of the priestly blessing during Pesach. As a sat by the Jaffa Gate, waiting for them to arrive, I was struck by the nature of the hordes of Jewish people thronging through the gate on their way to the Wall for this ceremony. The whole of the Jewish people were represented – ultra-orthodox, modern-orthodox, progressive and secular; elderly, middle-aged and child; man and women; Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite; speaking Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French and Russian; a flurry of different hair styles, head coverings and colours. As I looked upon this mixed multitude moving past me I was transported to the First and Second Temple Periods, 3000 and 2000 years ago, when such scenes would have been a regular occurrence.
As we descended towards the Western Wall, I could hear the beginning of the mussaf service being broadcast over a loudspeaker. The plaza was packed, as were all the viewpoints, not just with the Jewish pilgrims but the large numbers of tourists who had come to see this special occasion.
Eventually, we reached the part of the service where the cohanim gave their blessing. There was complete silence around the plaza as the descendants of the priests of the original Temple raised their prayer shawls over their heads. The way that the blessing is given is that the chazzan (cantor) recites each word of the blessing in turn, and the priests repeat after him. Although the chazzan had a microphone, the priests did not, but even far at the back of the plaza, it was possible to hear the hundreds of cohanim join together to repeat after him in unison – the power of their combined voices reached far and wide.
Participating in this most ancient of ceremonies, right next to where it would have taken place on a regular basis (the blessings would have happened on the Temple Mount – not feasible today for obvious reasons!), was a truly moving experience. It really helped give me a sense of what the ancient pilgrimage festivals would have been like, and was a remarkable connection to my heritage and tradition. From my small synagogue in South London, with a largely homogeneous community of a few hundred people, I was suddenly part of tens of thousands of Jews from a huge variety of backgrounds, sharing in common the blessing that has been passed down to us through the millennia:
May the Lord bless you and protect you;
May the Lord’s face shine light upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord raise His face unto you and give you peace.
If you are planning to come to Israel during Pesach or Sukkot, and would like build this ceremony into a guided tour of Jerusalem, I would love to help you do so! Please do be in touch.