Giving and Receiving the Blessing

Do you remember the old TV program Star Trek? In that series, the expression “Live long and prosper” became a familiar utterance. It was used by First Officer Spock as a greeting and a farewell to special people visiting the starship Enterprise. Spock would raise his right hand, making sure his palm faced the person he was addressing, then position his middle finger away from his ring finger, resting it against his index finger. In turn, his ring finger would be placed against his little finger, forming a V.

Leonard Nimoy, the Jewish actor who played the Vulcan officer in Star Trek, said he adapted this unique greeting from the tradition used by the Jewish priests when they invoked the Aaronic blessing. Found in Numbers 6:24–26, it reads “The Lᴏʀᴅ bless thee, and keep thee; The Lᴏʀᴅ make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lᴏʀᴅ lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Known also as the “priestly blessing,” the Aaronic blessing is so called because God said to Moses (v. 23), “Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, In this way ye shall bless the children of Israel. ”

Who Recites the Blessing?
In the days of the Tabernacle and the Temple, the kohanim, meaning “priests of Israel,” led worship for God’s ancient people. These descendants of Aaron were a special group that God set apart to serve Him and to bless the children of Israel (Num. 6:23). In addition, they were responsible for performing the daily rites around the Temple, inspecting animals for disease before sacrifices, and pronouncing people either clean or unclean, thus determining whether they were fit for worship. Priests would ascend a platform (dukhan), raise their hands (nesiat kapavim) in the manner previously described, and pronounce the blessing. In Yiddish this practice is called dukhenen—the delivering of the priestly blessing. The only reason not to follow this command would be if the priest were disqualified through some defilement. Today, some two thousand years after the Temple’s destruction, dukhenen is still recited by “kohanim.”

This giving of the blessing, however, is no longer restricted to the priests or the priestly line. The destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., brought about the annihilation of all genealogical records. Therefore, no Jewish person today can ascertain his tribal ancestry. Families with the last name Cohen, or other derivations of Kohane, lay claim to being descendants of priests.

Each Sabbath a parent, preferably the father, will place his hands over the head of each of his children and pronounce the blessing. This practice takes place just before the blessing on the wine.

When Is the Blessing Recited?
Some synagogues include the blessing as part of their everyday prayers. Others prefer to invoke it on the three pilgrim feasts of Passover, Pentecost (Shavuot), and Tabernacles (Sukkot [Dt. 16:16]).

One very special time the blessing is used is during the Pidyon ha ben—the redeeming of the first- born. Originally, the children of Israel were to set apart their firstborn males to the Lord (Num. 8:18). However, because of sin at Sinai, the tribe of Levi was chosen in their stead and separated for service in the sanctuary. Numbers 18:15–16 provide for the formal redemption of the first-born from the priesthood. Other occasions when this blessing is invoked include weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.

What Do the Words Mean?
The blessing is actually three blessings written in three specific Hebrew sentences. Although they sound similar, a careful reading reveals a clear order.

“The Lᴏʀᴅ bless thee” comes first because, regardless of the identity of the person invoking the blessing or the time it is said, the request acknowledges that only God the Creator can provide the blessing. He alone is the provider of all the things needed in life. At the same time, there is the hope that the Creator will guard from evil the person so blessed, thus the statement “and keep thee.”

The next Hebrew sentence expresses a desire that God’s presence will be with the person being blessed. “The Lᴏʀᴅ make his face shine upon thee.” This second phrase expresses the desire that God would do more than we deserve. Moses was an Israelite. When he was on the mountain at Sinai, the people feared that something had happened to him (Ex. 32:1). Yet what had happened was beyond belief, for this man Moses had spoken with God face to face (Ex. 33:11). That was a special relationship enjoyed only by Moses. Thus the second blessing carries the idea of God’s presence abiding with the person. There is a desire for God to smile on him. “In biblical idiom the king shows favor to his subjects by giving the audience access to the light of his face. Conversely, the king shows disfavor by hiding his face” (“Priestly Blessing,” Encyclopedia Judaica, CD-Rom Edition). This imagery of God causing His face to shine is also seen in passages such as Psalm 80:3, 7 and 19. In addition, the hope is that God will be gracious or kind to the one being blessed.

The desire, then, is for shalom—peace.

The third Hebrew sentence in this blessing is, “The Lᴏʀᴅ lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” The Hebrew seems to carry the idea of God turning his face toward the one being blessed, literally to face him. If the God of the universe faces us, we will enjoy His favor. The desire, then, is for shalom—peace—not simply the absence of hostility but an expression of divine friendship in keeping with the covenant relationship God promised to His people.

Each of these three blessings is made up of three words and seven words respectively. The second word of each blessing is Adonai (Lord), the center, the provider of the blessing.

How Is the Blessing Given?
The priests extended their arms in front of their chests. They faced their palms toward the crowd with their thumbs touching each other. Each hand set the fingers in such a way to form a V.

When a parent blesses his child, he places his hands upon the child’s head as he pronounces the blessing.

Does this Relate to the Church?
For any follower of Christ, the desire to see loved ones blessed and protected by God is genuine. The believer falls heir to this blessing because of Christ’s satisfactory payment for sin and for its consequence of separation from God. The transaction was made at the cross of Calvary. We are blessed, protected, given peace, and enjoy communion with God that is superior to any that Old Testament priests could bestow.

The best way to impart this blessing to our loved ones is to share the Good News with them and pray that they will receive Messiah as Savior. The fictitious Vulcan greeting cannot compare to the fathomless blessings that will follow for the believer. Instead of living long, they will live forever; and instead of prospering, they will flourish.

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