This week’s Torah portion, parshat Naso, contains the famous words of the Priestly Benediction: “May G-d bless you and protect you. May G-d deal kindly and graciously with you. May G-d bestow G-d’s favor upon you, and grant you peace.” (Num. 6:24-26) This blessing is ancient, dating back to the days of the ancient Temple, and has always held an important place in synagogue worship.
In ancient times, the priests recited the blessing twice a day while standing on a special platform called a duchan. Today, in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, the prayer is still only recited by the descendants of the ancient priests, known asKohanim. At the appointed time in the worship service, the prayer leader calls upon thekohanim, who drape their tallitot over their heads, arrange their fingers in the shape of a shin (the same shape made famous by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek), and then bless the congregation.
In reform communities, this blessing has taken on a different role. At The Reform Temple of Rockland, we end virtually every service with it. We also use it to bless people for weddings, B’nei Mitzvah, anniversaries, and even birthdays. The prayer is usually lead by the Rabbi and Cantor together, regardless of their heritage askohanim.
For many years, I used as my primary melody for this blessing, the one composed by Max Helfman (1901-1963), a Polish-American composer, choral conductor, and educator. https://youtu.be/
sTqbEnSdUNs His melody has a place for the rabbi to add a translation built into the composition. The tune begins with a triumphant call. Each line of the three fold benediction rises higher in melody and volume and the final prayer for peace returns lower and has a lovely melody for the congregation to join in. The prayer moves back and forth between the heights of the Divine, and the community. It is perfect for the moment of blessing of a bride, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student, and so many other circumstances.
Lately, I have been ending our worship services with a different melody. Peri Smilow’s Priestly Benediction. https://www.
youtube.com/watch?v= B0vA9kOITtg Her original composition is only in English, and actually differs from the translation we normally use because it is not based on the verses from the Torah as we know it, but rather on the Priestly Blessing of the Qumran sect, a group of Jews who lived in the Second Temple period, and who lived a very strict and separatist way of life. The remnants of their library were found in the Dead Sea scrolls. The translation is: “May G-d bless you with all good. May G-d keep all evil from you. And may G-d fill your heart with wisdom and grace you with all truth. May G-d lift up G-d’s merciful face and shine on you for all time. And may G-d grant you eternal peace.” I have added the Hebrew verses from Numbers to Peri Smilow’s melody to make a combined text out of it.
Peri Smilow’s tune is VERY different from Max Helfman’s. It is congregational throughout, written to be accompanied by guitar, and is very gentle and loving. To me, it is a perfect sweet closer to a worship service, embodying the love contained within a sacred community.
Before performing the Priestly Benediction, it is traditional to say the following blessing, “Blessed are You… who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us to bless the people Israel with love.” Note that the blessing stipulates that it must be completed “with love.” Nowhere in connection with any other mitzvah do we find this phrase.
May you be blessed with a Shabbat of peace and joy and may that blessing come with an abundance of love.
Cantor Sally Neff