In this week’s Torah portion, Naso1, we find the most well-known blessing in Jewish tradition, the priestly benediction or Birkat Kohanim. In Naso, God instructs Moses to teach these words to Aaron and his sons so that they can bless the people of Israel with them, “May God bless you and protect you! May God deal kindly and graciously with you! May God bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace!”
In the Plaut Torah commentary it is noted how “the Hebrew text has a distinct rhythmic structure, which rises from three to five to seven words.” 2
Whether or not these words were offered regularly during the time of the Temple for the whole entire community are up for debate. However, what we do know is that they were part of the collective ancient imagination. We know this because in 1979, right outside what is now the Old City of Jerusalem, two silver scrolls were discovered in an archeological site called Ketef Hinnom. We even saw them during our congregational Israel trip a few years ago.
These two scrolls, which date back to somewhere between the 7th and 6th century BCE, contain the words of the Birkat Kohanim. This is believed to be the oldest known sample of the Hebrew Bible in existence. These scrolls are part of the extra-biblical archeological proof that Israelites, our ancestors, were in the land, in ancient days. Jews have been in Israel for a very long time.
What is also interesting about these two scrolls is that they were most likely used as some sort of protection amulet. This means that what is now a commonly used communal prayer was originally quite possibly some sort of individualized magical rite. For everyone who has a chamsah in their house or wears a necklace with one, or wears a red ribbon, or says, ‘keynahora;’ just know, you are not alone. The tradition of magical rites and acts dates back nearly 3,000 years.
More than that though, we also find a wonderful reminder how some of our rites, rituals, and traditions from ancient days, still resonate with us to this day. As we gather at the end of services tonight for our benediction, we will be reciting these same words of the Birkat Kohanim. As we do so, we are connecting to an ancient rite that we know has been part of our tradition since nearly the time of David, if not longer. That is certainly something to celebrate … and keep away the evil eye … pooh, pooh, pooh.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Numbers 6:24-26
2 Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 922
The scrolls can be viewed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem: