“And I Will Bless Them”: Understanding Birkat Ha-Kohanim In Its Scriptural Context
Among the rites that make up the Jewish prayer service, Birkat ha-Kohanim stirs particular curiosity. Mere human beings step in to offer (what appears to be) their own blessing as the congregation is about to implore God for His
Any attempt at understanding this irony must first consider Birkat ha-Kohanim’s origins in the book of Bamidbar. There, the Torah introduces the blessing’s formula only after it gives the instructions pertaining to the sotah and nazir. Although much has been said for the Torah’s juxtaposition of sotah and nazir, the reason as to why Birkat ha-Kohanim appears immediately after these two mitzvot seems less clear. Perhaps the reason is simply due to chronology. Or, perhaps, there exists a deeper reason for the juxtaposition, one which sheds light on the meaning behind Birkat ha-Kohanim. To uncover this meaning, we will first offer a comparative analysis of sotah and nazir. After having done so, we will relook at Birkat ha-Kohanim to suggest that its placement after sotah and nazir is not only deliberate, but also poignantly telling as to the nature of the mitzvah.
The fifth chapter of Bamidbar commences the book’s discussion of mitzvot, and closes with the mitzvah of sotah. Sotah, Hebrew for one who has “gone astray,” is the term the Torah ascribes to both a woman suspected of adultery by her husband, as well as the process she undergoes. To outline the mitzvah briefly: the suspicious husband brings his wife, as well as a minchah offering to a Kohen after having ineffectively warned his wife about her illicit conduct with another man. The Kohen, in turn, “take[s] sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle…put[s] it into the water.” He then uncovers the sotah’s head, thus exposing her hair, and places her husband’s minchah offering in her palms. Taking the sacral water, the Kohen recites an oath-curse that declares the punishment she will face if she actually did betray her husband, and proceeds to write the oath-curse onto parchment that is thrown into the water. The sotah subsequently drinks the water, and the Kohen offers the minchah. If the wife is guilty, the water will harm her physically, and their marriage will be terminated; if she is innocent, it will bless her womb with a child and re-allow the husband and wife to cohabit. The fate of the sotah and her marriage is thus left in God’s hands.
After delineating the sotah procedure, the Torah introduces the procedure for becoming a nazir. If a person so chooses, they may take the nazarite vow, by which they temporarily forbid themselves from grape derivatives, cutting of the hair, and contamination through a human corpse. In adopting these restrictions, one effectively resembles a Kohen Gadol, earning the priestly title of “holy to God.” When one’s stipulated term for nezirut ends, they are to bring an olah, shelamim, and chatat offering, along with two grain offerings to the Kohen for an official closing procedure. Notably, the nazir is commanded to have his hair shaven and offered as an additional sacrifice. The Kohen then takes a portion of the nazir’s offering, places it in the nazir’s palms, and gives the remaining portion as a tenufah offering. The ritual concludes with the nazir drinking wine, illustrating that his prior restrictions have been officially lifted.
Looking at the processes of the sotah and nazir, the parallels between the two are striking. Both individuals take a vow that is integral to their respective mitzvot, and both must bring an offering to the Kohen to undergo their respective procedures. Both have their offering placed in their palm, and both have a ritualistic gesture performed to their hair. Lastly, both drink liquids to finalize their procedures. The role the Kohen plays in each process also warrants notice. The Kohen mediates the process that permits the nazir to wine, corpses, and haircuts, just as he meditates the process that (potentially) permits the husband to his wife. Furthermore, whereas the Kohen oversees the nazir‘s shift from an elevated status to one of normalcy, he oversees the sotah‘s (once again, potential) shift from a degraded status to a state of normalcy. Taking these parallels, as well as the juxtaposition of the mitzvot into consideration, we truly appreciate the Ramban’s suggestion that the sotah and the nazir are direct contrasts of one another.
An important point that emerges from the parallel structure of these two mitzvot is the prominent role that the Kohen has in each. Only through him may the sotah and her husband resume their marriage, and only through him may the nazir resume a normal life. Such a role on behalf of the Kohen entails his substantial involvement in the spiritual world of another person. One may be left wondering: Does not the Kohen’s sizeable role interfere with one’s relationship with God? It is precisely at this point that the Torah saw it fitting to introduce Birkat ha-Kohanim.
Before God gives the wording for Birkat ha-Kohanim, He has Moshe tell Aharon and the latter’s sons: “Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel…” (My emphasis added) This line, prima facie, indicates that the blessing of Birkat HaKohanim stems from the Kohanim. Yet, after God reveals the blessing’s wording, He says the blessing will “link My name with the People of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Once again, my emphasis added) Apparently, although the blessing is delivered through the Kohanim, it nonetheless stems from God. It is also significant, as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has noted, that the Kohanim do not decide on their own accord to give the blessing. The halakhah requires that the congregants, themselves, invite the Kohanim to offer it. Not only is the Kohen not the source of the blessing; he is not the source of its occurrence, either.
The Rambam, in his Mishnah Torah, addresses another relevant law pertaining to Birkat ha-Kohanim. He says:
“Do not wonder: ‘What good will come from the blessing of this simple [Kohen]?’ for the reception of the blessings is not dependent on the priests, but on the Holy One, blessed be He, as the Torah states: “They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.” The priests perform the mitzvah with which they were commanded, and G-d, in His mercies, will bless Israel, as He desires.” [My emphasis added]
As the Rambam would have it, the “reception of the blessing” is not dependent on the Kohen, either. Such is the reason as to why even a “simple” Kohen has the right to bless an entire congregation. The Kohen’s role in this mitzvah is thus minimized. He is nothing more than a conduit.
That being so, we may now suggest a reason for Birkat ha-Kohanim‘s juxtaposition with the mitzvot of sotah and nazir. After the delineation of these two mitzvot, the reader might have the impression that too much of Israel’s spiritual world lies within the hands of the Kohen. After all, his presence is necessary to make the forbidden, permitted, and the sacred, profane. Lest one feel that the immediacy of the man-God relationship is affected by the Kohen’s function, Birkat ha-Kohanim enters the picture to insist otherwise. The Kohen is the messenger for the blessing that offers an “intimate encounter in which we come face to face with God”; nevertheless, the blessing does not stem from him; its effect does not lie in his hands, nor may he grant it at his own will. It is God, and God only, who “make[s] His face shine upon [Israel].” And, what better way for the Torah to exhibit this truth than to do so through the Kohen, the one thought to be interfering!
Ilan Lavian is a junior at Yeshiva College, majoring in philosophy.
 Birkat ha-Kohanim, of course, comes right before the Sim Shalom blessing, which asks for God’s grace, lovingkindness, and mercy, among other things.
 Even for the commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, who believe that Birkat HaKohanim appears earlier in the Torah (Vayikra 9:22), all would agree that this is the first time the blessing is presented explicitly.
 These two mitzvot will be defined and outlined in the following paragraphs.
 See, for example, b. Sotah 5A; Ramban on Bamidbar 5:6; Abarbanel on Bamidbar 5:1.
 The section pertaining to sotah, plainly understood, does not mention the husband’s requirement to warn his wife before taking matters to the Kohen. This requirement is recorded in the Oral Torah.
 Bamidbar 5:17; NJPS Translation.
 See Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Bamidbar 6:6.
 More specifically, the process the nazir undergoes to terminate his nezirut.
 Ramban on Bamidbar 5:6.
 Hilchot Tefilah 15:7, translation. Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s underlining and emendations.
 Avishai C. David (ed.), Darosh Darash Yosef: Discourses of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik on the Weekly Parashah (New York, N.Y.: Orthodox Union Press, 2011), p. 290.
 Part of the blessing’s wording; Numbers 6:25; NJPS Translation.