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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

CREATING THE PRIESTLY BENEDICTION – SOTAH 38A-40A

The Priestly benediction, “May the Lord bless and keep you; May the Lord look upon you with kindness; May the Lord’s face be turned toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-27), may be among the most familiar of biblical prayers. It is used for many kinds of occasions within both the Jewish and Christian communities. It comes out of the Torah text as one compact whole, including stage directions (Aaron and his sons say… God blesses). Seemingly one needs to do very little to transfer this prayer from its first invocation at the foot of Mt. Sinai to the synagogue.

The sages, however, debate in detail how this prayer should be recited. The extended discussion, from Sotah 38a-40a, considers many aspects relating to how one recites this short prayer. In doing so they recreate the prayer, recognizing the changes it undergoes as it moves into the new setting of the synagogue. They also teach us to listen carefully to the prayer so we may respond appropriately.

Among the many topics discussed are: the contrast between reciting this prayer in the Mishkan (the Jerusalem temple) versus the countryside; whether the priests should be standing or sitting, facing the people or not; with raised hands or not; in a loud voice or a whisper, invoking the Divine Name or using a substitute. Joshua ben Levi teaches that the Holy One desires this blessing and reminds the priests what a privilege it is to be the one doing the recitation. Another section focuses on the particulars of how the priest holds himself; questions of posture and presence.

All of this underscores the power and importance of this moment. The Torah asserts that Aaron and his sons will intone these words but that God will bless the people. While one might have assumed that the power of the prayer was diminished when the Temple was destroyed, the attention the sages give to this prayer suggests that its power remains.

The sages suggest a communal response to the recitation of the priestly prayer which is considerably different than our contemporary practice. We have a standard response to each line of the prayer – ken yehi ratzon (So may it be). Sotah 39b offers a longer response. While alternate responses are noted for certain special occasions: Shabbat musaf, Fast day afternoons, and Ne’ilah at the end of Yom Kippur; I am going to focus only on this one set or responses.

“What do the people say at the time the priests are blessing the people.
Rabbi Zira said Rabbi Hisda said: (Psalm 103:20 – 22)
“Bless the Lord, O his angels, mighty ones who do God’s will, responsive to the call of God’s word;
Bless the Lord, all God’s hosts, God’s messengers, doing God’s will;
Bless the Lord, all God’s works, in every place of God’s rule;
Bless the Lord, O my soul.”


These responses move me. They transform the moment from one in which the people stand passively to receive a blessing to one in which they are active participants and this section seems a perfect verse for verse match.

As the priests ask God to bless and guard us, we call on the angels, God’s messengers, to respond to God’s word.
As God is asked to extend kindness toward us, we call on God’s host to carry out the Divine will.
As the priestly prayer asks for peace, our call is for the workings of the Holy One to reach into every corner of God’s rule.
Finally, in response to the blessing received, we ask our own soul to bless God.

The Hebrew of this psalm maintains the cadence of the priestly prayer. Each verse opens with the words, borchu HaShem, Blessed be God, indicating our acknowledgement of the One who gives Blessing. Our response calls for action appropriate to the words of the prayer. The closing verse, addressing the soul, draws the blessing deep into one’s own being. I can imagine saying those words with full, focused attention and feeling it reverberate through my entire body.

The sages, for their part, seem ambivalent about using these verses. They ask whether these verses should be interspersed with the priestly recitation or recited as one block after the priests complete their prayer. Some suggest that these responses apply only when the prayer is recited in the temple and may not be appropriate elsewhere.

In the end we know that this option is not adopted; our current custom never involves the recitation of psalms in response to the priestly benediction. The various objections of the sages prevail. The gemara (Sotah 40a) however preserves one anonymous voice which advocates for the inclusion of this response. This anonymous sage simply asks: “Have you ever heard of a slave who is blessed and pays no attention?” Or “Have you ever heard of a slave who receives a blessing whose face does not brighten?” The question is uncomplicated, how can you not respond if you feel this blessing resting upon you? For me, this sage captures the essence of the debate. The invocation of the priestly blessing evokes a response.

I read this passage as one of creation and transition. The sages are moving this key prayer, first invoked at Mt. Sinai, from the Temple to the synagogue. They rightly recognize that the move will change the prayer in various ways and we are privileged to eavesdrop on their debate. It reminds us, in turn, to be alert to the power of the prayer and to respond from the depth of our soul.

© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser

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