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Sunday, April 24, 2011


Dr. Spock’s Vulcan salute owes its origin to the duchenin, the recitation of the priestly benediction (Numbers 6:22-27), that Leonard Nimoy saw growing up in the Boston Synagogue. Nimoy describes the experience this way:
“They were very loud, ecstatic, almost like at a revival meeting, and they were shouting this prayer in Hebrew, ‘May the Lord bless and keep you…’ but I had no idea at the time what they’re saying. My father said ‘Don’t look’ and everybody’s got their heads covered with their prayer shawls or their hands over their eyes. And I see these guys with their heads covered with their shawls but out from underneath they have their hands up. It was chilling, spooky and cool.”
When he had to create a Vulcan greeting he copied the way the cohanim held their hands at that awesome moment.

The first time the Priestly blessing was recited, according to the Torah, was when the Israelites were gathered together for the dedication of the Tabernacle, the movable altar that accompanied them through the desert. The blessing happened in stages – God told Moses, who told Aaron, who then recited the blessing over the gathered assembly. The priestly recitation was not the actual blessing but served to link God’s name with the people allowing God’s blessing to rest on them. It was God, not the priests, who blessed the Israelites.

What did it feel like to stand in that assembly and have the Divine blessing rest on you? Would you have felt the blessing on your body, a weight pressing down or a shiver running up your spine? Would it have been more internal, your heart racing? Might you have experienced a flash of insight, a glimpse of a broader universe? The midrash offers no description of that moment, but I suspect it might have left you awestruck. Perhaps it was as Nimoy describes – chilling, spooky and cool.

These two experiences of the Priestly benediction – ancient and modern – contrast with the way Rav Huna describes the blessing as it occurred in the synagogue of his time. The procedure he describes transforms the experience from one of pure reception to an interactive conversation.
“One who is in the synagogue when the priests recite the first blessing [during
morning prayers] should respond, “Bless God, O his angels…;” to the second blessing respond, “Bless God, all his legions…;” and to the third, “Bless God all his works…” (Y. Berachot 5a)

The verses Rav Huna prescribes come from Psalm 103:20-22. He describes a similar procedure for the musaf recitation though the antiphonal verses in that case come from Psalm 134.

The experience Rav Huna describes feels so different to me. I can imagine the recitation being formal and solemn, but not chilling or awesome. I wonder why they instituted that change?

Rav Huna lived in the early 3rd century. Though the Temple had been destroyed over a century earlier the ritual of the synagogue was still developing. The synagogue functioned differently than the Temple. Worship was not confined to Jerusalem, but could take place wherever Jews gathered. Prayer replaced sacrifice with the result that the spoken word took on added importance. The prayer leader did not need to be a cohen [priest]. The synagogue, however, was only a substitute for the Temple, a status that remains evident in traditional prayers that call for the restoration of the Temple.

Perhaps that generation of sages sensed that the power of the Temple could not be replicated in the synagogue. The power of a sacrificial offering lies in the experience of seeing the gift accepted. When the offering burned on the altar one could see the smoke rise, hear the Levitical choir intone the sacred words, and receive the confirmation from the cohen that the offering was successful. Whatever else we might think about those sacrifices, they engaged us through all of our senses. We saw, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted the offering. There was an immediacy in the Temple that differed from the synagogue experience.

Perhaps the early sages felt that the Divine Presence was more distant. Could those words, once recited in the Sacred halls of the Temple, call God’s blessing down on the humble buildings that now served as synagogues? Rav Huna lived in Babylonia; could the words that drew God’s blessing in Jerusalem extend to the ends of the earth?

Perhaps the power of the synagogue now depended on the presence of the people as much as on the Presence of the Divine. A minyan, a quorum of ten, was now required for public prayer. Human words, spoken by the gathered community, rose to heaven in the place of smoke and incense and constituted the Divine service. In the synagogue the power of prayer was a shared enterprise between the people and their God, and so it was as Rav Huna describes the Priestly benediction. The Sacred words of blessing were met in holy, interactive conversation as the people responded to the words of Torah with the words of Psalms. Blessing emerged from the joint action of God and human.

The ritual Rav Huna described did not last. By the time of Maimonides (12th c.) the custom was different – a communal amen sealed each of the blessings. Today the custom is to respond to each blessing saying, Ken yehi ratzon, So may it be God’s will. This passage is merely a footnote in our liturgical history.

It points, however, to a problem that remains. When we sit in the synagogue holding books and reciting words, what moves us? I believe we want to know that the service of our heart stirs a Divine response, but it is often difficult to find that experience. I seek places where the chanting raises our voices above the plain meaning of the words to allow a bit of sacred mystery to enter. I hope for those moments when the prayers of the synagogue can be, in the words of Leonard Nimoy, chilling, spooky and cool.


JRS said...

It's "Mr. Spock." Dr. Spock was Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician who revolutionized child rearing in the U.S. and later went on to become a prominent anti-ward activist during the Vietnam War era. You can watch Nimoy's explanation of the Vulcan salute at Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Thank you for the correction, and the link to Nimoy's explanation. It was an oversight, and the proff that we all need good copy editors.
Shabat Shalom