We have started the year with the priestly or Aaronic blessing, better known in Hebrew as birkat kohanim (ברכת כהנים). It is the blessing that we find in the book of Numbers 6:24-26, whose text is the following: The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his face to you and give you his peace.
Before commenting on each and every word of this fantastic and most powerful blessing, since, as the Biblical text clearly tells us, it is a blessing that comes directly from God: The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron and his sons, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them (Num 6:22-23), let us have a look at the structure of the actual blessing itself.
1) יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ (ye•va•hre•khe•kha • Adonai • ve•yeesh•me•re•kha)
2) יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ (yah•eir• Adonai • pah•nahv• e•eley•kha• vee•khoon•ne•kah)
3) יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם (yee•sah • Adonai pah•nahv • e•ley•kha • ve•yah•seim • le •kha •shah•lohm).
When one looks closely at the Hebrew original, it becomes so obvious that the first part of the blessing is the shortest. Then, at a closer look, we notice that its middle part is longer whereas the last part stands as the longest of it all. What do we find if we count carefully the words? The first line of the blessing has THREE words. The following verse has FIVE words. Whilst the last line consists of SEVEN words. The blessing’s composure is so telling! Biblically speaking, we have a perfect, harmonic and mathematical ratio. Now what about the symbolism connected to these numbers?
The number THREE reminds us of the patriarchs, that is Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Furthermore, it also recalls the three Pilgrimage Festivals that are the Passover, Succoth and Shavout. Adding to this, the number three also suggests that tripartite division of the Hebrew Bible that is, Torah, Prophets and Writings. And this is regarded to be the ‘first plural’ form in Hebrew, since one is singular and Hebrew possesses a special separate form for two (‘the dual form’).
The number FIVE represents the ‘unity’ in Judaism. For instance, such is the case of the famous four corners (in Hebrew ‘winds’) of the earth that come together at the centre, that is the fifth ‘corner’. Let us not sideline the five books of the Torah which symbolize unity as well.
Finally we encounter the number SEVEN that is so mentioned throughout the biblical text! Starting, obviously, from the ‘Shemitah’, that is the sabbatical year. As we know the number SEVEN signifies ‘completeness’. In this number are the seven days of the week, revealed to us in the book of Genesis.
But what is the meaning of this powerful blessing? This blessing is recited by the kohanim (כהנים), the priests. After the institution of the temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD, the blessing is nowadays given during the synagogue services, precisely at nesiat Kapayim (“the Raising of the Hands”). It is also prayed over children on Friday night before the Shabbat meal commences or even as a bedtime blessing.
The name YHVH (הוָה) is the embodiment of God’s divine attributes of love and mercy. The name Adonai (הוָה) highly contrasts the other name of God which is Elohim (אֱלֹהִ֑ים). This name personifies God’s attributes of justice and power as our sole Creator.
Then comes into play the very word blessing, בְּרָכָה (b’rachah). Jewish tradition regards the blessing both as material as well as a spiritual prosperity. The compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims from Rabbinical Jewish tradition, known as Pirkei Avoth (פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת) states: “If there is no flour, there is no Torah”, meaning that material benefits are meant to help you follow the study of the Torah. The first time that we meet with the word “blessing” in the Holy Bible is precisely in the first chapter of the book of Genesis line 22: וּרְב֗וּ פְּר֣וּ (pru urvu), “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22). In the English version, in verse 24, we come across the phrase keep you. The original Hebrew version of the text proposes the verb שָׁמַר (shamar). This verb means to guard, protect, heed, as it occurs in the exercise of diligent care. Hence, and as the Bible shows us, it is only God who is capable of taking possession of the blessing that is being conferred and makes sure that it is not wasted or being dissipated.
Then, in verse 25, the blessing text uses the word face which in Hebrew is plural פָנִים but used with the 3rd person singular ending. Such a word is metaphorically employed since God is spiritual. Some biblical experts say that the plural form of this word is thought of to show God’s revealed and hidden qualities as present in creation. The word shine, in verse 25 of the blessing, is interesting. This hiphil verb יָאֵר which is derived from the word “light” (אוֹר) refers to God’s wisdom. In other words, we are praying: “May God enlighten you” with His wisdom, that same Divine Light that preexisted the work of creation (Gen 1:3).
In the following phrase, The Lord … be gracious to you, which is found at the last half of verse 25, the word grace or favor is suggested by the Hebrew word (חֵן). This word is understood as involving the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love (Eph 3:18). As such grace points to the granting of an undeserved gift. Thus, this blessing is given even if it is not deserved and unmerited.
Concering the Lord’s face in verse 25 let us not forget the biblical idea that one’s face is an expression of one’s heart attitude. The great French Jewish medieval rabbi who commented comprehensively on the Talmud and the Tanakh, Shlomo Yitzchaki (רבי שלמה יצחקי) (1040-1105), commonly known as Rashi, says that what this really means is that God will control His anger by “looking at you”. Furthermore, the “lifting of face” shows a God who is lifting you and me as a loving father would joyfully lift his child. In few words, the “showing of face” illustrates spiritual intimacy.
The pivotal ending of this magnificent blessing is certainly the word peace, or shalom (שָׁלוֹם). The latter is the guarantee of the blessing. Inner peace is secured only when a balance and harmony between what is finite and infinite, transitory and eternal, material and spiritual is struck. Hence, shalom is indispensable because it is a gift given from Sar Shalom ( שָׁלוֹם שַׂר), the Prince of Peace.
This blessing is so special since we are asking God, the Prince of Peace, to bless us by His wisdom, love, mercy and diligent care, with the result that His blessing brings perfection, completeness, inner and outer harmony and peace between what is material and immaterial, physical and spiritual prosperity. By blessing us, He is guarding this blessing from being wasted, even if we do not merit and do not deserve such a blessing. All of this shows how important it is that we pray it upon others each and every day. And, I would say, even upon ourselves, too! By doing so, our loving Father will lift us up joyfully and be spiritually intimate with us. An all year round blessing indeed!