Priestly Blessing
Large crowds congregate on Passover at the Western Wall to receive the priestly blessing
Halakhic texts relating to this article
Torah:Numbers 6:23–27
Shulchan Aruch:Orach Chayim 128–130

The Priestly Blessing or priestly benediction (Hebrew: ברכת כהנים; translit. birkat kohanim), also known in rabbinic literature as raising of the hands (Hebrew nesiat kapayim),[1] rising to the platform (Hebrew aliyah ledukhan),[2] dukhenen (Yiddish from the Hebrew word dukhan – platform – because the blessing is given from a raised rostrum), or duchening,[3] is a Hebrew prayer recited by Kohanim (the Hebrew Priests, descendants of Aaron). The text of the blessing is found in Numbers 6:23–27.

According to the Torah,[4] Aaron blessed the people,[5] and YHWH[6] promises that "They (the Priests) will place my name on the Children of Israel (the Priests will bless the people), and I will bless them". Chazal stressed that although the priests are the ones carrying out the blessing, it is not them or the ceremonial practice of raising their hands that results in the blessing, but rather it is God's desire that the blessing should be symbolised by the Kohanim's hands.

Even after the destruction of the Second Temple, the practice has been continued in Jewish synagogues, and today in most Jewish communities, Kohanim bless the worshippers in the synagogue during shacharit prayer services. [citation needed]

Biblical source and text

Ketef Hinnom scrolls: The second Silver Scroll, an amulet from the First Temple period containing the Priestly Blessing, on display at the Israel Museum. The scroll is the earliest known artifact written in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.

Leviticus 9:22 and Deuteronomy 10:8 and 21:5 mention Aaron or the other priests blessing the Israelites.

The text to be used for the blessing is specified in Numbers 6:22–27:

"And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:

Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: In this way you shall bless the children of Israel; you shall say to them:
May the LORD bless you, and keep you;
May the LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
May the LORD lift up His face to you, and give you peace.
So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them."

This is the oldest known Biblical text that has been found; amulets with these verses written on them have been found in graves at Ketef Hinnom, dating from the First Temple Period.

The triple invocation of YHWH in the three verses gave rise to various interpretations, which connect them to the three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), or to three attributes of God: Mercy, Courage, and Glory.[clarification needed][citation needed]

Use of the blessing to ward off evil

Blessing gesture depicted on the gravestone of Rabbi and Kohen Meschullam Kohn (1739–1819)

Extrabiblical evidence such as the two silver Iron Age amulets found at Ketef Hinnom, contemporary Phoenician and Punic amulets and bands, and blessing inscriptions from the southern Levant have shown that the language of the Priestly Blessing derived from a broader tradition of apotropaic text, which was often inscribed on metal and worn in order to provide protection against evil.

Variations of this blessing are frequently encountered in mortuary and religious settings, foreshadowing early Jewish commentaries linking the blessing to the concept of death. Although specific words in the Priestly Blessing are commonly found in the Bible, the syntactic sequences in which they occur suggest parallels not to other biblical passages, but to blessing inscriptions from late Iron Age southern Levant. In particular, it has been suggested that the enigmatic instruction to "put [YHWH's] name on the Israelites" in Numbers 6:27 reflects an ancient practice of physically wearing the deity's name and blessing for protection against evil.[7]

In Hebrew law and custom

Details of the Priestly Blessing

As with many Jewish practices, customs regarding many of the above points may vary widely between countries, communities, and even synagogues.

Parents bless a child on Friday night (1740).

Other uses of the text

Times performed

Mosaic in the synagogue of Enschede

Among Jews in Israel (except in Galilee),[23] and among most Sephardic Jews worldwide, the ceremony is performed every day during the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah, and it is repeated on Mussaf on days that include this prayer. On Yom Kippur, the ceremony is performed during the Ne'ila service as well. On fast days other than Yom Kippur, it is performed at Mincha, if said in the late afternoon; when Mincha is recited earlier in the afternoon, most communities in Jerusalem omit the blessing, but in Bene Berak it is generally recited in accordance with the ruling of the Chazon Ish.[24] The reason for offering the blessing in the afternoon only on fast days is that on these days Kohanim cannot drink alcohol prior to the ceremony.[25]

In the Diaspora in Ashkenazic Orthodox communities, as well as some Sephardic communities such as many Spanish and Portuguese Jews, the Jewish ceremony is performed only on Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.[26] This Ashkenazic practice is based on a ruling by the Remoh, who argued that the Kohanim were commanded to bless the people "with joy", and that Kohanim in the diaspora could not be expected to feel joyful except on the above-mentioned holidays where all Jews are commanded to feel joy.[27] Many German communities perform the blessing in Shaharit, Musaf, and (on Yom Kippur) in Neilah. Eastern European congregations only perform it at Musaf. Spanish and Portuguese Jews generally perform the blessing only in Shaharit. On Simchat Torah, some communities recite it during Musaf, and others during Shacharit, to enable Kohanim to eat or drink during the Torah reading between Shacharit and Musaf. Customs vary as to whether the blessing is delivered outside Israel on a holiday when it falls on Shabbat.

When the blessing is omitted from a prayer in which it could be recited (on weekdays and Shabbat in Ashkenazic diaspora communities, or in any community if a Kohen is not present), the text of the prayer is recited by the hazzan instead, without any special chant or gestures.[28]


At the beginning of the Jewish ceremony, Levites in the congregation wash the hands of the Kohanim and the Kohanim remove their shoes (if they are unable to remove their shoes without using their hands, the shoes are removed prior to the washing) and go to the area (often elevated) in front of the Torah ark at the front of the synagogue. The use of a platform is implied in Leviticus 9:22. They cover their heads with their tallitot, recite the blessing over the performance of the mitzvah, turn to face the congregation, and then the hazzan slowly and melodiously recites the three verse blessing, with the Kohanim repeating it word by word after him. After each verse, the congregation responds Amen. If there are more than one Kohen performing the blessings then they wait until someone in the congregation calls out "Kohanim" before starting the blessing over performing the blessings (in some Ashkenazic and Chassidic communities, the Chazzan himself will recite "eloheinu velohei ovoteinu barkheinu ba-berekhah hamushulshet", sometimes in an undertone, until he gets to the word "kohanim", which he calls out); the hazzan then continues the procedure. However, if there is only one Kohan performing the blessings, he starts the blessing over performing the blessings without any prompting from the congregation; the hazzan then continues as normal. In the Yemenite tradition when there is a solitary Kohen, he says the first word of the blessing without prompting after having said the preparatory blessing.

Raising the hands

Shefa Tal

During the course of the blessing, the hands of the Kohanim are spread out over the congregation, with the fingers of both hands separated so as to make five spaces between them; the spaces are (1) between the ring finger and middle finger of each hand, (2) between the index finger and thumb of each hand, and (3) the two thumbs touch each other at the knuckle and the aperture is the space above or below the touching knuckles.[29]

The Kohen raises his hands, with the palms facing downward and the thumbs of his outspread hands touching. The four fingers on each hand are customarily split into two sets of two fingers each (thus forming the letter Shin (שׁ), an emblem for Shaddai, "Almighty [God]"), or sometimes they are arranged to form an overlapping lattice of 'windows.' This Jewish ceremony is sometimes called Nesiat Kapayim, the "lifting of the hands." The Jewish tradition states the Divine Presence would shine through the fingers of the priests as they blessed the people, and no one was allowed to look at this out of respect for God.[30]

In those congregation where the custom is to give the blessing during the week; with "five openings", traditionally linked to the verse in Song of Songs (2.8–9), where it is said that God "peeks through" the latticework, or the cracks in the wall. However, on Shabbot and Yom Tov it is customary to spread all fingers apart.[citation needed]

Each kohen's tallit is draped over his head and hands so that the congregation cannot see his hands while the blessing is said. Performing the Jewish ceremony of the priestly blessing is known in Yiddish as duchening, a reference to the bimah on which the blessing is said. The tradition of covering the hands stems from the biblical prohibition against a Kohen with hands that are disfigured in any way from offering the blessing. The rabbis softened this prohibition by saying that a Kohen with disfigured hands to which the community had become accustomed could bless. In later centuries, the practice became for all Kohanim to cover their hands so that any disfigurement would not be seen by the Congregation. This gave rise to folklore that one should not see the hands of the Kohen or even that harm would befall someone who sees the hands of the Kohen. Some congregants will even turn their backs to the Kohanim so as to avoid any possibility of seeing their hands—although this practice is unsupported by any rabbinic source.

Prayer chant

In some Jewish communities, it is customary for the Kohanim to raise their hands and recite an extended musical chant without words before reciting the last word of each phrase; in the Western Ashkenazic rite, there is a short chant before each word (except for the name of God), and usually the chazzan will begin a tune when he prompts the kohanim, who will then continue (rather than repeat) the tune. There are different tunes for this chant in different communities. Aside from its pleasant sound, the chant is done so that the congregation may silently offer certain prayers containing individual requests of God after each of the three blessings of the Kohanim.

Because supplications of this nature are not permitted on Shabbat, in Eastern Ashkenazic communities, the chant is also not done on Shabbat. In Western Ashkenazic communities, it is done as normal on the Sabbath.

In Israel, it is not customary to this chant on a daily basis; some do so on Festivals as they would outside of Israel.

Variation among Jewish sects

Conservative Judaism

In Conservative Judaism, the majority of congregations do not perform the priestly blessing ceremony, but some do. In some American Conservative congregations that perform the ceremony, a bat kohen (daughter of a priest) can perform it as well.[31] The Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has approved two opposing positions: One view holds that a bat kohen may deliver the blessing; another view holds that a bat kohen is not permitted to participate in the Priestly Blessing because it is a continuation of a Temple ritual that women were not eligible to perform.[32] Conservative Judaism has also lifted some of the restrictions on Kohanim including prohibited marriages. The Masorti movement in Israel, and some Conservative congregations in North America, require male kohanim as well, and retain restrictions on Kohanim.

Reform, Reconstructionist and Liberal Judaism

In Liberal (and American Reform) congregations, the concept of the priesthood has been largely abandoned, along with other familial (caste) and gender distinctions. Thus, this blessing is usually omitted or simply read by the hazzan. North American Reform Jews omit the Musaf service, as do most other liberal communities, and so if they choose to include the priestly blessing, it is usually appended to the end of the Shacharit Amidah. Some congregations, especially Reconstructionist ones, have the custom of the congregation spreading their tallitot over each other and blessing each other that way.

This custom was started when Montreal Reconstructionist rabbi Lavy Becker saw children in Pisa, Italy, run under their fathers' tallitot for the blessing, and he brought it home to his congregation.[33]

Some congregations alter the grammar so that the blessing is read in the first person plural: "May God bless us and keep us..."[34]

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism does not permit a bat kohen (daughter of a kohen) or bat levi (daughter of a Levite) to participate in nesiat kapayim because the practice is a direct continuation of the Temple ritual, and should be performed by those who would authentically be eligible to do so in the Temple. Customs differ if a Kohen under Bar Mitzvah can recite the blessing together with an adult Cohen.

Christian liturgy

Blessings based on the priestly blessing are used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic,[35] Anglican,[36][37] and Lutheran churches. In Christian contexts, the Priestly Blessing is generally known as "The Benediction", and often finishes a service.[citation needed]


Settings of the text include:

Popular culture

In the mid-1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, used a single-handed version of this gesture to create the Vulcan salute for his character, Spock, on Star Trek. He has explained that while attending Orthodox services as a child, he peeked from under his father's tallit and saw the gesture; many years later, when introducing the character of Mr. Spock, he and series creator Gene Roddenberry thought a physical component should accompany the verbal "Live long and prosper" greeting. The Jewish priestly gesture looked sufficiently alien and mysterious, and became part of Star Trek lore.[40]

Leonard Cohen, who was a kohen, ended his concert in Ramat Gan, Israel, on 24 September 2009, with the Priestly Blessing, reciting it in Hebrew.[41]

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 16. Keter Publishing House, and in New York by the Macmillan Company. 1972. p. 513.
  2. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) s.v. Birkat Kohanim, page 109; Gold, Avi, Birchas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) pages 28–29; Jastrow, Marcus. "A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature" (Choreb, 1926) s.v. "dukhan" p. 285
  3. ^ "Duchen - Jewish English Lexicon". Jewish English Lexicon.
  4. ^ Numbers 6:23–27. Found in Parshat Naso, the 35th Weekly Torah portion of the annual cycle.
  5. ^ Liturgical perspectives: prayer and poetry in light of the Dead Sea scrolls ...By Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature. International Symposium. p. 243.
  6. ^ Clyde M. Woods; Justin Rogers (2006). Leviticus and Numbers. College Press. p. 218.
  7. ^ Yael Landman Wermuth (April 13, 2016). "Smoak, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture". Ancient Jew Review., a review of Smoak, Jeremy D. (2016). The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture: The Early History of Numbers 6:24–26. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. ^ Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) pages 90 & 94; Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, English translation 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society) page 64, citing Mishna, Megillah 4:4.
  9. ^ Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) page 90; but a Kohen is required to recite the blessing only once in a day, so a Kohen may refuse a request to perform the blessing a second time in the same day.
  10. ^ Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) page 94; for this reason, the blessing is not performed in the afternoon service of a festival (as distinguished from a fast), Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) pages 109–110; Sperling, Abraham, Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions [Ta-amei Ha-Minhagim] (orig. 1890, English translation 1968, New York, Bloch Publishing Co.) page 67 (citing Orakh Hayyim 129:1)
  11. ^ Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) pages 94–95.
  12. ^ Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) page 95; the length of the period depends on the deceased relation.
  13. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 111, citing the Zohar, Naso 147b, and the Kohanim themselves preface the blessing with their own prayer, thanking God for commanding them "to bless his people, Israel, with love."
  14. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 111; The Orot Sephardic Weekday Siddur (1994, NJ, Orot Inc.) page 178; Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, Engl.transl. 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society) page 63 ("The priests did not begin on their own, but the precentor had to call out the blessing before them, and this custom has become so deeply rooted that it is regarded as a rule of the Torah. (citing Sifre, Numbers, sec. 39)"
  15. ^ Mansour, Eli. "Does a Kohen Who Serves as Hazzan Recite Birkat Kohanim?". Torah Learning Resources Ltd. Retrieved 10 March 2013.
  16. ^ cf. The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Ashkenaz ed., 2nd ed. 1987, Brooklyn) page 923; Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) pages 43 & 69.
  17. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 112; Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, Engl.transl. 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society) page 64; The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Ashkenaz ed., 2nd ed. 1987, Brooklyn) page 295.
  18. ^ See, e.g., Leonard Nimoy, Live Long and Prosper (Shekhinah descends and looking at it would seriously injure or kill person); Birkhat Kohanim ("the Divine Presence would shine on the fingers of the Kohanim as they would bless the Jews, and no one was allowed to look out of respect for God").
  19. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 110; Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) page 95; The Orot Sephardic Weekday Siddur (1994, NJ, Orot Inc.) pages 178 & 181.
  20. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 110
  21. ^ Sperling, Abraham, Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions [Ta-amei Ha-Minhagim] (orig. 1890, English translation 1968, New York, Bloch Publishing Co.) pages 62–63.
  22. ^ During the First Temple period, people wore as amulets silver scrolls on which the Birkhat Kohanim was inscribed, as described in the article Ketef Hinnom.
  23. ^ "עוד בעניין נשיאת-כפיים בארץ-ישראל, הנחת הידיים ב'מודה אני'" [More about carrying hands in Eretz Israel] (in Hebrew). Chabad of Israel. בצפון ובכל מקום שנהגו לשאת-כפיים רק במוסף שבת
    [1]. See also She'ar Yashuv Cohen's article in Techumin volume 2, where he discussed this custom, and argues for it to be changed; he was to a large part successful and many communities in the North have adopted the practice on a daily basis.
  24. ^ OC 20.
  25. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) pages 109–110; Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history (orig. 1913, English translation 1993, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society) pages 64–66.
  26. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) page 109; Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) pages 37–38.
  27. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) pages 109–110; although Yom Kippur is a solemn occasion, by the Neilah service there is a sense of hope and optimism for Divine forgiveness.
  28. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) pages 110–111, although the Zohar and the Vilna Gaon had distinct instructions on the leader turning to the left and right at certain words.
  29. ^ Gold, Avi, Bircas Kohanim (1981, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications) page 41.
  30. ^ Parsons, John. "The Priestly Blessing". Hebrew for Christians.
  31. ^ Rabinowitz, Mayer. "OH 128:2.1994a Women Raise Your Hands" (PDF). Responsa of the CTLS 1991-2000. pp. 9–12. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2009-03-20.
  32. ^ Rabbis Stanley Bramnick and Judah Kagen, 1994; and a responsa by the Va'ad Halakha of the Masorti movement, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, 5748
  33. ^ Kol Haneshamah Sahabat Vḥagim, The Reconstructionist Press, Wyncote, Pa. 1994 p. 348 (footnote 2)
  34. ^ "Shabbat at Home" (PDF). Reform Judaism.
  35. ^ "The Priest in the Concluding Rites of the Mass". The Holy See. Retrieved 13 August 2018. The biblical source is referenced as 'Numbers 6:23-26'
  36. ^ "Common Worship > Common Material > New Patterns for Worship > Resource Section > Conclusion > J67". Church of England. Retrieved 13 August 2018. The biblical source is referenced as "Numbers 6.24,25".
  37. ^ "Book of Common Prayer: Order for the Visitation of the Sick" (PDF). John Baskerville, via the Society of Archbishop Justus. 1762 [1662]. p. 184. The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace, both now and evermore.
  38. ^ "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" (PDF). Musica Sacra of Sarasota. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-03-29. Retrieved 2014-03-28.
  39. ^ Block, Ernest. "Y'varekh'kha adonai". Sacred Service (Avodat Hakodesh). Milken Archive of Jewish Music.
  40. ^ 1983 television show "Leonard Nimoy's Star Trek Memories" This story was told by Nimoy on camera and repeated in somewhat abbreviated form in 1999 on the SciFi Channel "Star Trek: Special Edition" commentary for the episode "Amok Time". Again, the story was told by Nimoy on camera.
  41. ^ Jeffay, Nathan (September 25, 2009). "'Hallelujah' in Tel Aviv: Leonard Cohen Energizes Diverse Crowd". The Forward.

Further reading