Parshat Naso: Why the People are Blessed Through the Kohanim

“Speak to Ahron and to his sons saying, “In this manner you should bless Bnai Yisrael. Say to them” (BeMidbar 6:23)

This pasuk introduces the mitzvah for the Kohanim to recite a blessing over the congregation. This blessing is incorporated into the Amidah. It is recited prior to the final blessing of the Amidah – Seem Shalom. In the Bait HaMikdash the blessing was recited every day. In Israel, this remains the practice. Bait Yosef maintains that this practice should also be observed outside of the Land of Israel.[1] However, Rima disagrees. He comments that the prevalent practice outside of the Land of Israel is to recite the blessing only on Yom Tov. On weekdays and Shabbat it is not recited. Rima offers an interesting explanation for this practice. He begins by explaining that it is appropriate for the Kohanim to be in a positive state of mind when reciting the blessing. On weekdays and even on Shabbat, people are often distracted by the concerns of daily life. These distractions are an impediment to achieving the requisite level of happiness that is appropriate for reciting the blessing.[2] Although these are the two basic positions regarding the reciting of the blessing outside of the Land of Israel, there are other variations. For example, some congregations do not recite the blessing on weekdays but do recite it on Shabbat.

“Hashem should bless you and watch over you. Hashem should shine His countenance upon you and enlighten you. Hashem should lift His countenance to you and grant you peace.” (BeMidbar 6:24-27)

Sefer HaChinuch, in his discussion of this blessing raises a question. His question is based upon the assertion that the Kohanim do not actually bestow their blessing upon the congregation. Instead, Hashem bestows the blessing.[3] An analysis of the actual blessing seems to support this assertion. The passages above are the text of the blessings recited by the Kohanim. As the text indicates, the Kohanim do not actually pronounce a blessing upon the people. Instead, they appeal to Hashem to bless the people. In short, this mitzvah does not required that the Kohanim bless the people. Instead, it requires that the Kohanim ask for Hashem to bless the nation.

Sefer HaChinuch asks: why does the Torah require the Kohanim to play a role in this process? If Hashem wishes to bless the people, He certainly will do so without the intervention of the Kohanim! Sefer HaChinuch’s answer is somewhat cryptic. His response has two components. First, he explains that we sometimes receive Hashem’s blessings and sometimes we do not. This is not because Hashem at times withholds His blessings. Hashem never withholds His blessings. Instead, Hashem’s blessings are always available to us. Whether we receive them or not is determined by whether we deserve. Therefore, we were given the Torah. The Torah provides us with the means of attaining righteousness. Through attaining righteousness, we are able to merit the blessings that Hashem is constantly bestowing.

Second, he explains that Hashem wishes for us to request His blessings and that this request should be made through the sacred and pure Kohanim. This very act of asking through the Kohanim is meritorious and through this merit we receive the blessings of Hashem.[4]

A thorough discussion of the first element of Sefer HaChinuch’s answer is beyond the scope of this discussion. Essentially, Sefer HaChinuch wishes to stress that Hashem is perfect, an absolute unity and never changes. Therefore, although it sometimes seems that the ways in which Hashem relates or acts towards us change, this is merely our perception. In truth, Hashem is unchanging. If it seems to us that He sometimes bestows His blessings upon us and at other times withholds these blessing, this is not actually the case. Hashem does not change. We change. When we deserve, we experience the effect of His blessings. When we do not deserve, these blessings cannot devolve upon us.

A simple analogy may help explain this concept. A pitcher throws a fastball to the catcher. The catcher easily catches the pitch. The pitcher throws a second pitch and the catcher drops the ball. The catcher is disappointed with his performance. But he assumes that the pitcher must have put a little something extra on the second pitch. However, the reality is that the two pitches were identical. The catcher missed the second pitch because he was a little distracted. Like the catcher, we assume that whether we “catch” the blessing or not is determined by Hashem. But in truth, like the pitcher, Hashem is perfectly consistent. We just sometimes do not deserve and we miss the pitch!

Sefer HaChinuch’s second point is a little more difficult to understand. Why is it so important that we ask for the blessings before they are bestowed? And why is it important that we ask though the sacred Kohanim?

Let us begin with the first question. Chovot HaLevavot discusses a related issue that provides important insight into this question. Chovot HaLevavot explains that we are surrounded by the benevolence of Hashem. Yet, most of us do not fully appreciate or comprehend this benevolence. What prevents us from recognizing the many blessings that Hashem bestows upon us? Chovot HaLevavot identifies a number of factors. One is relevant to our discussion. He explains this factor through a parable.

A wealthy person adopted a foundling. He raised the foundling from infancy and treated this child as his own. At a later point, he became aware of a person that has been taken captive by a cruel person. This captive was living in complete destitution and treated with extreme brutality. The wealthy person took it upon himself to save this persecuted person and redeemed him from his captor. Chovot HaLevavot asserts that inevitably the former captive will be far more appreciative of the generosity of his benefactor than the child. Why? He explains that the captive experienced his suffering at a time in his development at which he could fully comprehend the experience. He passed from wretchedness to tranquility at a point in his intellectual development that allowed him to fully appreciate the kindness of his benefactor. In contrast, the foundling passed from destitution to comfort during infancy. At that time, he could not begin to comprehend the event of his rescue. By the time he was mature enough to grasp the experience of redemption, he had no memory of his former destitution and suffering. The only life he remembered and to which he could relate was the life he experienced as the privileged adopted son of his benefactor.

Chovot HaLevavot explains that our relationship with Hashem is akin to that of the foundling with his benefactor. We are surrounded by Hashem’s blessings from birth. As a result, we take these blessings for granted. We do not comprehend or appreciate Hashem’s kindness towards us.[5]

In short, by nature we are somewhat blind to Hashem’s kindness. How can we overcome this failing? It seems that Sefer HaChinuch is addressing this issue. It is important that we train ourselves to acknowledge Hashem’s benevolence. Training requires repetition. In order to impact our attitudes and our innate insensitivity to Hashem’s kindness we must remind ourselves of this kindness consistently and repeatedly. One of the ways in which we accomplish this is by reciting blessings of thanks to Hashem. For example, each morning we recite a series of blessings that acknowledge a variety of kindnesses that we receive from Hashem. We recite blessings before we eat. These blessings remind us that we cannot take for granted the food that we are about to eat. However, it is also important that we ask Hashem to respond to our needs. By asking for Hashem’s blessings we acknowledge that these blessings come from Hashem and should not be taken for granted.

But why are we required to ask specifically through the Kohanim? Perhaps, Sefer HaChinuch is alluding to his thinking in his description of the Kohanim. He describes the Kohanim as “the servants (of Hashem) that are constantly camped around the House of Hashem. All their thoughts are directed towards His service and their souls are directed towards awe of Him all the day.”[6] Certainly, Sefer HaChinuch is not asserting that every Kohen achieves the level of spiritual perfection that he is describing. Instead, he is describing the role or mission assigned to the Kohanim by the Torah. In other words, it seems that – according to Sefer HaChinuch – those members of Bnai Yisrael that are assigned the role of achieving the highest level of spiritual perfection are required to request that Hashem bestow His blessing upon the nation.

Sefer HaChinuch’s position can be better understood when considered in conjunction with the first element of his answer. He explained that the blessings that we experience from Hashem are proportionate to the degree to which we deserve of these blessings. The role of the Kohanim within Bnai Yisrael is to strive for the highest level of spiritual perfection. It follows that in asking Hashem to bestow his blessings upon the people, the appeal should be made by those most deserving of these blessings. However, it should be noted that a full understanding of this position requires a more thorough discussion.

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[1] RavYosef Karo, Bait Yosef Commentary on Tur, Orach Chayim 128.

[2] Rav Moshe Isserles, Comments on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 128:44.

[3] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 375.

[4] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 375.

[5] Rabbaynu Bachya ibn Paquda, Chovot HaLevavot (Feldheim, 1970), pp 125-127.

[6] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 375.