Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock on "Star Trek") repurposed the hand gesture used during the Priestly Blessing as the otherworldly Vulcan salute. (Photo/CBS)
Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock on "Star Trek") repurposed the hand gesture used during the Priestly Blessing as the otherworldly Vulcan salute. (Photo/CBS)

The priests are gone, but their special prayer still fills me with awe

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Numbers 4:21-7:89

In a Modern Orthodox synagogue in the San Fernando Valley on a festival morning in the early 1990s, the tall, gentlemanly rabbi stood and announced in a commanding voice: “The Kohanim will now exit to prepare for duchanning, assisted by the Levi’im!”

I had no idea what he’d just said. I knew that some members of the congregation counted themselves descendants of Kohens and Levites and that they enjoyed certain privileges in that traditional community as a result. But “duchanning,” what they were being called to do at that moment, was a total mystery.

A small but noticeable number of men filed out. A few minutes later they returned, some of them in stocking feet. The shoeless ones ascended the bimah and draped their billowing prayer shawls up and over their heads. A noticeable hush fell over the congregation.

“Don’t look at them,” the woman next to me whispered urgently, as children ran under their fathers’ prayer shawls and women lowered their hatted heads. I averted my eyes as best I could. But not having experienced anything like it before — and being hatless — I confess I peeked. Swaying, ghostly figures, hands outstretched and identities concealed, sang a haunting niggun (wordless melody) and responded as one to the cantor’s primal calls as they chanted what I would learn was the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction:

May the ETERNAL bless you, and keep you;
May the ETERNAL make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
May the ETERNAL lift up His face to you, and give you peace.
(Numbers 6:22-27)

The breathless congregants answered “amen.” The palpable sense of Presence lifted. The priests were once again regular folks (sort of) as they exited to re-shoe, and the service continued.

Duchanning is named after the duchan (platform), a raised stage where the benediction has been given since antiquity. Following the time-honored practice of the Levi’im acting as aides to the Kohanim, a Levite washes the Kohen’s hands while the Kohen slips off his shoes. They don’t speak between the hand-washing and the blessing, which adds profundity and suspense.

I assumed the shoes came off to follow in the humble posture and footsteps of Moses and Joshua, both of whom were told to remove their sandals before God, “for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15) That works, but other reasons given are that a Kohen couldn’t bless with mud on his shoes and that a Kohen with broken or undone shoelaces on the public duchan would have been embarrassed, likely to bend down to fix his shoe and forget to make the blessing. This might have been read as an admission that he wasn’t a true Kohen! (Talmud Sotah 40a)

It’s eerie and other-worldly, so much so that the late Leonard Nimoy (aka Mr. Spock) borrowed it for the iconic Star Trek greeting.

Customs for this ancient ceremony vary widely, including how often it’s done. (Choices range from every day to only on festivals to never.) I’ve seen entire families turn away altogether during the blessing, but many consider that to be disrespectful.

Why do we look away at all? Most say it is to avoid gazing at the Divine Energy that mystically, dangerously emanates from the Kohens’ hands at that moment. Others say it protected Kohanim with disfigured hands (who gained acceptance despite Torah prohibitions) from shame. They would cover their hands with their tallit, and the people would look away to shield their pride. Over time, all the Kohanim covered their hands in solidarity, and all the people looked away.

As for the hands, there isn’t one uniform practice, but many Kohanim famously hold their hands in a lattice-type configuration, five “windows” that allow the Divine Presence to refract through. It’s eerie and other-worldly, so much so that the late Leonard Nimoy (aka Mr. Spock) borrowed it for the iconic Star Trek blessing to “live long and prosper.” I wonder how many Trekkies know what inspired it.

Many modern Jews are understandably uncomfortable about perpetuating anything of the old, elite stratification of the priestly caste that ended after the Second Temple’s destruction 2,000 years ago. To set up a hierarchy for coming up to the Torah or performing a puzzling ritual like the duchanning seems … irrelevant, to put it kindly.

Yet there’s little denying that something special happens whenever these three lines from the Book of Numbers — each a little more intense and expansive than the one before — are shared, as they have been for eons, in all corners of Jewish life, even by those with no claim of priestly ancestry.

Cantors of all backgrounds may recite the blessing as part of regular services. Countless parents bless their children with the Birkat Kohanim every Friday night. Officiants and guests raise their hands over wedding couples and pray that the new family will have peace in their home. Clergy take b’nai mitzvah of all ages to the open ark, place their hands on students’ heads and offer these words in the hope that the Divine Presence, in whatever way we imagine it to be manifest, will illuminate their lives. In spoken words and glorious musical settings, the Priestly Benediction leaves an indelible mark.

For anyone graced with visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, make sure you stop at a small exhibit displaying the oldest piece of the Hebrew Bible that we have. It’s an amulet, found in a gravesite from the First Temple period (about 600 BCE), with the words of the Priestly Benediction written in proto-Hebrew. It’s a remarkable discovery, confirming that people knew this blessing so long ago and that it made them feel protected and safe. Some even crossed over from this world to the next with the words close to their heart — three extraordinary lines that reach across the millennia and call to us still.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].