In Parshat Naso, Hashem instructs Moshe our Teacher: “Tell Aharon and his sons (the Kohanim) — that in this way you will bless the Children of Israel. Say to them: ‘May Hashem bless and guard you. May Hashem cause the light of His ‘face’ to be upon you and favor you. May Hashem lift His ‘Face’ to you and give you peace. They will place My Name on the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.”
These verses are the source of the mitzvah for Kohanim to bless the Jewish people every day.
The Talmud in Tractate Sotah teaches that the blessing must be given, as the verse says, “in this way.” Therefore, the Kohanim must stand and say the blessing in its original Hebrew. The people must face the Kohanim’s faces (though not looking at their hands) to receive the blessing. When the blessing was given daily in the Beit haMikdash (Holy Temple) in Yerushalayim, the Kohanim raised their hands above their heads as the Divine Presence rested upon them.
The blessing was not only for inside the Beit haMikdash. The commandment to give the blessing is eternal, and applies everywhere. Thus we are taught that when the Kohanim pronounce the blessing outside of the Beit haMikdash, they simply reach their arms straight ahead as they pronounce these sacred words.
The Kohanim blessing the congregation is still an integral part of our liturgy. However, it is interesting that while the Kohanim bless the people daily in almost all locations in the Land of Israel, accepted Ashkenazi practice outside of Israel is to only bless during the Mussaf service of holidays.
HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook notes that this seems strange. How can it be that the Kohanim outside the Land of Israel simply don’t do this mitzvah most days? His answer provides us a deeper understanding not only of the blessing, but of our lives when we are not in our Holy Land.
The mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim is not simply to recite the mandated words. It is to “place” Hashem’s name and blessing upon us. The Kohanim, by their added holiness, are like a Heavenly pipe bringing Hashem’s blessings from Heaven to the Jews. They can only serve this function if they are physically and spiritually healthy and happy, as well as full of love for the Jewish people. (The blessing they say before doing this mitzvah states that they are “commanded to bless the Jewish people with love.”)
In exile, Ashkenazi rabbis determined that true happiness was rare. Whether it was due to persecution, poverty or the lack of the spiritual level one can attain in the Land of Israel, the Kohanim would normally be unable to properly perform the mitzvah. Only on holidays would they manage this due to the extra element of joy that the holiday brings. It is only in the Land of Israel that the Kohanim could attain true joy on a daily basis.
Even though we are blessed to live in a wonderful and free country where most of us live at an economic level unimaginable to our ancestors, we must take this lesson to heart. This may be a free, fat and happy exile; but it is still exile. To attain true joy on a daily basis, we must be in our true home — the Land of Israel. May Hashem bless us all with that true joy and true peace.
Rabbi Shmuel Jablon is the menahel (principal) of Torah Academy, a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, and the host of www.rabbijablon.com .