Judaism: What Is a Blessing?

Yet we often do ask for a blessing from others; receiving the blessing of a person we respect or admire–often our parents, whether or not they are even alive–can have immense power and significance for us. After witnessing one person bless another, the poet Dan Bellm wrote: “I thought about this scene for a long time afterward, wondering, ‘What is a blessing?’ and really wanting one. Was this only an exchange between two people, or was something more present-something else? When people meet closely and truly, when a person blesses another, is God present? What is a blessing?


Parashat Naso, the second portion in the Book of Numbers, incorporates some of the Torah’s most challenging passages and one of its most beautiful ones. The Priestly Benediction, Numbers 6:22-27, is one of the most ancient texts of the Torah and is probably one of humanity’s oldest prayer texts in continual use.

In Jerusalem, archaeologists have found a plaque with the identical words to those found in the Torah dating from as early as the seventh century b.c.e. In Hebrew, we can discern a very careful construction in these three verses, creating “a rising crescendo of 3, 5, and 7 words, respectively”. Ancient listeners, attuned to hearing that which we only notice after careful reading, would also have appreciated that the number of consonants, stressed syllables, and total syllables all increased in orderly progression.

Commentators have been puzzled by the apparent power of the priests to bless the people: “Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel” (Numbers 6:23). In the Talmud, Rabbi Ishmael suggests: “The priests bless Israel and the Holy One blessed be blesses the priest”. This appears to be the meaning of the verse that immediately follows the blessing (vs. 27): “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” However, the idea that humans–even if they are biblical priests-have the power to compel God’s blessing has been overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of our historical commentators; they understand verse 27 as “The priests (‘they’) shall link My name with the people of Israel and I (‘the Eternal’) will bless the people (them).”

Yet we often do ask for a blessing from others; receiving the blessing of a person we respect or admire–often our parents, whether or not they are even alive–can have immense power and significance for us. After witnessing one person bless another, the poet Dan Bellm wrote: “I thought about this scene for a long time afterward, wondering, ‘What is a blessing?’ and really wanting one. Was this only an exchange between two people, or was something more present-something else? When people meet closely and truly, when a person blesses another, is God present? What is a blessing?”

“Wanting to be blessed can lead to desperate actions–our tradition is full of them. Abraham was seemingly willing to sacrifice his only child, and by extension, our entire lineage and history. A generation later, Jacob stole his father Isaac’s blessing through deceitfulness. At the end of his life, Jacob brought his son Joseph’s younger son to the fore, to let him steal the blessing (Genesis 48:17-19). I held my father’s hand as he died in a coma in a narrow hospital bed in the middle of the night–I couldn’t escape the feeling that I too was stealing something. But this seemed to be the final chance. The gates of heaven were about to close.”

The blessings we offer are indeed powerful but they are not magical. On our own, we do not have the power to cause that which we yearn for nor do we have the power to compel God by the force of our invocation (despite stories in both the Bible and Rabbinic sources of individuals who are seen as having such capacities). No, like our other prayers, blessings are aspirational; we express in word and gesture our deepest yearnings. A blessing is an expression of hope:

Glory to those who hope! . . .

Desolation will not leave the desert,

Until it leaves the heart.

The power of blessing is rooted, I believe, in the very action of its utterance. The philosopher J. L. Austin described how speech can sometimes effect an action; for example, a promise is made by a person stating, “I promise . . . ” (in contrast to a sentence such as, “I am going now”–reality may not correspond to the words! (see How to Do Things with Words [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962] p. 5).

The act of blessing is not dependent on the fulfilment of its words–what exactly do we intend by (the literal translation of Numbers 6:25) “May God’s face be lifted up toward you”? Rather, the act of blessing is realised in the moment itself. The blessing is the act of giving, the connection that is created, and the faith and caring that are expressed in the words and gestures. The experience of receiving a blessing–the experience of hearing and seeing the focused, spiritual attention, and (no less now than ever before in human history) the physical connection of touch–can be a source of sustenance, faith, and meaning.

In blessing, we concretize both what we yearn for and often may not have the place to speak, and we affirm our deepest links and connections between one another and with the Source of All.

When a stranger sneezes, we habitually say “Bless you!” without much thought–yet in this mini Mi Shebeirach is a hint of the holding and invoking that are at the root of deliberative and directed blessing. The special role of the hereditary priests was long democratized into a responsibility of the entire community, in fulfilment of the instruction at Sinai: “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). When we speak our words of blessing, we are God’s messengers, our own words and gestures becoming the means by which, “I shall bless the people”:

The Eternal bless you and protect you!
The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Eternal bestow [divine] favour upon you and grant you peace!
(Numbers 6:24-26)

Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California.

 

Jews massed at the Western Wall, praying for blessings

 

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