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Unlocking the Blessings of the Birkat Kohanim: The Priestly Prayer in Numbers 6:24-26, by Dr. Terry Harman

Updated: 6 days ago

Birkat Kohanim from Numbers 6:24-26 written in Hebrew.

Live Long and Prosper

Are you a fan of the Star Trek series? Do you know the Jewish and biblical background of the iconic hand sign and phrase, "Live long and prosper," associated with the legendary character Dr. Spock? If not, the hand sign is connected with the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:22-27.


Numbers 6:22-27 (1)

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel; ye shall say unto them: 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. So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.’


The video below is the Aaronic Benediction Hebrew Blessing Hebrew & English. (2)



Leonard Nimoy and the Vulcan Salute

Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Spock in Star Trek, drew inspiration from his childhood memories of watching the Cohen of his synagogue when he devised an idea for the Vulcan’s salute. The hand gesture of the Vulcan salute is a modified version of the priestly blessing performed by Jewish Kohanim, where both hands are raised to the Hebrew letter Shin, representing the name of God.


The phrase "Live long and prosper" was Nimoy's creative interpretation of the principles of the Birkat Kohanim from Numbers 6:24-26. The hand gesture of the Birkat Kohanim was often depicted on gravestones of Cohen’s as a way to honor their priestly status within the Jewish community. (3)


Birkat Kohanim hand gesture of the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26.

Blessing Gesture depicted on the gravestone of Rabbi and Kohen Meschullam Kohn

(1739–1819) Fürth (Bavaria, Germany)

Introduction to the Three Blessings

The format of this blessing came directly from the Lord. The Lord spoke to Moses and instructed Moses to teach the three-fold blessing to Aaron and his sons, who would bless the people using this formula.


The original blessing of Aaron the High Priest is sandwiched between Numbers 1:1 through 10:10. The fledgling nation has camped near the foot of Mount Sinai for a year. The people are preparing to leave the area and begin their wilderness journey to the land flowing with milk and honey – the land of promise. As they prepare to embark on the path to the promise, Aaron gathers the people and blesses them.


Even after reaching the land of promise, the priests continued to bless the people. “In ancient times, the priests recited the blessing daily while standing on a special platform in the Holy Temple known as a duchan. In some synagogues today, the recitation of the blessing is informally known as “duchaning.” (4)


The Six Verbs of Blessing

The three phrases or lines describe the Lord’s actions on his people's behalf. He blesses, makes the face shine, and lifts His countenance upon the people. There is more. Each of the three phrases has a second verb that describes the effects or benefits of the blessing bestowed on the people. The Lord keeps and bestows grace, and the people experience peace.


(1) Blessing The Material Realm of Life:

“The LORD bless thee, and keep thee;”

The verb for "bless" is ברך, barach, and it is connected to the Hebrew noun ךְרֶבֶּ, berech, meaning "knee." Barach can signify "to adore on bended knee" or "to bless someone or something." Usually “to bless” is used in connection with humans bending the knee in adoration of the Lord. Barach is used in the beginning of most Hebrew blessings. Here the roles have switched, and the Lord is pictured bestowing blessings on people who may not deserve nor have the right to claim such favor. This is a manifestation of graciousness.


The word translated “keep” is a quite common Hebrew term (שמר, shamar) meaning “to guard,” to protect,” or “to be in charge of.” The thought here is that which the Lord enriches you with materially he will also provide divine protection. We see this in Psalm 121 where the verb translated “keepeth,” “keep,” and “guard” occurs six times.


Psalm 121 A Song of Ascents.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel Doth neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is thy keeper; The LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, Nor the moon by night. The LORD shall keep thee from all evil; He shall keep thy soul. The LORD shall guard thy going out and thy coming in, From this time forth and forever.


Blessed to Be a Blessing

When we look at the entirety of the Bible, it's clear that these blessings and divine protection aren't automatic if we're not following the Lord's path and living without care. Blessings are a fundamental part of the covenant with God, recognizing Him as the giver of all good things, and necessitating responsible stewardship. We're not blessed just for the sake of it; we're blessed to extend those blessings to our families and communities. It's not about accumulating "stuff."


Reflecting on my journey, I've noticed it was simpler to manage the material blessings when I had less. I was more willing to share what little I had. But over time, I've come to understand the truth of Deuteronomy 8:18 – that God empowers us to prosper, fulfilling His promises to our ancestors.


As my blessings grew, so did the internal struggle. Now, the amounts I'm called to give back to God and to help others are substantial enough that I often find myself checking my finances before extending generosity. One of the most effective ways to safeguard wealth is to acknowledge its source and ask God to protect us from becoming stingy. Yet, putting this into practice isn't always easy.


(2) Blessing The Spiritual Realm of Life:

“The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;”

 The first blessing used familiar words that could be easily translated from the Hebrew. Here we encounter symbolic or idiomatic language. What does it mean for someone's face to "shine"? In Hebrew, the verb is אור, which shares the same consonants as the Hebrew word for "light." It signifies "to shed light" or "to become illuminated." Hebrew paints word pictures to convey meaning. Here the Lord is described in human terms with a shining face describing his presence.


Think about when your face lights up or shines. If you are like me my face lights up when I experience joy or I am in the presence of someone I admire and respect, someone who means much to me. For you, this might be a mentor from the past. Or the person who gave you the break you needed in your career. Meeting a relative or friend you have not seen for years. How do we experience or see the Lord’s face? Scripture sheds light on this question (Proverbs 6:23, Psalm 27:1, Psalm 119:105).


“Be gracious unto thee” translates the Hebrew verb חנן,” to show favor,” “be gracious towards.” We need those spiritual moments in life when we sense his presence in a moment of thankfulness for the blessings he has bestowed upon us, during prayer and study, or when we seek mercy, forgiveness, and restoration.

 

Sometimes his presence evades us and like Jacob, we miss it.

“And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.’  And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).


Open the eyes of our spirit so that we may never miss your presence – the Shekinah. I love the words of the song written in 2000 by Paul Baloche “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” (6)


Open the eyes of my heart Lord

Open the eyes of my heart

I want to see you

I want to see you

 

To see you high and lifted up

Shinin' in the light of Your glory

Pour out your power and love

As we sing holy, holy, holy

 

Holy (holy, holy, holy)

We cry holy, holy, holy

You are holy, holy, holy

I want to see you.


(3) Blessing The Emotional Realm of Life:

"The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

Like the second blessing which employed the idiom “shine His face,” this blessing uses idiomatic language in the phrase “lift up His face.” The word translated countenance is פָּנָיו֙ (pā-nāw) and refers to a person’s “face” but can mean the person’s “presence.” The poetic symbolism of the Hebrew word paints another word picture for us.

 

Experiencing Favor

The idea of the Lord’s face or presence shining toward his people is a metaphor for his divine graciousness and favor. The opposite of this in scripture is when the Lord’s face is turned against his people, and they experience his divine disapproval. With this opposite, we may better understand the meaning of the third blessing. The simple yet profound truth is God smiles upon His children. He makes his presence known to us. He smiles as we come into His presence.

 

 The Hebrew word translated as shalom שָׁלֽוֹם means far more than the absence of hostility. The primary sense of shalom is “completeness,” “wholeness,” “soundness,” and “contentment” in all realms of your life. Peace and wholeness in the material or spiritual realms of life are great. But what good are those blessings without emotional peace?


Peace That Passes All Rationale

Here is peace which passes understanding. Peace when everything else says there is no way you should be at rest or at ease with the circumstances. Peace when you are going through hell. Peace when the challenges of life are stacked up against you. With his shalom, you may not know how the matter will resolve itself. But “you know that you know that you are not alone, the Lord is with you even in the valley of the shadow of death.

 

One source suggests lifting his countenance is a Hebrew word picture that expresses the personal aspect of this blessing from God to you. Notice the phrase, “The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee.” This may be viewed as a word picture of a father lifting his child with arms extended with his face looking upward to your face – eye to eye as a father might do his children when he comes home from work and the children meet him at the door. (7)


Conclusion

Jewish Cohens are not the only ones who impart this blessing on others. At the closing of many Protestant Christian services, the Clergy will use Numbers 6:24-26 as the parting benediction upon the congregation. The minister is a vessel of God to impart the threefold priestly blessings that come from the Lord to the people. The blessing of --, ---, and ---.

 

Personal Application

Jewish parents have recited this blessing over their children at the beginning of Shabbat. When translating and parsing these verses a question arose. “Who is the ‘you’ in these verses?” Each time the preposition is in the second person, masculine singular. Contextually, this is a blessing from the Lord, bestowed by Aaron the High Priest upon the people. I reached out to two friends who are Rabbis. Both confirmed the blessing is written in the singular, referring to the people of Israel as a single unit.

 

Is it possible to understand this blessing in a personal way? Our congregations consist of individuals who come together for corporate prayer and worship. When you hear this blessing pronounced at the close of a service you are an individual in the congregation. You seek the blessings and favor of the Lord as does the congregation as a whole. Are we not blessed as individuals that we too may bless others? We can accept the priestly blessing in a personal way without diminishing the congregational aspect of the blessing.


If you are a parent, I have a suggestion. If you are fortunate to be with your children anytime soon, why not gather your children together and impart this blessing upon your children? Leave them with a memory and a blessing, not from you, but the Lord.

 

You are the conduit of His grace, mercy, and blessings. Paint a word picture in the souls of your children. Bless your children with a day to remember long after you have departed from this earth. Why not make today the day they remember when “Our Father in Heaven” blessed us through “Our Earthly Father!”


If this blog helped you I have another suggestion. Instead of donating to The Tabernacle Man why not bless one of your neighbors who is struggling financially? Mow the lawn of that widow or invite him or her to your table for a meal. Randomly do some act of kindness for someone you do not know. Call your minister, priest, or rabbi and thank them for what they do for the congregation and the community. Support your local house of prayer with your time, talent, and treasure. You have been blessed to be a blessing.


References

(1)   The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text, A New Translation. Jewish Publication Society,

1917.

Heerden Nov 2, 2017 (The audio is from Jonathan Settle from his CD), accessed January 9, 2024.



(5) Leviticus 9:22; Deuteronomy 21:2; 2 Chronicles 30:27; Psalm 67:2; Psalm 121:7-8


(6) (Baloche, Paul. "Open the Eyes of My Heart." Open the Eyes of My Heart, Integrity Music, 2000.)




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Thank you for viewing my website and reading my blog. If you enjoy what you see and read here is how you can thank me - help someone in need. Look where you live and work. Is there someone who could use a helping hand? Consider helping the widow or elderly person. Encourage the person who is going a difficult time. Trust me. You can make a difference in this world. Shalom, shalom. Terry

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JP
JP
Apr 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Such a blessing 😇

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Guest
Apr 16
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thanks TTH (the tabernacle man). I remember singing this blessing at the baptism of a child (under the Abrahamic covenant). Your expanded explanation is illuminating. I'll be quoting some of this when I next take a service of worship . . . may the Lord bless us and keep us . . . Henry

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