By Diane Roosth, May 31, 2014
The notion of brachot as gratitude for material, spiritual, and personal blessings is central to the priestly blessing and, I believe, also to blessing our children. The language of Thank you HaShem stands out as profound in this parsha, and coincidentally at this time, when we celebrate our seniors, as they graduate, and go off to college and on other journeys.
Parsha Naso is the 35th weekly Torah portion and the second parsha in the book of Numbers. Naso means to lift up, and is understood to take census and count an object. This story includes visual, tactile, and sensory images that might tickle a funny bone or two. Can you imagine the chaos involved in recruiting men for service or in separating those who have had contact with dead matter and those who have not? Can you imagine the life of the nazirite on a bad hair day with no opportunity to get a cut, especially during the Omer? Can you envision Moses having auditory hallucinations and those around him pondering what he might be smoking? Sounds like an episode worthy of the Twilight Zone or Saturday Night Live.
The themes in this parsha are many: taking another census (different from last week Bamidbar); removing anyone from camp defiled by a corpse or with an eruption or discharge; the ritual of a sotah if a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful; the vows of a nazirite to abstain from fruit of the vine, alcohol, and haircuts; Moses finishing the Tabernacle; the chieftains bringing offerings; Moses hearing the voice of G’d; and last but not least, the Priestly blessing.
What is the connection between the priestly blessing and the custom of blessing our children? Why do we use a version of the Birkat Kohanim to bless our children? I want to thank our congregational Rabbis, especially Rabbi Hoffman for internet sources, and other Rabbis in our community, in particular Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, for assisting me in identifying source texts. I also want to acknowledge that I used multiple internet sources. I will begin with an overview of blessing in general, a brief discussion of Birkat Kohanim, and then move to discuss sources regarding the blessing of children.
How do we understand the word Bracha? The Hebrew word berech, or knee, is close to bracha, blessing. Bowing is often connected to blessings, as a sign of respect, humility, and in the hope we will be “blessed” and find “favor” with our King, Hashem. The function of a blessing is in part to express thankfulness to Adonai and acknowledge G-d as the source of all blessing.
In its original form, the Kohanim are instructed to bless the people. The Birkat Kohanim poem is stylized on three lines, and contains six distinct blessings.
May Hashem bless you, and protect you;
May Hashem shine upon you, and be gracious unto you;
May HaShem’s face be lifted toward you, and bring you peace.
How might we understand these six blessings, in particular when our understanding is that G-d has no face? Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests that this blessing reflects the spiritual challenge each of us faces in our lives as one that can be transformed into a personal journey of finding healing and truth.
Jewish scholars through the ages studied and interpreted the Birkat Kohanim. In the 19th century commentary Ha’amek Davar, the phrase “May Adonai bless you” is interpreted as indicating a blessing appropriate to each person. For the student of Torah, the blessing might be success in his or her studies. For the business person, the blessing might be success in business.
Nehama Leibowitz, a 20th century Torah scholar, explained that the three sections of this blessing illustrate an ascending order. The lowest level is the blessing for an individual’s material needs. The next “rung” deals with spiritual wants. This is followed by a blessing combining both these factors and, finally and ultimately, there is a blessing for peace. Leibowitz based her comment that peace was the most important blessing on the Sifra, a midrashic collection on the book of Leviticus, which states: “Perhaps you will say” (commenting on the blessing in Leviticus 26:3-6: “And you shall eat your bread to the full, and I will give peace in the land”) “food and drink are important but are trumped by peace”. Leibowitz concludes, that since peace outweighs all else, the Torah states “and I will give peace in the land”. For a moment, think about what ways can we as individuals contribute to the blessing of peace in our family, in our school, in our community?
Why do we use or adapt the Birkat Kohanim for blessing children? Rashi, in Parshat Vayechi, in his discussion of Jacob’s blessing of Efraim and Menasheh, notes “one who comes to bless his children will use their blessing, and he will say, Let G’d make you like Efraim and Menasheh”. Rashi does not explicitly state that there is an obligation to bless the children. In spite of this, the blessing of the children was and continues to be a widespread practice in both Askenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities, with different customs and different understandings of these customs.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller told me that while it seems that this idea of blessing children is very old, the first mention of it is not until at the earliest the 17thcentury. The discussion is found in a book of mystical dissertations called Maavar Yabok, written by Rabbi Aharon Berachia of Modina, (died 1639) an Italian 17th Century Kabbalist, also known as Aharon Berechia, son of Moshe of Modina. We do not know where the custom of blessing the children originated. We do know that Rabbi Aharon was the first one to explicitly bring the custom of blessing children and talk about the symbolism of offering the blessing. This may have been a practice in the 16th maybe 17th century. It may have had Kaballastic significance, including the fact on Shabbat there is no reign to the evil side and it is a time when blessing flows. On Shabbat, there is a sense one can draw forth blessing from one’s self to one’s children, because the nature of the Shabbat Blessing is this overflow of blessing unto children, that the child will go on to dedicate themselves spiritually and religiously and intellectually in the proper way.
Rabbi Chaim says that according to Rabbi Aharon of Medina that another dimension to the symbolism is that parents put their hands on their children’s heads as the children receive their parents’ blessing. The hands have 15 joints and the Yivarechecha has 15 words. Some sources say you invoke just the priestly blessing, and there is also indication you offer your own blessing as well so there is an opportunity to add your own blessing
Rabbi Ally Ehrman is a former Rebbe at Yeshivat HaKotel and Netiv Aryeh and in Jerusalem, writes MevakeshLev.blogspot.com and has an online Yeshiva. Rabbi Ehrman quotes Rabbi Yaacovson in his book “Nativ Binah”, who, like Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, identifies the earliest mention of the custom of blessing children in the book “Maavar Yabok”, written by Rabbi Aharon Bercia of Modina, who died in 1639. Rabbi Bercia wrote: “One should place his hand on the head of a child who is being blessed, especially on Friday night. Based on the secret of the Shabbat the Queen and the extra soul that we have on Shabbat, the blessings will take effect on the one who is blessing and the one who receives it, because Satan and evil do not have any influence on Shabbat…There is a holy need to bless the children on Shabbat”.
Rabbi Ehrman cites another explanation by The GRITZ (Rabbi Yitzchak Zeev Soloveitchik), who wrote: “All the tribes were raised and educated by Yaacov in the Land of Canaan, and they were therefore privileged to be Divine tribes. But Menasheh and Efraim did not have this privilege, and …grew up in Egypt, a place of impurity, idol worship…In spite of this; they had the merit of achieving the status of the tribes. And this is the blessing that is passed on to every person in Israel – not to be influenced by the surroundings, no matter what they are, just like Efraim and Menasheh in the Land of Egypt”.