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Birkat Kohanim: Kohanim Bless Tens of Thousands at the Western Wall

April 6, 2015

Kohanim-Priestly Blessing-tallit

A descendant of Aaron recites the Priestly Blessing over the congregation at the Western (Wailing) Wall.  This is done with the shoes removed, hands ceremonially washed, head covered with the tallit (prayer shawl), and hands outstretched toward the congregation.

Tens of thousands of Jewish and Christian pilgrims gathered this morning at the Western Wall to be blessed in a beautiful yearly tradition on the third day of Passover by hundreds Aaron’s descendants as they pronounced the ancient Birkat Kohanim (Blessing of the Priests):

“The Lord said to Moses, Tell Aaron and his sons, This is how you are to bless the Israelites.  Say to them: The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.  The Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.”  (Numbers 6:22–26)

Each of this blessing’s three phrases is recited, first by a chazzan (liturgical cantor) through the loudspeakers and then by the priests directing the blessing over the people.

Known in Hebrew as nesiat kapayim (raising of the hands), the priestly prayer involves forming the hands into the Hebrew letter shin, which represents one of the names of God.  The Lord told Moses that in doing this, “they will put My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”  (Numbers 6:27)

Leonard Nimoy's Vulcan Salute

Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan salute was inspired by his childhood memories of the Birkat Kohanim.  (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Drawing on the Jewish tradition he witnessed as a boy, Actor Leonard Nimoy popularized this shin hand formation with the Vulcan salute “live long and prosper” performed as the character Mr. Spock in Star Trek.  Nimoy passed away at age 83 on February 27, 2015.

Orthodox tradition requires the priests to fully cover their heads with their tallitot (prayer shawls) and advises the congregation not to look at the priests as they conduct the blessing.

This morning’s blessing at the Kotel (Western Wall) happened once in the 9 a.m. shacharit (morning) service and once in the musaf (supplementary) service that followed at 10 a.m.

For Christian and Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem during Passover, The Jerusalem Post lists attending the priestly blessing among the “top 10 must-do experiences over Easter and Passover in the Holy Land.”

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