photo by Alexander Mayer
We are in Jerusalem in the year 600 BC. An old man walks up a narrow alley to speak to a scribe. As he looks up he can see the smoke rising from the holy alter in Solomon’s temple, where the priests, the Kohanim, are raising their hands to recite a blessing. Nearby the old man can see the towers protecting the King’s palace, where a direct descendant of David still rules as King over Judea, while far to the east trouble brews in Babylonia. The scribe hears the man’s request, reaches into a cabinet and takes out a small piece of a thin sheet of silver, not more than an inch wide. With a sharp metal pen he carves minute letters on the sheet, then carefully rolls it up, and threads it. “Wear this on you always,” he whispers to the new owner as he hands him the amulet.
We cut and switch to modern day Jerusalem. More than two and a half millennia have passed — we are now in the year 1979.
A team of archeologist is digging in a cave overlooking the Jerusalem city walls. One of the volunteers from the US rushes to the lead archeologist. “You should come, we found something,” she tells him. Scaling down a ladder, she points to what could have easily been discarded as a misplaced gray cigarette bud. It is not. A careful look reveals it to be a small sheet of rolled silver, grayed after being buried for so long in the soil. Later in a lab, the team carefully rolls it open and examines it under the microscope. As he adjusts the lighting, a researcher identifies the ancient Hebrew letters inscribed on the amulet. He starts reading. The words sound strangely familiar. “May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord shine…”
We cut, and switch to Boston in the 1930’s.
It is Yom Kippur and a young boy comes to synagogue with his father. He is not paying too much attention to the prayers when his father suddenly commands his attention. “Come quickly!” The father pulls him over and hurriedly tries to cover his young son’s eyes by pulling his own Tallit over the boy’s head. “Don’t look,” he whispers, “the Kohanim are preparing for their blessing.” But the young boy is overcome with curiosity. He peeks through the Tallit and sees the Kohanim holding their hands in what seems to him like an alien gesture. They start reciting the blessing. Though the boy doesn’t know it at the time, the words of the blessing are identical to those read years later by the researchers on the ancient silver scroll…
A mystery? Maybe, but all these events are real and are deeply connected to the Torah reading of this week, Parashat Nasso. While the name of the 7th century BCE scribe was lost to history, the lead archeologist was Dr. Gabriel Barkay of Bar Ilan University and further connecting the text to the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 was performed by Dr. Bruce Zuckerman of USC and his team. Together, they uncovered the earliest archaeologically proven renditions of biblical verses preserved in the Masoretic text, in this week’s Torah portion.
And the young boy?
Well, his name was Leonard Nimoy, and he would later recall this story when explaining how he came up with the Vulcan salute, a hand gesture he based on the way the Kohanim present their hands during the blessing.
How did the blessing survive through the millennia so that the exact same blessing can be immediately identified by people separated by thousands of years and living totally different day to day lives?
There are probably endless reasons, three of which I’d like to recount:
It was preserved in structure and in writing
The blessing as it appears in Nasso was meticulously copied millions upon millions of times from bible scroll to bible scroll. It follows a precise structure. 3 words in the first verse, 5 words in the second, and 7 words in the third. The structure goes down to the letter, with 15 letters in the first verse, 20 letters in the second, and 25 letters in the third, for a total of exactly 60 letters. (Go ahead, count it in the Hebrew text.) This structure assured that even the slightest error by a scribe could immediately be caught and corrected.
It was preserved in practice and in form
Immediately preceding the blessing in verse 6:23 there is a direct instruction: “Thus shall you bless.” The sages have interpreted it as meaning that the blessing should always be performed in a prescribed way.
Mishneh Torah, Prayer and the Priestly Blessing 14:11, states:
“… A tradition dating back to Moses is the authority for the following exposition: “Thus shall ye bless,” that means, standing. “Thus shall ye bless,” that means, with hands raised. “Thus shall ye bless,” that means, in the Holy Tongue. “Thus shall ye bless,” that means, face to face with the congregation…”
Even as the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, as was the second Temple by the Romans, the priestly blessing was preserved as part of synagogue service, so it would not be forgotten.
It is tantalizing to think that for thousands of years, up to this very day, not one year has past where the priestly blessing was not recited publicly and precisely as prescribed.
But with all the strengths of these first two points, I think it is the next reason that is most powerful of all.
It was preserved in hearts and minds
A tradition so old can definitely look “strange.” Yes, it may even look “alien.” But perhaps that’s a part of what makes it so memorable. Perhaps being a little different actually helps both to preserve a thought and to enter people’s hearts and minds.
But to enter a heart is one thing, and to impact it is quite another. And here resides one the strongest features of the priestly blessing: That featrure is not its structure, nor in its form, but rather in its universal meaning. Had the blessing offered us an abundance of crop, a wagon, or even an iPhone, it would have long been forgotten. At its climax it does not offer us any direct material profit. It does not even offer us, as some may think, to live long and prosper — though those are not bad things to have. No, at it climax, it offers us the blessing that would benefit any person, at any time and in any place.
It asks that the Lord reveal his favor by granting us Peace.