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Priestly Blessing (Birchat Kohenim)

The Torah assigns to the priests (in Heb. Kohanim, descendants of Aaron) the privilege and responsibility of offering God's blessing to the people of Israel:
The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons:
Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
The Lord bless you and and keep you
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace
Numbers 6:22-27 This Priestly Blessing (Heb. Birkat Kohanim), is also exchanged between family members on Friday night. However, liturgical use of the blessing can be be offered only by descendants of Aaron (as indicated by the last name Cohen, Kahn, Cohn, etc.) and only in Hebrew. In Israel, the blessing is offered every day; in the Diaspora, only on major holidays, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During the Saturday service in the synagogue (Mussaf) the priests are called to the bima1 by the cantor with the the one word "Kohanim!," (meaning "Priests!"). After saying a blessing (to which the congregation answers amen), the Kohanim are prompted, word by word, to say the special priestly blessing.

The traditions and laws regarding this sacred act are quite important. A cohen must have the proper intention when blessing the congregation. If he functions while intoxicated, or without that proper intention, he is severely punished. The Levi'im, hereditary members of the Tribe of Levi, help prepare the priests by washing their hands.

The priests' hands and face must be covered with a tallit or prayer shawl. The hands of the priests must be displayed in a special way, forming the Hebrew letter shin, the initial letter of the word Shaddai, which means "Almighty." This is accomplished by:
  • Holding the little and ring fingers together
  • Holding the middle and index fingers together
  • Separating the first group from the second group of fingers with a space and the thumb and the rest of the hand with another space; at this point the gesture resembles Mr. Spock's raised hand in Star Trek when he says "Live long and prosper". Some say it is the letter V, but in reality it could be a shin
  • Repeat the arrangement with the fingers of the other hand
  • Bring the hands together at about eye level, the thumbs and index fingers touching.
Traditionally a niggun (musical prayer without words) is chanted by the priests before the last word of each blessing.
1 = bima: a raised dias on which the Torah scroll rests.

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