Birkat Kohanim: The Magic of a Blessing
A Seventh Century Amulet Containing the Priestly Benediction
Many of us are familiar with the priestly benediction (birkat hakohanim) from the liturgy, found in Numbers 6:24-26. A sensational archaeological find by Gabriel Barkay in 1979 demonstrates the antiquity of this blessing at least as far back as the 7th century BCE. At the site of Ketef Hinnom (southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem), two tiny silver scrolls with different versions of this birkat hakohanim were discovered, including for example the phrases “May YHWH bless you and guard you; may YHWH make his face shine upon you.”
They were rolled up in a way that indicated that they had been worn by ancient Israelites more than 2600 years ago as amulets. Not only does this archaeological discovery tell us that the benediction was in use at a time before we have any hard evidence for the existence of a written Torah; it also tells us something about how the ancients understood and used the benediction as a form of protection.
Blessings Are a Form of Magic
We think of a blessing as a nice thing to do, whether in response to a sneeze, or as a part of a ritual designed to bestow positive divine attention. In the ancient world though, blessings were often perceived as magical rituals—blessings and curses were understood to have real power to effect change in the human realm.
Fighting over Isaac’s Blessing
The irrevocable power of a blessing is evident in Genesis 27 when Jacob deceives his father Isaac into bestowing the blessing of the firstborn onto himself rather than his (slightly) older brother Esau. When the ruse is discovered, Isaac informs Esau that the one who received the blessing, regardless of its intention for another, will in fact remain blessed (27:33). The power of the blessing is such that Jacob will become Esau’s superior (v 37), and Isaac is unable to either revoke his blessing of Jacob or to provide an equivalent blessing to Esau, who is now doomed to serve his younger brother (v 40).
Priestly Blessings: Written or Oral?
Some blessings were recited, others were written and used as amulets. A belief in the power of the word, whether oral or written, is what lies behind both forms, and is at the heart of this parashah. In wielding divine words, priests were empowered to effect blessings and curses, and Israelites were empowered to make binding oaths, even to confer temporary priestly status on themselves even though they were not born into priestly families – nazirites.
The fluidity between oral and written forms of the words is highlighted by the verbs used in framing the passage about the priestly benediction:
במדבר ו:כב וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ו:כג דַּבֵּ֤ר אֶֽל אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶל בָּנָי֣ו לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֥ה תְבָרֲכ֖וּ אֶת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָמ֖וֹר לָהֶֽם:
Num 6:22 YHWH spoke to Moses: 6:23 Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
ו:כד יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְ-הוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
6:24 May YHWH bless you and guard you;
ו:כה יָאֵ֙ר יְ-הוָ֧ה׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
6:25 May YHWH cause his face to shine upon you and show you favor;
ו:כו יִשָּׂ֙א יְ-הוָ֤ה׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
6:26 May YHWH raise his face to you and set for you peace.
ו:כז וְשָׂמ֥וּ אֶת שְׁמִ֖י עַל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַאֲנִ֖י אֲבָרֲכֵֽם׃
6:27 And they will put my Name upon the children of Israel, and I, I will bless them.
The opening verse tells the priests to say (א-מ-ר) the blessing, but the closing verse refers to putting (ש-ו-מ) the blessing upon the Israelites, which implies something physical.
Sotah, Nazir, and the Priestly Benediction: What is the Theme?
The discovery of the priestly benediction in an amulet works with the simple meaning of v. 27 and helps answer the longstanding question of why this blessing was included in a unit with the laws of sotah (the woman accused of adultery) and the laws of the nazirite, which, at first glance, defies any clear categorization.
Milgrom: The Prominent Role of the Priest
Jacob Milgrom argued that the coherence of the unit lies in the appearance of several terms in most of its laws: “priest” (כהן), “impure” (טמא), “be unfaithful” (מעל) and “woman” (אשה). He especially noted the prominent role of the priest in all of these laws.
In a more recent study, Jeremy Smoak takes Milgrom’s observation further by looking at the specific roles of the priests in each of the three rituals outlined in these chapters, concluding that the material preserved in 5:1-6:27 was grouped together because it describes the role of the priests as ritual experts who protect the sacred areas of the sanctuary and bless the people leaving those areas.
The benediction at the end of the unit reflects the culmination of priestly responsibility and expertise: “The giving of the blessing to Israel was the verbal ritual par excellence of the tabernacle and the priesthood.” Smoak argues that what brings the sotah, the nazir, and the priestly blessing together in this unit is the empowerment of the priests to use divine words for such magical purposes as blessing, cursing, and enabling non-priests to serve at the sanctuary.
The Power of a Curse: The Inverse of a Blessing
A curse is the opposite of a blessing, and taken just as seriously. In the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24, the Moabites believe that the curse of a professional will empower them to defeat Israel. The biblical authors believe it too: Rather than attempting to demonstrate the ineffectual nature of such a curse, they portray YHWH as forbidding Balaam to curse Israel, blessing the people instead.
In ancient Israel, cursing one’s parents (Exod 21:17 and Lev 20:9), the king (2 Sam 16), or God (Lev 24:11-24), were all capital crimes, and ritual steps needed to be taken in order to avert the power of a curse, as the following texts illustrate:
- In Judges, Micah steals some silver, protected by his mother’s curse (she laid a curse on anyone who might steal her silver, a common practice in that period). When he tells her, she immediately responds by blessing Micah in the name of YHWH and consecrating the silver to God (Judg 17:1-3), so that he not become subject to the curse.
- Similarly, when Jonathan unknowingly brings his father Saul’s curse upon himself—Saul had laid a curse on anyone who would eat anything that day, and Jonathan, who had not heard about the curse, ate some honey—the people “ransomed” him to save him from ritual execution (1 Sam 14:24-30, 36-45).
The Power of Language
Sotah – In the Sotah ritual, the priest is a ritual expert in the use of words that have tangible power; the mixture of holy water with dust from the floor of the tabernacle and ink from a written curse will only effect that curse if the woman is indeed guilty of adultery.
Nazir – In the regulations for becoming a nazir, the priest uses words in rituals that initiate and terminate the nazir’s temporary consecration for sanctuary service, with tangible effects: they render immune an ordinary Israelite who would normally be executed for approaching the holy as a priest. This may seem to us more like a semantic change in status than a “magical” transformation, but the effects are understood as real. Samuel, for example, can serve YHWH at Shiloh and wear the priestly ephod because he is a nazir (e.g. 1 Sam 2:18); an ordinary Israelite cannot.
Priestly Benediction – With the Priestly Benediction, the priest places a benediction on the people of Israel that causes God to bless them.
Biblical Examples of Written Signs Placed on People
In light of the Ketef Hinnom amulets, it is possible that when the verse states that the priests should “place God’s name (ושמו שמי)” on the Israelites, it refers not only to “placing” a blessing on the people in a magical and almost physical sense, but to actually writing it down for the Israelites as prophylactics. We can see examples of this kind of use of writing in other biblical texts as well.
In a discussion of ritualized writing and the marking of bodies, Francesca Stavrakopoulou notes that in Gen 4:15 YHWH “puts” (שים) a “sign” (אות) on Cain to protect him from being killed, and in Ezek 9:4-6, some bodies are marked by a tav on the forehead by a divine scribe to protect those bodies from harm.
Priestly Blessing Amulets – Analogous to Tefillin
In this light, the priestly “putting” of the Benediction on the Israelites (whether by pronouncing it or by embodying it in written form in an amulet placed on the body) is similar to the Deuteronomic injunction to bind the words of the Shema לְא֖וֹת on one’s hand, and so that they will be as bands between one’s eyes (Deut 6:8), and to write them on the doorposts of one’s house, and on one’s gates. All of these priestly words are apotropaic – intended to effect divine protection – whether written, or pronounced in blessing.
The Priests Protect the People with Their Blessings
The priests had many tasks as intermediaries between YHWH and the people. They were to ensure that the people were in a holy state when they approached the Holy, just as they were to ensure the sanctity of offerings, and to purge pollution from the Sanctuary. They were also to transmit blessings as holy protection from YHWH to the people. In order to do this, they were experts in the efficacious use of ritual words.
The three sets of rules in Naso around the Sotah, the Nazir, and the Priestly Benediction all highlight the priests as specially charged experts in the use of ritual words to extend powerful blessings and curses from YHWH to the people, demonstrating the divine power of words, a concept that remains central to the “people of the book” throughout history.
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June 15, 2016
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Prof. Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. She received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Ph.D. in History from the University of California, San Diego program in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. Dolansky is the author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Biblical Perspectives on the Relationship Between Magic and Religion (Pryor Pettengill Press, Eisenbrauns, 2008) and co-author with Richard E. Friedman of The Bible Now (Oxford University Press, 2011).
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