Rabbi Idan Scher
The Blessing of Generations
Just a couple of days ago, on the holyday of Shavuot, my son and I "duchaned" together for the first time.
Being a Kohen (loosely translated as a Priest) I have the special privilege of publicly blessing our community on our holydays.
And for the first time, my little boy (also a Kohen as its passed down through the father) and I did this together. It was such an incredible moment.
Below is a short piece about the little-known practice of "duchanen." I hope you enjoy!
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso, we learn of the obligation of the kohanim (plural of Kohen) to bless the Jewish people.
God commands Moses, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: So shall you bless the Children of Israel, saying to them: ‘May God bless you and protect you. May God illuminate God's countenance for you and be gracious to you. May God lift God's countenance to you and establish peace for you”. (see Numbers 6:22-26).
This commandment of Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing) – also referred to as Nesi’at Kapaim (“Raising of the Hands”), or in Yiddish, duchanen (a reference to the duchan, or platform, from which the Priests blessed the people in the Temple) – was first performed by Aaron, the High Priest, in the desert over 3320 years ago, and is still performed to this very day by his descendants, the Kohanim, in synagogues all around the world. In Israel, Birkat Kohanim is performed daily, while in many communities outside Israel, it is only performed on Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot, as well as during the High Holydays.
There is so much to say about this beautiful ritual, the following are some interesting facts:
According to Jewish tradition, the line of the Kohanim descending from Aaron, the original Kohein, is patrilineal; it has been passed from father to son without interruption from Aaron, for 3,300 years, or more than 100 generations. If the claim the Torah makes is true that all Kohanim share a common ancestor, then they should have common genetic markers at a higher frequency than the general Jewish population. Indeed a study by leading scientists in Israel detected a particular genetic marker on the Y chromosome in 98.5 percent of the Kohanim tested, and in a significantly lower percentage of non-Kohanim.
During the course of the blessing, the hands of the Kohanim are stretched out shoulder level over the congregation, and held together palms-down with the first two fingers of each hand separated from the other two.
The hand gesture traditionally used by Kohanim throughout the centuries and millennia when they blessed the Jewish people – and which can often be found engraved on the tombstones of Kohanim - has become popularized in modern times through the Star Trek TV series, which used it as a Vulcan ritual.
Interestingly, the use of this gesture on the show was originally suggested by Jewish actor Leonard Nemoy (Mr. Spock), who, in his early childhood, had seen the Kohanim in the synagogue covering their heads and their hands with their prayer shawls as they began to recite the Priestly Blessing. Like most Jewish children, young Leonard could not contain his curiosity about what the Kohanim were really doing up there.
"The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality... I had heard that this indwelling Spirit of God was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, and so I obediently covered my face with my hands. But of course, I had to peek." (From his autobiography, I am Spock.)
As explained by most of the Bible commentators, the first blessing of the three-fold Birkat Kohanim refers to longevity and material prosperity, the second to the spiritual blessings of Torah knowledge and the wisdom and understanding to utilize it fully, and the last blessing to God’s compassion, and bestowing peace upon us.